2 February 1996

Country crime cutters

Theres a war on. In the quiet rural lanes of countryside Britain

machinery and livestock theft is rife. We begin our Security Special

with a look at an award-winning rural policing scheme

run by Thames Valley police. Peter Hill reports

LOWER crime figures, a greater sense of security among the rural population and further improvements in communication facilities mark the fourth year of the Countrywatch scheme in Oxfordshire.

The scheme, originally devised by country beat officer Pc Pete Hale, is designed to improve the effectiveness of policing in rural locations within the Thames Valleys Witney police area.

It came about after a period in which concentration on urban crime had depleted the police presence in rural areas and the incidence of criminal activity in such areas was increasing. This led to a loss of contact between the local force and farmers, landowners and others in the area.

"We also found that country people were not only suffering increased crime but losing confidence in the ability of the police to help," notes Witney area commander Supt Davina Logan.

Old-fashioned on-the-beat policing was PC Hales solution but using modern communications and transport facilities to make that a feasible option for a limited number of officers covering 400 square miles of countryside. The first move was to encourage more contact between officers and farmers and landowners, and more recently with people working in rural industries.

Switching from ordinary patrol cars to Land Rover Defender estates had two benefits. First, remote areas, inaccessible other than in a four-wheel drive vehicle for much of the year, could once again be patrolled. Second, it made the police presence far more obvious – a white long-wheelbase Land Rover festooned with orange stripes and blue lights certainly has more visual impact than a normal police vehicle.

Visibility is an important element of such policing, says PC Hale. A more obvious presence reassures people that the police are on hand if needed and, for much the same reason, it acts as a powerful deterrent to criminal activity.

The difficulty of co-ordinating police officers and those willing to help them in certain operations – such as heading off traveller convoys – has been tackled by equipping the Land Rovers with mobile phones to give a direct link between all parties.

This builds on a key element of the original scheme which was to make the telephone numbers of rural beat officers freely available.

"This was a great help in encouraging a better relationship with the police," says John Mathews, manager of the Swinbrook Estate near Burford and a Countrywatch scheme co-ordinator. "It is far better to be able to phone someone you know with a query or information than to speak to an anonymous officer in a station some miles away."

Regular contact meetings are held. Before long the scheme will have access to an automatic messaging service. This will be used to disseminate information and warnings of criminal activity to co-ordinators in particular areas, or direct to farms, stables and other businesses being targeted.

One of the key aims of the scheme is to improve contact between police and public. Junior Countrywatch days are an annual activity at which Thames Valley Police and other organisations, such as the fire service, Red Cross, RSPCA, Blue Cross and NFU, do their bit to educate children about the risks to farm and wild animals of leaving litter, and the risk to themselves posed by shotguns and playing in farm barns. General fire and road safety – and the stranger danger message – are also part of the brief programme.

Pete Hale is delighted at the response to such days and to the Countrywatch scheme in general. But what pleases him as much as anything about the way the scheme has been accepted, is the way it is now being extended to other areas.

The scheme got underway in the Banbury and Newbury areas towards the end of last year, and Aylesbury should come on stream this spring. An international award for the scheme was the icing on the cake.

But Supt Davina Logan points to falling crime figures as principle evidence of the effectiveness of the scheme. During 1991 and 1992, before Countrywatch began, she points out, south-west Oxfordshire experienced a 19.6% increase in crime.

"That was turned round to a 4.7% decrease in 1993 and a further 5% fall in 1994," says Supt Logan. "Credit must be shared with other police initiatives and efforts, of course, but it is clear that Countrywatch has played a significant part."

Use of Land Rover Defender estates enables police to patrol remote areas. Their bright livery provides a visual warning to would-be thieves.

A more obvious presence, more contact with farmers, landowners and others in the countryside, and better communication links are part of the Countrywatch mix.