In response to a recent knife crime on Heeley Road in Selly Oak, News Editor Tom Leaman spoke to key members of UoB staff and University Police Officer Charlie Richards about safety issues affecting students

Former Redbrick Editor-in-Chief (2019-20) and News and Elections Editor (2018-19).
Images by Tom Leaman

It seems that Police presence in Selly Oak has increased since the stabbing last Sunday. Is this increased presence set to continue into the near future, or is it a temporary response to one severe incident?

PC Charlie Richards, University Officer for the University of Birmingham: ‘No, it’s not a response to a severe incident, those patrols were put in place for the beginning of term, and those officers were put on those patrols knowing that all the students were coming back to the area. It’s been requested in previous years and it was catered to. Those patrols had been in place three weeks prior to that horrific incident, so it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. The reason that people probably didn’t even notice the patrols [before the attack of Sunday 7th] is because they didn’t need to notice them at the time, and when something happens people suddenly look for where the Police are’.

Some students have questioned the presence of plain-clothes Police officers and unmarked Police cars patrolling Selly Oak. Would marked cars and uniformed officers be a better alternative to unmarked cars and plain-clothed officers as a deterrent to prevent crimes?

Charlie Richards: The reason that we have plain vehicles is sometimes strategic because we actually want to be unseen so we can see what the levels of activity are or who’s in the area without notifying them.’
‘ [When unmarked] we’re still warranted and would still respond, we’re not going out without kit, if we’re out on duty you just won’t see it’.

The University has provided five full-time special constables under the Blueline scheme

Jon Elsmore, Director of Student Affairs: In addition to the extra capacity that the Police have put in before the start of term, the University has provided five full-time special constables under the Blueline scheme.
Special Constables are fully-warranted Police Officers that go through all of the training. What we’ve done is identified five of our own students, who have taken a placement year and trained to be Special Constables. What we’ve done differently at Birmingham to any of the other universities is that we’ve agreed to pay them an allowance for the year. Those five additional Police Constables will work to on campus and in Selly Oak to police, deter and reassure. The University provided funding for that, and West Midlands Police provided the initiative and a training programme. The extra capacity that that represents is significant’.

Some students and Societies have been offering self-defence advice or lessons for concerned students. Can these be trusted?

Charlie Richards: ‘I’m all for people trying to keep themselves safe, but if you don’t know what you’re teaching you could hinder somebody. I’m running safety courses because I’m a personal safety instructor for West Midlands Police. I’m going to run crime prevention, self-defence and personal safety workshops because I’m qualified to do that. I don’t mind people using a trained instructor, but I would be mindful of people with limited knowledge as it can get people actually hurt’.

Jon Elsmore: ‘One of the things that we’ve received over the weekend are a number of offers from some of our clubs and societies that are trained and qualified to provide that personal safety training’.
‘If there are trained and qualified groups of students out there in societies who want to help us, we’ll try and facilitate that. The ones that we’ve advertised so far are the ones that Charlie is leading’.

Stephen McAuliffe, Academic Registrar: ‘The reason we’re keen to do this in cooperation is that Selly Oak is not our community, it’s not the students’ community, it’s not the Police’s community, it belongs to all of us and we’re only going to deal with the challenges if we work together on it’.
‘I think it would be really good to have qualified students through those societies offering advice, support and self-defence training and we can look to facilitate that and find them the spaces and get advice from Charlie and the Police as a whole. That kind of thing is exactly what we want to do, and to do it together’.

If students find themselves in a dangerous situation, what should they do?

We’ve just ordered and are giving out an additional 2000 personal attack alarms

Charlie Richards: ‘I will always advocate trying to get out of the situation by any means possible and if that is you run away, absolutely.’
‘I will never, ever tell anybody it’s a great idea to go toe-to-toe with somebody. The only time I’ve ever done that is when I’ve had no other choice than to step in and go into that fight, and that’s either to protect a colleague, to protect myself or to protect other people. I will not advocate fighting. You should only fight if your life is in danger and there is no other way to get out of that’.

The West Midlands Police and Partnership Hub in the University Centre

Jon Elsmore: ‘There is something to be said about personal responsibility and if you do feel vulnerable, walk home in pairs. We’ve just ordered and are giving out an additional 2000 personal attack alarms. If a student wants a personal attack alarm, they can get one from the Bournebrook Pavilion, from the Guild, from the Student Hub and from the Police and Partnership Hub, and we recommend that people should have one of those. The other thing we’ve been recommending to students is a mobile app, which is called Hollie Guard, which turns your phone into a personal attack alarm. It activates the light, it activates a loud noise and it activates a recording function so it can gather evidence as it works’.

