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Lessons to be learnt from ‘cop shops’

01 February 2013

There are tough decisions to take, says Jonathan Bartley

AS THE scale and shape of the cuts to the country's police services become clear, the Church might want to compare notes with those pushing forward the changes.

They have a few things in common. It isn't just that both institutions have suffered from scandals and negative publicity. Both are committed to a focus at ward or parish level; and both are saddled with infrastructure and organisation that was designed for a previous age. Modernisation is a necessity, and tough decisions have to be made about what to do with costly buildings as fewer people come through their doors.

The crisis facing the police service is more acute. In London alone, the Mayor, Boris Johnson, is aiming for a 20-per-cent cut in his policing budget. But a Church that has been grappling with financial pressures for a great deal longer should have some wisdom to offer.

In my own borough of Lambeth, three of our six police stations are set to close. The buildings, it is suggested, are no longer required for modern policing. Most people report crimes online, or by phone. The stations keep too many police behind desks, out of sight from the community. But the police station, like a church building, provides a feeling of security. As with churches, you can bank on huge local opposition when closures are attempted.

But the Church could also learn from the police. No "Back to Police Station Sunday (or Saturday night)" is being proposed. Instead, services are being moved out into the community. Tasks such as checking vehicle documents can be performed at post offices. Real "cop shops" can be established in premises on the high street. The Church should be inspired to think outside the box, too, about its services and mission.

Rather than close buildings, however, the Church has shown that there are realistic alternatives, which involve opening buildings up to the local community. If the police are to hold surgeries in a local café, then why not also set up a café in a police station? These kinds of ideas, once unthinkable, have now become commonplace in urban parishes. Police stations could become important community spaces, hosting a range of activities, if they are willing to learn from the Church's example.

This is not to say that there are no difficulties with opening up your building to the community in new ways. For some people, previous negative experiences of both Church and police mean that they may still be reluctant to set foot in them. But this is all the more reason to make them more accessible.

Welcoming the community in can also help to make institutions more accountable, and increase confidence in them. This is what has been seen in numerous initiatives, from school governing bodies and parent-teacher associations to Safer Neighbourhood panels and "Friends" community groups.

But whatever they do with their buildings, perhaps, most importantly, both Church and police are being forced to relinquish control and explore how the community can take more ownership. The CitySafe scheme being pioneered by London Citizens, for example, encourages churches to work with businesses to create places of sanctuary on the high street for young people who might get into difficulty with gangs.

Whether out in the community, or welcoming the community in, the Church cannot "do" people's faith for them, any more than the police can make an area truly safe. In the end, a community must take on responsibility for its own spiritual well-being and security. And that is an important, albeit challenging, lesson for those inside and outside the buildings.

Jonathan Bartley is director of the theological think tank Ekklesia.

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