South Yorkshire Police must not be a 'prisoner of the past'

Chief Constable Stephen Watson
Chief Constable Stephen Watson
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The Hillsborough disaster, the Battle of Orgreave, the Cliff Richard sex abuse probe and the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal...just some of the controversies to have marred the reputation of South Yorkshire Police.

But now with a new interim Chief Constable at the helm - the third in five years - the force is fighting to rebuild its shattered name and to regain the public's trust.

Many suspect the police chief facing the monumental task, Stephen Watson, may have been handed a poisoned chalice, but he describes the role as a 'privilege' and said he is determined to make the force fit for the future.

With 28 years' service under his belt and having worked in London, Liverpool and Durham, the married dad-of-two admits the force was at rock bottom when he took over the reins following the suspension of his predecessor David Crompton after the inquests into the 96 Hillsborough Disaster deaths.

Accused of leading a force that put 'its own reputation first, before considering victims,' after appearing to justify the actions of lawyers who questioned the conduct of fans on the day of the disaster, Mr Crompton was suspended over 'the erosion of public trust and confidence' in South Yorkshire Police.

Today, new boss Stephen Watson accepts the importance of 'acknowledging the lessons of the past and demonstrating how those lessons have been learnt in what the force does today' but stressed South Yorkshire Police cannot be 'a prisoner of the past'.

"We have a job to do today, we have a job to do tomorrow and I am determined that we should do it brilliantly," he said.

"It's important that we acknowledge the lessons of the past and demonstrate how those lessons have been learnt in what the force does today but we can't be a prisoner of the past."

Accepting a tainted reputation and lack of trust in the force as a 'legacy' of past failings, Chf Con Watson said he hopes changes he plans to introduce will help restore confidence in South Yorkshire Police in time.

Central to the blueprint for his force of the future is a simple philosophy - stopping small issues becoming major problems by embedding bobbies back into communities to solve problems before a neighbourhood feud escalates into murder, a petty criminal becomes a member of an organised crime gang and a cannabis grower becomes key to a sophisticated drug dealing network.

He said with cost cutting affecting officer numbers, the force has to 'reinvent itself' and focus on preventing crime rather than being forced to react to it.

"We have to reinvent ourselves on a smaller footprint," he said.

"I am not suggesting that I'm going to reinvent a world where there's going to be a bobby on every street corner but we will have a neighbourhood function that the public recognises as being effective.

"There will be people designated to communities where they will be able to accessible and able to work with partner agencies to solve problems.

"It's really important that we are visible and a reassuring presence to people but the most important part of neighbourhood policing is focusing on a problem and solving it.

"Effective neighbourhood policing means you stop little things becoming big things - a petty criminal from turning to serious and organised crime, anti-social behaviour turning into a vulnerable person being harassed point of distraction. If we can prevent those things from happening then we won't be chasing our tails.

"The way to deal with demand in the light of declining resources is to get upstream and prevent problems from materialising in the first place. If we are successful at that then it won't be necessary for us to have to stop doing things.

"Demand is increasing all the time so if we can get upstream and turn off some of the taps then we won't have to stop doing some things.

"Some people may think its nice to have neighbourhood policing - it's not nice, it's essential."

South Yorkshire Police has to save £17 million by 2020.

Hundreds of police officer posts have already been axed and the fear is that with demand for services increasing, yet officer numbers dwindling, South Yorkshire Police will implode.

Police Federation officials representing rank and file officers have stressed repeatedly that morale is at an all time low and that the service is on the brink of collapsing under the strain.

But Chf Con Watson believes that moving 400 response team officers back into communities will eventually tip the balance and that tackling issues at grassroots level will reduce the number of more serious incidents the force gets called to.

He said he is confident that frontline police officers will feel the benefit.

"I've inherited a force that has its fair share, probably more than its fair share of challenges and it's clear to me that more needs to be done to support staff and enhance morale, which has suffered," he added.

"But I have been pleasantly surprised that while, yes, morale has suffered, it has not translated into a bunch of officers and staff sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves, having lost their appetite to serve the public.

"Instead, it has translated itself into a real sense of frustration because they want get back to winning ways and quickly.

"I am not coming across people reluctant to change, but quite the opposite.They are frustrated with the status quo and are looking to me to say this isn't working and to change things, which I am committed to doing."

He said modern day bobbies need to be more 'adaptable' than ever before, keeping up with advances in technology and trying to keep one step ahead of the criminals.

"In some ways policing changed beyond all recognition over the years bar for the simple notion that our job is still to pursue bad people and prevent them doing bad things to good people," said Chf Con Watson.

"We have to adapt and change because criminals are thinking of doing bad things to good people in ways we haven't even thought of yet, so we have to be alert to that and be versatile enough to respond."