Reassuring the public and engaging with the community are top on the list of priorities for the new Neighbourhood Sergeant on the Leys.
With nearly twenty years of experience working for Thames Valley Police, Sgt Neil Applegarth is no stranger to dealing with serious investigations.
So, as he took the helm at the start of June, the new Blackbird Leys Neighbourhood Sergeant was in familiar territory after the high profile murder of Christopher Lemonius which coincided with the very same day as his appointment.
Sgt Applegarth, 47 acted as a Response Team Inspector prior for 18 months prior to his new job and previously served as Neighbourhood Sergeant for East Oxford working on high profile cases like that of Operation Bullfinch.
He is keen to hit the ground running and is clear on what he believes are the main priorities in his new role.
He said: “Normally when you come to a new neighbourhood the priority is the needs of the community which is dealt with through meetings where we find the three main priorities of that area. When on the first day on the new job someone is murdered, that automatically becomes my main focus and to prevent things like that happening again.
“Crucially I want us to be out there reassuring the public. I’ve set the recent murder out as a clear priority but once I feel I have established what I need to do in connection to this serious crime then I will begin to invest more time into finding out what the remaining communities priorities are.”
He has praised local people for the way they have responded to the horrific attack and described how it hasn’t stopped them with getting on with their daily lives.
He said: “People in Blackbird Leys do not seem to be as affected or frightened by the idea that there has been a murder as I was expecting. It seems that the community generally see those offences as existing within their own bubble through strangers who know each other and engage in dangerous activity so it hasn’t stopped them with walking down the street and getting on their with lives.”
“Most people might feel intimidated by dealing with a murder on the first day but these sorts of incidents are all part of my job. I am still involved to some extent but I’m now stepping towards regular policing.”
Having the responsibility of being a Neighbour Sergeant has its challenges because it is Neil’s job to make sure the community needs are responded too. He thinks there can be huge disparity between the concerns of his team and the community which he says are being worked through.
“When you tell people, you are out there stopping gangs and murders the community can feel somewhat neglected because obviously they want their needs to be attended too. In spite of that I think the community attitude to the police is strong.”
When it comes to improving relations with the estate and local police Sgt Applegarth has set about refreshing his appearance at all community meetings and has already engaged with Parish Councillors going forward. He is also involved in working alongside the Leys Partnership comprising of different organisations on the estate which aims to overcome any gaps in provision.
Sgt Applegarth has had a warm welcome to the new community and people are keen to engage in conversation as they recognise he is new in post. When asked about the reputation of some of the Leys previous Sergeants he concluded that different officers have different approaches to policing and he looks forward to bringing what he says is a ‘more community style’ in the months that follow.
Growing up, he had aspirations to be a firefighter but on failing to meet the sight standard he qualified as boatbuilder instead. However dreams of working for the emergency services resurfaced aged 30 when he decided to enter the Police Force after he came across an accident involving a motorcyclist on the A303 near Salisbury, Stonehenge.
A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in March this year concluded that Policing across England and Wales was in a ‘perilous state’ as a result of austerity measures from the government. It suggested that government cuts had led to investigations being shelved, vulnerable victims being let down and tens of thousands of dangerous suspects remaining at large.
Sgt Applegarth said: “I think there is little doubt that austerity is creating some challenges for the police. Trying to achieve more with less is big challenge but by what extent you link that directly to cuts is a complex question. As well as austerity the role of the police is slowly evolving so that should be taken into consideration. Another issue is that with the constant push for efficiency comes innovation. For months now the force has been coming up with creative ideas and we’ve been seeing a lot of changes concerning the way management is structured, which departments liaise with each other and how the frontline and backline services function together.”
Earlier this month, it was reported that crime was at its highest level in a decade and specifically violent crime is up 18 percent in the last year according to official figures. However Sgt Applegarth said: “I would say the Thames Valley area as a whole is a safe community by virtually any comparison. In my nearly 20 years serving for the Thames Valley I think it was safe then but now it is as safe as it’s ever been.”
He added: Whenever crime rises in a particular area we respond to that. If we are talking about why crime could be at its highest level in a decade I think there are genuine factors like deprivation which play a part. Long before I ever worked in Oxford, Blackbird Leys had a reputation for having a lot of crime but thankfully that reputation has been successfully changed.”