'Virtual policing to be the norm' with crime victims facing Skype interviews
Police plans to speak to victims of crime on Skype instead of visiting their home are being linked to slashed budgets.
The move, part of a trial aiming to allow more time for neighbourhood patrols, has been criticised by some as a "retrograde step" amid fears that older people and those less able to afford computers are being forgotten.
People will be encouraged to call, Skype or visit the police station after reporting a crime, with home visits only made "where necessary".
The trial, launched by Cambridgeshire police in Peterborough on Wednesday, aims to provide more flexibility for victims, as well as allowing better response times, the force said.
Oz Merrygold, secretary of Cambridgeshire Police Federation, said that due to cuts to policing it is "just not possible anymore" to visit homes that have been broken into for example.
"We're having to redefine the way we police," he said, adding that part of that is about modernising, while another part of it is also "dealing with the austerity measures".
Mr Merrygold said that while he believes face to face contact is very important, he has to accept that the progression of technology means that more and more contact will be made through social media.
He said cuts have had a "dramatic" effect on policing, and said the people who will be hit hardest by the Skype idea will be the older generation who are not as familiar with using computers or communicating via Skype.
He also pointed out that not everyone can afford computers, and said: "The most vulnerable in society need to be protected."
Meanwhile, former officer Clive Chamberlain said the change is ushering in an era of "virtual policing".
He wrote on Twitter: "This is such a retrograde step - but when budgets are slashed by millions 'virtual policing' is going to be the norm."
Retired London officer Norman Brennan said "personal" crimes require officers to visit a person's home.
He wrote: "Burglary victims need an officer to attend their home it's a personal crime!"
He added: "Due to police cuts don't expect Police to attend contact police via online! Cutshaveconsequences."
Area commander for Peterborough, Superintendent Melanie Dales said they will provide an emergency response as required.
She said: "We understand people have busy lives and this service will provide flexibility, with appointments from 8am to 10pm seven days a week.
"This initiative will bring the police more in line with other services, such as doctors' surgeries, and as with the health service our emergency response will be there when required.
"It will allow officers, who use a large proportion of their time travelling across the city to and from appointments, more time to patrol their neighbourhoods.
"Also, by using modern technology such as Skype, we are increasing our efficiency and ensuring we are able to respond to people in a shorter time frame."
Earlier this week, Sara Thornton, head of the National Police Chiefs Council, spoke to Newsnight about "Bobbies on the beat", and said: "It's a difficult one because it's one of those features of policing which the public have come to like and respect over many, many years but in fact the evidence would say that random police patrol doesn't prevent crime, it doesn't solve crime, it doesn't in fact make people feel safer."
Asked if she thought the days of routine patrols were over, she said officers in future will "always respond to the pub fight, to domestic abuse, to people in difficulty" but, in the future, officers will not focus on "areas where there is little crime and little disorder".
Just last month, Crime Minister Mike Penning said police officers should always attend burglary victims' homes.
He said he disagreed with the controversial suggestion by Ms Thornton that the public should not always expect an officer to turn up after a break-in as forces prioritise other crimes amid budget cuts.
There was further controversy when she suggested that burglary victims could send evidence to police over the internet, while it emerged that one force had piloted an approach in which attempted break-ins were only fully investigated at houses with even numbers.
Meanwhile, last month police chiefs delivered a stark warning to ministers that further spending cuts threaten to ''fundamentally change'' the nature of policing in Britain.
Lucy Hastings, who is a director at independent charity Victim Support, said: "Technology can be of great benefit, especially where it is used to improve victims' access to, or experience of, the criminal justice system - for example, when vulnerable witnesses are able to give evidence via a video link to a court room.
"Any system should deal sensitively with each victim's circumstances, ensuring everyone can easily report a crime and that they have access to the proper support and assistance having done so."
Simon Bottery, director of policy and external relations at Independent Age, the older people's charity, raised concerns about the move.
"While many older people use technologies like Skype, many do not and those least likely to use it are those who are poorer, older or with a higher level of disability," he said.
"It is vital that home visits remain available for these groups. Home visits also provide an opportunity for the police to understand more about the wider needs of vulnerable older people, so reducing them may mean that the police are less able to identify those who may be at greatest risk of scams and anti-social behaviour."