Stephen McAuliffe: ‘It’s important with mobiles phones and fighting or running to talk about situational awareness. Put your mobile phone back in your pocket and don’t look at it when you’re walking along the street, look around you so then you can head off problems before they start’.

As well as on the streets, some students have concerns about security in their homes. Are the University and the Guild looking at cooperating further with lettings agencies to recommend landlords to students who offer better security?

Stephen McAuliffe: ‘There is a body called MLAS (Midlands Landlord Accreditation Scheme), who we have already contacted to say we would like to do more in this area, and I think there’s a lot of space here for landlords to be better, such as providing locks that when you shut the door, lock. The University can’t do that [install home safety features], we can’t fit a gate to someone else’s house- I suspect it’s illegal! We want to work with them much more.

The Fab n’ Fresh Facebook page is used regularly as a forum for students to report crimes, though many seem to go unreported to the Police and the University, with some uncertainty over when 999 and 101 should be dialled.

I love the idea of Fab n’ Fresh, and I love that fact that people are talking about stuff and trying to empower each other

Charlie Richards: ‘I love the idea of Fab n’ Fresh, and I love that fact that people are talking about stuff and trying to empower each other and spread the word about things. The issue for us is when we get asked ‘what are we doing about things’ and we don’t know, because no one’s bothered to tell us, which makes it really difficult for us to put resources into an area where we don’t know where there’s an issue in the first place.
For me, 999 is ‘my life is in imminent danger, and I need somebody now’, or if I’m witnessing something where someone’s life in is immediate danger’.
‘For things like ‘I’ve had my bike stolen’, there is online reporting, which people aren’t aware of, and you’ve got live web chats where they can give you advice in real-time, and people will make contact for you and create the logs. 101 is for lower-level incidents, where life isn’t in danger but I need to report a crime, though online reporting might be quicker and more detailed in some circumstances, and it’s probably more convenient in some respects’.

What exactly is the web chat, and where can students find it?

Charlie Richards: ‘You can go onto WMP (West Midlands Police) Online, and you can have a conversation with a real person. The person there will signpost you or deal with it there and then’.

A concern was raised by a student who was told us that some CCTV cameras are ‘never really ever turned on’. Is this true?

Jon Elsmore: The student may have been told by somebody that those cameras are not switched on, but that is not true. That is completely, completely not true. The University has extensive CCTV coverage across the campus, and every now and again a camera will fail. We think that on that particular occasion, that camera had failed. It was not the case that the cameras are not switched on. There’s a four-year programme that we’re just at the beginnings of now to re-invest in all of the CCTV across the campus because some of it at the moment is analogue equipment, and some of it is digital equipment.

The analogue equipment is the equipment that is prone to fail more often. We’re upgrading all of the CCTV across campus

The analogue equipment is the equipment that is prone to fail more often. We’re upgrading all of the CCTV across campus, not only in the new buildings but also retrofitting all of the CCTV estates to a much higher-quality digital set of cameras.

To protect students’ bikes, where are D-locks available for students to pick up?

Jon Elsmore: ‘There are two things that you can do: What we want people to do is register their bikes so when Police do recover bikes, which is more often than you might think, we can then return them to their owners. If you don’t want to register your bike, you can buy a D-lock from us at half the normal price. You can get those from the Police and Partnership Hub the Bournebrook Pavilion.

Charlie Richards: ‘You can get two D-locks for £18 if you look at it like that, one for the front of the bike and one for the back of the bike. Some bike locks can be bolt-cut off, but it can’t get through a D-lock. That will require an angle grinder, and somebody would notice somebody with an angle grinder trying to cut locks off. I’d implore people not to have a cable lock, or have a D-lock and a cable lock, as a bolt cutter would not get through the D-lock. It is available, it’s free, you just have to come in and tell us the details of the bike and we’ll provide it’.

D-lock giveaways and bike registration services are available at weekly Lock It, Mark It events at the Bournbrook Pavilion. These events are advertised on the UB Safe Facebook page. They are also available from the Police and Partnership Hub drop-ins on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 12-2 pm. The drop-ins also offer advice in relation to safety and security. The Police and Partnership Hub is located opposite the Spar in University Centre.

