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20 December, 2016

The gift of a conversation

Investment in technology is helping the police to catch criminals but we can all help our children to keep safe online by learning about the risks and talking to them

No man is an island, and nor is a police service. This is particularly the case for North Yorkshire.

As the largest county police force in the country, our geography creates some specific challenges. Notwithstanding those, North Yorkshire is the safest place in England. However, four of the seven police forces which border us are in the seven highest crime areas in the country, with some of the others not much further behind. While we talk much about the challenges of sheer size and sparsity, that of tackling cross-border crime is less obvious. Except of course if you’re a victim of one of those crimes. Here in the Harrogate area, there has been a spate of burglaries perpetrated by criminals from over the border, especially along the ‘Menwith Hill’ corridor.

The good news is that North Yorkshire Police have been very successful in catching these people. This is down to a blend of targeted operations and essential investment in technology, especially Automatic Number Plate Recognition. A ‘ring of steel’ might be somewhat overdoing it, but we certainly take all the measures we can to keep track of criminals in our patch. Not only can we track and trace them, but when called for, the police can intercept or disrupt, helping prevent us from being burgled, defrauded or having our vehicles stolen, for example.

The scale of the issue becomes even more clear when the statistics tell us that about a third of crime committed in North Yorkshire is undertaken by someone who lives outside the county. And they are just the ones we know about.

What’s more, ‘investment’ isn’t the be all and end all. Despite being such a safe place, North Yorkshire is not exempt from crimes more often associated with other areas. Child sexual exploitation and abuse does happen here and we all need to understand that the nature of crime is changing. As I go out and about, I often hear some sort of ‘Heartbeat’ version of crime and policing in North Yorkshire. Today, the reality is that much harm happens on the internet and in our homes, right under our noses. Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is an extremely distressing crime, and many of us live in a ‘it won’t happen to me or mine’ camp. Well, thankfully, numbers are low in North Yorkshire, but it does happen, and more so than you might think. Partly it is up to us as parents and grandparents to educate and protect our children, but we also need to work very closely with our neighbours, which North Yorkshire’s officers do on a daily basis.

Indeed, last week I welcomed Brandon Lewis, the Policing Minister to North Yorkshire. In light of his review of the police’s funding formula, I wanted him to see for himself the impact of policing such a large and often remote area. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a lot as the county was shrouded in thick fog! But we did meet a team of people working cross-border with West Yorkshire Police, including staff from local authorities and charities, who work to keep our children safe. It was really impressive stuff, so let’s hope that our message was heard and will be heeded when financial decisions are made in the new year.

We don’t just get money from the Home Office though. As your Police and Crime Commissioner, I am responsible for commissioning services for victims, using money from the Ministry of Justice. So at the meeting, it was good to see the team from Hand in Hand, part of the Children’s Society, who do brilliant work protecting our children here in Harrogate and across the county.

Their work, the police’s work and that of others is very important. CSE can and does happen in North Yorkshire. I know of cases where in under ten minutes, via a few online messages, very young girls have been coerced into sending wholly inappropriate images to total strangers, skilled in targeting the vulnerable. Other cases include children being groomed online whilst sitting next to their parents in the same room. We must not ‘outsource’ responsibility for keeping our children safe wholly to the police. We all – parents, carers and grandparents – need to learn about the risks and dangers presented by the internet. I have also commissioned a specialist service to help families affected by CSE, which is provided by Parents Against Child Exploitation (PACE). Amongst others, their website (paceuk.info) has some great tools to help and I whole heartedly suggest you take a look as people often ask me what more we can do to keep our children safe.

So, this isn’t a traditional Christmas column. I know that. But one of my new year resolutions will be to do more to keep my family safer. Perhaps it’s time we all gave the gift of a conversation to our loved ones, instead (or perhaps alongside) a new gadget, app or online subscription.