I’m unfamiliar with policing terminology but I’m learning. Today, I’m sitting
with Brent’s Detective Superintendent, Simon Rose. I’ve only just discovered that the top man in the borough, in policing lingo, is the Borough Commander and then I’m offered his deputy. I’d fancied being allowed out on a raid of some sort. Embedded with Brent TSG sort of thing. But when I spoke to Simon beforehand and suggested a walk, he declined. “Walking isn’t part of my job,” he said in a direct but friendly manner.
Lo and behold, I find myself at Wembley Police station – the last time I was here, I was trying to identify the teenage burglar who was brazenly lunchtime robbing my road – being introduced to Simon Rose. It’s the sort of situation I love – being inside an establishment that I’d normally never have access to.
No sooner have we tunnelled through the building. Not really. More corridored. Than we go outside again to do some photos. This is one of my first impressions of Simon who resembles a smiling Rugby blue. The lift is closing its doors, so Simon runs and thrusts his foot into the gap, in the way I’ve seen TV police do on raids. Hmmm, is he showing off I wonder?
Was he vocational about joining the police? “No, I really drifted into it,” he confesses rather winsomely, “I did a chemistry degree at Essex University, then ended up working in an olive oil factory in Crete, on a kibbutz and travelling round India.” So there go my first preconceptions – here is a senior policeman who has travelled in the way I approve of. “Then I came back and thought being in the police would be interesting. I imagined being a traffic officer at the time.”
Soon afterwards, more preconceptions are ramraided. His phone goes – now we’re in his far-from-tidy office – and plays a nifty dance track. One that is totally unexpected for a Detective Superintendent. He laughs – I think, in appreciation of his own non-conformity. “That’s Insomnia by Faithless. I’m often on call at night and it’s very good at waking me up.” This has parallels with Cameron liking The Smiths. What is happening to the establishment?
“Yeah, Morissey hated Cameron liking his music, didn’t he?” he smiles and I imagine he’s reflecting on what Maxi Jazz would think.
Simon started off as a PC in Islington which was challenging but “not top of the table”. This Detective Superintendent is fond of football analogies. “Brent is in the top four, in terms of challenging policing,” he says, “there’s a high level of deprivation so lots of unemployment and hardship. Although at the moment, our crime figures are down here. It’s counter-intuitive because there’s a recession but we’re bucking the trend.”
Simon Rose has only been in Brent for two years. But he’s aware of its history. In 2001, Harlesden had the highest murder rate in the UK. There was a murder in May 1999 that led to 7 people being killed in the next six months. “We’ve moved away from those days,” he says, “but there was a shooting last week that was to do with the Thugs of Stonebridge and St Raphs and there were six murders in Brent last year.”
Has the change of architecture had an effect on crime, I wondered? I mean the pulling down of the tower blocks at Stonebridge, and their replacement with low-rise housing. And the same on the Church End estate. “It has changed,” he says cautiously, “the design has helped with policing like the public spaces were created with the idea of marginalising opportunities for youths to gather in secret. “
This prompts Simon to digress into strategy-talk. He’s a planner with a proclivity to philosophy. He starts talking about the Bejing Olympics and how the cyclists made a difference to their performance by increasing their break time and therefore their recovery time. Obviously, he’s comparing their methodology with how to improve crime statistics. “Aristotle said: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’, and a marginal gains’ strategy can make a significant difference. For instance, there was a low wall outside a small shop where young people used to gather, smoke and drink. We changed the design of the wall and they didn’t do that any more.” Who is responsible for this kind of strategy? “Crime Prevention Design Advisers.” I might have known.
At this point, I notice a pair of black, what I take to be, operational boots under a chair. Ah ha, so Simon does take part in action. “Once in a blue moon,” he says quietly smiling, “the last time they were used was on a cannabis farm raid. There’s a lot of crashing and bashing in that kind of job so it’s best to wear boots. It was a two bedroom maisonette and there were 80 plants. The owners were Vietnamese.” Simon likes interesting details and now launches off into a description of the precise art of hydroponics as practised by these ‘farmers’. “It’s very sophisticated market gardening,” he says, “basically they are growing plants without soil. They take 6 to 8 weeks and it costs £1,000 to buy the kit.”
Isn’t it rather ridiculous to criminalise cannabis growers, even on this commercial level? Ever reflective, he says: “Well, society and criminality does change. Look at the 30 years ago, when gay men were prosecuted for having sex, now we police the areas that they frequent to make sure they don’t get robbed. We echo the changes in society.”
What does he think of members of the Church Road Soldiers turning up in Dorset? Last year, a 21 year old was shot in Bournemouth. Are they going down to Dorset because the policing is getting more effective in London? Or ‘going country’ as my son explains, to do their selling. “Certainly, we’re noticing changes,” he says, “it could be new financial opportunities or better policing. Or both. I think we’ve put in some good Anti-Social Behaviour orders with exclusion zones and only being able to own one registered phone.”
Are the police trying to create different relationships with these troubled young men? “We’re not social workers,”he says pointedly, “we focus on enforcement. Although there are ‘teachable moments’ that occur, for instance when someone has been stabbed or shot and they might re-evaluate their life choices. We work with the St Giles Trust that provides mentoring in such cases. And the community radio station Bang FM has a good new project where they are identifying up to seventy eight 14 year olds who could use support in making good choices. For instance, they might have an older sibling who is in a gang but be in a position where they can be helped before they go down that path.”
What are Brent doing about institutionalised racism? Are they getting more non-white officers into top positions? “That takes too long,” he says, “it takes 25 years to progress through the different positions so we’re trying direct-entry opportunities at detective level. This can accelerate this kind of cultural change.”
Simon leaves the room to have his photo taken with a colleague who is leaving. I gaze at his office in fascination. It’s full of random articles. A ladder lies on the floor. There are white boards with lists under unintelligible words like Smartwater, Facewatch and the more familiar, Gangs. And a beautiful deep blue Moroccan bowl.
What would his dream policing in Brent be? “A lot of projects like the Bang FM one and activities like the ones the St Giles Trust provide,” he says, “support structures that help the community so that we wouldn’t have so much crime.”
And what’s his favourite poem? “Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge,” he says, “I think he did that in a hallucinatory dream after taking lots of opium.” There’s an obvious irony here. Detective Superintendent Rose’s favourite poem was written after smoking copious amounts of opium, whilst he is going out on cannabis farm raids. It’s not lost on either of us.
The Smartwater is to do with the high rate of burglary and a device that squirts a substance that marks the burglar and makes them identifiable. The police have set up a Smartwater flat and are waiting for burglars to take the bait, and they’ve already caught a couple of burglars via a trap car that was set up in this way. “It sends out the message that we are catching burglars,”he says.
Oh yes, and then there are the methadone prescription bags – give out by local chemists to heroin users – that declare Thieves and Handlers beware and heralds the benefits of Smartwater. Simon is definitely proud of these. He’s jumping around with a kind of policing glee.
But what about that Moroccan bowl? “I took my mother to Marrakesh and bought it there,” he says as he shows me out. “Marrakesh is a bit touristy these days though, isn’t it?” Here we go again…