wiltshire police

What do Wiltshire Police and the Met have in common?

Wiltshire Police, one of the smallest forces in England (which means that scarce resources need to be used carefully across a relatively large area), has been placed into ‘special measures’ along with the Met (London’s Metropolitan Police – described as ‘systemically racist’ after its handling of the murder of 18 year old Stephen Lawrence back in 1993 and dogged by persistent claims of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and political bias ever since).

‘Special measures’ is as bad as it sounds, and means that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has concluded that a force has fallen short of acceptable standards (it’s most commonly associated with failing schools and hospitals).

The exact reasons why the Wiltshire force has been placed into special measures are not known yet, but all should become clear after the full report of the HMICFRS inspection is released next week. Being singled out for its failures won’t be one of Wiltshire Police’s finest moments though (interestingly, the top impression from a search for ‘Wiltshire Police finest moments’ is a recent report about two police dogs), but surely can’t be unexpected for a force with such an appalling record: last year, for example, Home office figures revealed that of 490 rape investigations dealt with by Wiltshire Police only 14 resulted in a charge or summons, and that they charged suspects in sex offence cases 107 times in 2020/21, equating to just seven per cent of investigations closed over the period.

As a Wiltshire resident living in a very rural area in the north of the county, I rarely see Wiltshire Police and I rarely interact with them. Funnily enough (and let’s pretend I’m scratching my head here as I think about when I last saw them in any numbers, because I know damn well when it was) the one time I do normally see them is when the notorious Avon Vale Hunt pays our local lanes a visit…

In fact, when the Avon Vale Hunt and their followers are out a remarkable number of police officers are sent to watch them. Not, you understand, to caution or arrest them for hunting wild mammals with dogs, assaulting monitors and sabs, or driving vehicles on the road without proper registration, but apparently chaperoning them and ensuring they get to continue hunting without interruption. And when I say ‘a remarkable number’ it’s no exaggeration: as many of us locals are all too aware (thanks largely it should be said to the Wiltshire Hunt Saboteurs), last February (the day after Storm Eunice tore across southern Britain) what turned out to be a dozen police vehicles and a sizeable proportion of the entire force spent hours with the Avon Vale as they ‘followed’ a non-existent scent trail across muddy fields strewn with mountains of twigs torn from local trees…

Philip Wilkinson, the tetchy Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, responded defensively at the time to emails from concerned residents (included from myself) about this mis-use of police resources. He claimed that this massive flood of policing was proportionate (it wasn’t) and triggered in part by his fears (unfounded) that sabs would be causing trouble at the Avon Vale’s meeting in response to one of the hunt beating a sab unconscious just weeks before. I dismantled his useless response to me in a podcast (Shortcast #76 Charlie Moores | The Avon Vale Hunt and a response to Wiltshire’s PCC).

Wilkinson was parachuted into his role after the Conservative’s preferred candidate, former Avon Vale huntmaster Jonathon Seed, was ruled ineligible to have stood in the PCC elections after winning the original vote (we’re all still waiting to discover why the CPS suddenly dropped charges against him days before he was due to appear in court – though again Wilts Hunt Sabs have a few thoughts on that). He appears to have been assiduously studying the Johnson government’s well-worn tactics of shrugging a carefree shoulder no matter how bad the news. Having Wiltshire Police put into special measures should have caused at least a moment of sober reflection for Wiltshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, but rather than taking responsibility and admitting things could indeed be better, Wilkinson has been quoted as cheerily welcoming the scrutiny:

“My role as PCC is clear: to be the public’s voice on policing, to scrutinise, challenge and support Wiltshire Police to provide an effective, efficient, policing service which meets the needs of its communities and to hold Wiltshire Police to account for the service it provides to the public.

“I am aware of, and welcome, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) intention to provide closer scrutiny to Wiltshire Police further to their recent PEEL (Police Efficiency, Effectiveness and Legitimacy) inspection, and their intention to move Wiltshire Police to the ‘engage’ phase of scrutiny.

An ‘effective, efficient policing service’ that is now in ‘special measures’ for its failings. Great job there Mr Wilkinson, eh…

Clearly I have my own special interest here and I’m not suggesting for a moment that piling a chunk of the entire police force into a few fields to appease the Avon Vale Hunt would lead to ‘special measures’ but it surely does give a heads-up of where priorities lie. And surely no one – especially those in charge – should welcome their force being recognised as failing.

Policing is difficult – and made far more difficult by consecutive Conservative governments taking an axe to police forces (though a panicked government are now trying to build them back up again, demanding intensive recruitment drives that are seeing an influx of new police officers leaving Sergeants with greater workloads, demand and stress according to the Wiltshire Police Federation itself) – but complacent figures like Wilkinson can’t be helping make it any easier.