The Selly Express began service today on a trial scheme. What would the University want to see to make it permanent?

Stephen McAuliffe: ‘The budget for the bus is there for a year. We’d want to see that it was used and that students felt that it was making a difference for them and making them feel safer. An empty vehicle going backwards and forwards would be a waste of money.

Reece has worked very hard and tried to bring it earlier, which is one of the things that was important in his campaign

It runs every half an hour, going from the library [this has changed to every forty-five minutes since the interview, and it also picks up from the Guild]. It starts at 8 pm and runs until 1 pm, so is designed for the darker hours and will drop people off at their homes. It was originally scheduled to start in a few weeks time. Reece [Patrick Roberts] has worked very hard and tried to bring it earlier, which is one of the things that was important in his campaign, even though it was agreed before that’.

Students would like some clarification of where money is going, especially with projects such as the Dubai Campus, the Hotel and Conference Centre and the Green Heart. Is money being spared to protect students on campus and in Selly Oak?

Stephen McAuliffe: We spend already over £200,000 a year in Selly Oak to support students, and with the additional investments we’re looking to develop, that might take it up to £300,000 a year. That includes a variety of different schemes and activities, such as the Community Wardens who are supported by the University [and the Guild]’.
There are a series of priority foci for the University, and spending money in Selly Oak to support students is a priority for us, which is why we’re doing it, but we’re doing it from an angle of partnership. Because we don’t own the land, we can’t suddenly go in and change all the lighting and change all the cameras. We wouldn’t be allowed to do it and, as a university, our focus is on education’.

We’ve spent money in and around our accommodation, so we as a landlord we are getting security there primarily

Jon Elsmore: ‘Where it is our land, our property and our premises, we have put all of those things [security systems] in place. We’ve invested there, as we’re directly responsible for there, but in Selly Oak houses aren’t our responsibility. We can put pressure on landlords to do that themselves. We’ve spent money in and around our accommodation, so we as a landlord we are getting security there primarily’.

There was a statement on the University website following the Sunday 7th attack in Selly Oak which said that ‘generally, Selly Oak is a safe area’. Students have questioned and even mocked this. Do you think that this is an accurate statement and do you think that students are right to be questioning it?

I will happily say that I still believe Selly Oak is a safe place when you compare it to other areas across the city

Charlie Richards: ‘I think the issue is the use of the word ‘generally’. Everybody looks at that and thinks that that means across the board. I will happily say that I still believe Selly Oak is a safe place when you compare it to other areas across the city. When you look at the number of horrendous crimes, like the wounding, those are rare. I get that people are upset about it and we don’t like those incidents either.
I am responsible for my safety and I know it sounds harsh for me to say it, but the students are ultimately responsible for theirs. They are going to have to make themselves feel safe, and that’s why we are putting on all these processes to try and empower them’.
Everything we’ve got was already in place before that happened. You will never stop an incident like that, which was a random act of opportunistic violence. There was no targeting involved with that. They’ve been charged, they’ve been remanded, they will be dealt with by the criminal justice system. That was done within a 48-hour window of the incident actually happening. A lot of the officers involved that weekend did it voluntarily, they weren’t paid for it because it affected them as well.
From my point of view, I still believe it’s a safe place, and I can’t say anything statistically that would make me change that opinion.

Jon Elsmore: When the University released that statement, I think we felt it was important to be factual, because our readership extends for a statement like that far beyond Selly Oak and presumably all around the world. It was based on factual evidence. Police and crime statistics are freely available online, and what you will find almost certainly is that Selly Oak consistently is in the lowest quartile for reported crime in the Greater Birmingham area.

Stephen McAuliffe: ‘When there are 25,000 members of Fab n’ Fresh, a post about burglary will become 25,000 burglaries because 25,000 people have looked at that. If there are seven people in a house and they report it to their friends, that can become seven burglaries; there’s only one. There’s so much that students see daily coming through, and the crime that happened on Sunday [7th] was horrendous, it really was. The University was aware, which is why the Blueline special staff were planned over a year ago. The bus was almost ready to go, it was just brought forward because the anxiety was running high. We want students to be as safe as they can be in an area that is generally, relatively safe.

I am responsible for my safety and I know it sounds harsh for me to say it, but the students are ultimately responsible for theirs

Useful links:
University of Birmingham: Staying Safe
University of Birmingham: Mental Health and Wellbeing
West Midlands Police
Police UK: Selly Oak crime statistics