Police Station Closures: Empty Stations But Hackney Officers Say Losing Buildings 'Emotional'

Hackney Police station is an lofty, imposing figure in the heart of the second most deprived local authority in the country.

Earmarked for closure as part of the Metropolitan Police's goal of slashing costs by 20%, close to the station there are kids yelling to each other on the High Street by McDonalds, elderly east-enders pushing squeaking trolleys, and police sirens ring out close by, the air crowded with noise.

But the interior of the station, conversely, is deathly quiet, despite being less than a quarter of a mile from Mare Street, decimated by rioters.

The front desk of Hackney police station, manned by PC Chris Evans

PC Chris Evans is in solely in charge of the front desk. He has been on shift since 7am, and seen one person, a man who has lost his mobile phone, in three hours.

He, like many officers, has an emotional attachment to police stations. "Police stations are an institution, all of a sudden they're going to be going," he sighed.

But the reality is that few are coming in to report crime at the station. According to the statistics, and the most recent are from 2010, around 46 people come to Hackney Police station everyday.

They could include those signing the sex offenders register each day, handing in driving licences to have points applied, handing in or reporting lost property. Fewer still are reporting a crime.

The arguments for the proposed closure of 65 police stations across the capital are detailed in the Mayor of London's policing strategy for 2013-17.

It says: "The MPS currently has 497 buildings, many of which no longer meet operational requirements. The front counter provision through police stations is also inadequate and often sited in the wrong places.

"Visitor numbers in some stations are extremely low, using up money that could be better spent elsewhere."

One of the things that concerns PC Evans about police station closures is that they are often used by victims of sex offences. "We will sometimes get people who have been sexually assaulted, perhaps down by the canal, they stumble passed us, they are in shock, they don't know what to do and they find themselves here.

"Then they are face-to-face straight away with a police officer and for more victims that's quite reassuring.

"We get a lot of people who don't actually want to report crime, they want to get out of the cold, they want someone to speak to. They come in just for a chat. There was a chap in here this morning when I came in, he spent the night here because he is waiting to be picked up by the homeless charity. I gave him a cup of tea, something to eat.

"I think a lot of people do see it as a safe place to come, we are not just here for crime, we can be social workers as well."

Simon Crick, acting chief inspector of operations in Hackney, has been with the Met for 20 years. He agrees that people often have a sentimentality about the stations: "It's a very emotional reaction, when you first tell people stations are going to be closing they say 'Oh my God', they are very shocked. But I think we as the police has historically expected people to come to us. Now we have to go to them."

The exterior of Hackney police station, which is a listed building

PC Evans is usually supported by at least one volunteer at the station, one of Mayor Boris Johnson's key targets has been to recruit more police volunteers. Hackney station has 19 in total.

Richard Gillman, the MPS volunteer manager in Hackney, has been based at the station since 2006, recruiting volunteers to work alongside officers.

"There can be a queue one minute and it be empty the next. It's a spasmodic trade we have here. But there's definitely been a decline even in the years I've been here, now you can report online or talk to a Safer Neighbourhood team.

"I personally think people do feel vulnerable walking into a police station, they think someone might see them going in. I can never prove that, but I think that might have something to do with it."

Opponents of the closures argue cuts will mean huge swathes of London, like areas of central Hackney and northwards, will have no 24 hour police station or front counter.

Labour London Assembly Police and Crime Spokesperson Joanne McCartney, argued last week that two-thirds of London's boroughs there will be fewer officers than in 2010.

Hardest hit are Croydon, which will lose five of its six stations, Barking will lose three of four, Havering four of five.

McCartney said: "If people want to report serious crimes, like rape, in person they will be forced to travel even further – making it harder to report crime.

“Boris Johnson has repeatedly broken his promises on police stations and front counters, how can we believe that he will keep his word this time?

"Closing nearly half of London’s police stations is further evidence that the Mayor and government are cutting too far, too fast and are hitting the front line."

But police are contactable by phone, on 999 or 101 for non-emergencies, by text message, by Twitter, and crime can be reported online, City Hall argues.

A man being arrested by Hackney Police after the London riots, as part of Operation Withern

Inspector Crick believes the technology has rendered the buildings redundant. "The huge difference is the technology. Now you can report online, police officers will make an appointment to come and see you. That's far more convenient."

Many campaigning to save police stations have cited the psychological effect a police station can have on deterring crime in the area. But Evans doesn't buy that. "I wouldn't say the building has a psychological effect on criminals, a building doesn't change it, but having more police on the street does. Just think about the riots which were right here.

"I've seen people being robbed in the park next to here. Seeing police officers, on the streets, in uniform, that's what defers crime.

"Being realistic, we have three police stations, and there are still two others if this closes. The money saved could bring in more police, more Safer Neighbourhood teams."

Inspector Crick agrees police stations on a high street are no detterrant. "I don't think people high on drugs or alcohol care if they mug people outside a police station. I've seen it happened."

Gillman said that the waiting for confirmation of the inevitable was hard on his volunteers. "It has been tough for them, with the closures so up in the air. I have written to the borough commander to ask him to keep us in the loop. There's nothing I can do at the moment. And they care about this station not just as volunteers, but because they live here, they are members of this community."

One of Boris Johnson's ideas is to have front-line counters as places like supermarkets and cafes, so members of the public can report crime to officers stationed there.

PC Evans said: "Having a policeman in a supermarket or cafe would be convenient, that's what people want I suppose. Coming here is out of the way.

"But would you want a paedophile signing on while you're waiting at the post office? You can't have that."

Police officers in riot gear stand near a burning car in Hackney on August 8, 2011

Gillman is more skeptical, and is worried the closures could mean the police lose vital tip-offs. Upstairs at Hackney police station, officers are still working on Operation Withern, which investigates the riots of 2011.

Gillman said: "I can't see it [police officers in shops and cafes] working to be quite honest. You do also get people coming to the police station with little bits of information for the police, we will lose those tidbits we gain from people coming in to see us."

It's now 11am, and four people have been into the station, including a man who was told he needed a crime reference number by his bank (he didn't) and another to sign in with the police for a designated appointment.

One thing PC Evans will miss is Hackney's own little "micro-climate" of people and stories. "Shoreditch police station is mainly alcohol-related crime, Stoke Newington sees a lot of domestic violence, with many people who don't speak English.

"You get all that here too, but we also get a lot of weird and wonderful tales. One lady reported her spaceship had been stolen. And how do you respond to that?"

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