Ronald Coppins has lived in Fulham Reach for over 50 years; he is an active member of the community and still volunteers daily at his local Age Concern Centre. Three years ago Coppins was the victim of a violent gang mugging which left him scared to leave the house for weeks. Isolated and alone, he felt that thanks to the actions of three young boys, his life was over.
A sergeant from a local Safer Neighbourhood Team visited Coppins at his home and helped him to rebuild the confidence to step outside again. For “the company, the cups of tea, and the advice I was given, I am eternally grateful,” he said.
Whilst his life has returned to relative normality, the incident continues to affect Coppins, 76, who remains too scared to go outside in the evenings, no longer carries a bag, and has a pair of bells attached to his wallet allowing him to “hear if someone tries to make off with it.”
As he struggles to shed the emotional scars of his ordeal, Coppins has continued to campaign for greater policing and crime prevention in the borough, leaving him “outraged” at the news of cuts to these services.
It was revealed earlier this year that the number of sergeants leading the borough’s Safer Neighbourhood Teams (SNT’s) would be cut from 16 to 12. This has angered local residents who see the SNT’s as a vital part of the community and the fight against crime: “We need the police, we need Safer Neighbourhood Teams, we need sergeants – it really is as simple as that,” Coppins said.
According to data from the Metropolitan Police, after the SNT’s were introduced by Ken Livingstone in 2004 the total number of offences reported yearly in Hammersmith and Fulham had fallen by over 5000 by 2009. This, Coppins believes, is “no coincidence”.
Stephen Cowan, leader of the Labour Opposition in Hammersmith and Fulham, also believes there is a direct correlation between the fall in offences and the presence of SNT’s: “The Safer Neighbourhood Teams have been intrinsic to cutting crime in the borough. The sergeants in particular are committed to carrying out their work with a determination you don’t often see in other jobs.”
As four of the borough’s sergeants are cut, many of those left will be forced to cover two wards thereby doubling their workload. Coppins fears that this will diminish the strong relationship between sergeants and the local elderly community: “Our sergeant came (to the Age Concern Centre) twice this summer to speak to us. If a sergeant has to cover two wards, how’s he going to fit in the time he needs to come in and speak to people like us, to meet us and let us know someone’s keeping us safe.” It’s like “having one doctor at Charing Cross Hospital – it wouldn’t work.”
The cuts have angered community blogger Annette Albert, who runs the W14.ning website. She said: “The fear of crime is as great or perhaps greater than crime itself. The Safer Neighbourhood Teams put this fear at ease, but after these cuts I’m sure we wont see them on the street anymore, they will be too stretched.”
Despite a petition from the local community, Fulham Reach and North End wards have been forced to merge, sharing one sergeant. Ms Albert was “incredulous” following the subsequent loss of sergeant Ian Gordon whom she describes as an “asset” to the community: “We were never informed he was going, we were never asked, we were never consulted – that really did upset a lot of people.”
Ms Albert believes that the most important thing about the SNT’s and, in particular the sergeants, is the relationship they build with the local community: “We trust the sergeants and the Safer Neighbourhood Teams and, let’s face it, how often do you find policemen you can trust?” Ms Albert worries that these cuts will leave people like Ronald Coppins more reluctant to report crimes: “If you’re isolated, whether you’re young or old, crime does become a real problem.” Whilst the true impact of this decision remains to be seen, there is a fear amongst the local community that these cuts will lead to an increase in crime figures: “If people find out that there are less amenities, less ability for the police to do their job, they’re going to act on it,” Coppins said.
Without the help of the SNT, Coppins believes that he would have remained isolated and afraid: “I respect the Safer Neighbourhood Teams very much for the work they do, they mean a lot to us. The cuts are not fair to us. I feel very strongly about this, I feel like people like me have been forgotten.”
Stephen Cowan identified the role of the Council in diminishing the fear of crime: “Fear of crime, like any fear, can be completely debilitating, which is exactly why it must be tackled. It is the Council’s responsibility to address this fear and the only way you can really do that is by addressing the causes of crime.” This, he believes, goes beyond the role of the police and of SNT’s, which “can only help once a crime has already been committed,” to the role of crime prevention services such as the Youth Offending Teams (YOT).
The YOT in Hammersmith and Fulham aims to reduce offending by children and young people aged 10-18 years in the borough. A spokesperson for the service said that it is a fundamental element of crime prevention in the area: “We work with young people vulnerable to being criminalised, we make them see they don’t need to be part of a gang, they don’t need to commit crimes, their life can have a purpose.” The service is particularly important to Coppins, as one of his muggers’ was brought to the attention of the scheme. He believes that services like this provide “vital support” for both young offenders and their victims.
This year the budget for the YOT in the borough has decreased by almost 26% with projected cuts of over 60% in the next three years. David Van Eeghen, from children’s charity Kids Co, believes it is “inevitable that these cuts will have a negative effect” on both crime and society more generally. As his work focuses on vulnerable inner-city children, he recognises the importance of services like the YOT and believes that the availability of such help “can be the difference between someone having a productive life and living on the edges.”
This opinion is shared by Stephen Cowan who believes it is important that council’s take a “joined up approach,” when tackling crime, dealing with both its causes and effects. “What I know you shouldn’t be doing is cutting police numbers and cutting the Youth Offending Team – these are all regressive steps that I think are disastrous if you’re interested in cutting crime and diminishing the fear of crime,” he said.
The YOT claim these cuts will not affect their ability to help people like Ronald Coppins and his muggers. They say the budget will be used effectively resulting in no change in service. Similarly, the borough police commander, Chief Superintendent Lucy D’Orsi has said: “We have to have an affordable plan during these challenging economic times. My officers will continue to deliver an effective neighbourhood policing service that responds to the needs of local communities.”
These promises do little to reassure people like Ronald Coppins, who believes that “crime is no longer the priority it once was.” As he prepares to make his way home before night falls, Coppins expresses his belief that: “Decisions like this are made with the stroke of a pen, without thinking of the consequences. I’m worried where we’re heading – it could be frightening.”