South Yorkshire Police's Chief Constable Stephen Watson 'proud' of force's turnaround

Chief Con Stephen Watson. Picture: Chris Etchells / The Star.
Chief Con Stephen Watson. Picture: Chris Etchells / The Star.
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Two years ago, South Yorkshire Police was labelled as the worst performing force in the country and its Chief Constable left under a cloud of controversy over his handling of the Hillsborough Disaster.

Former Chief Constable David Crompton was suspended, then resigned and a temporary boss was unveiled.

Chief Con Stephen Watson talks to The Star's Sam Cooper. Picture: Chris Etchells / The Star.

Chief Con Stephen Watson talks to The Star's Sam Cooper. Picture: Chris Etchells / The Star.

But less, than a day into the job, Dawn Copley was also forced to stand down when it emerged that her conduct at a previous force was under investigation.

Stephen Watson admitted he was 'well aware of the difficulties the force' faced when he took the Chief Constable job in July 2016. South Yorkshire Police had been judged as 'required improvement' in how effective, how efficient and how legitimate it was in keeping people safe and reducing crime by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC).

Now, 26 months on the force has changed the way it polices our streets, and Mr Watson said that despite a real-term funding cut of 36 per cent, more bobbies had returned to the beat.

Speaking exclusively to The Star, he said: "I think the issues that pertained in South Yorkshire two years ago are well documented and are well understood by people. The fact of the matter is that the situation of two years was such that it wouldn't be unreasonable to anticipate that at least a proportion of our public had some real concerns about how their police force was performing and functioning.

"Some of the issues that relate to the force's past - so called 'legacy issues' - continue to exist, of course, and they are, whichever way you cut it, part of the DNA of the organisation. These are all things which are relevant and viable and things from which we have learned lessons.

"But my message has always been that we cannot be prisoners of our past, we do have a responsibility to police the communities of South Yorkshire in a professional, fair and compassionate way and we need to do that in the here and today."

Mr Watson said the force had a 'real crisis of leadership' in 2016 and operated in a 'wholly reactive way', only responding to incidents after they had happened and had 'lost' its links with communities.

He added: "Since then we have an almost entirely new leadership team in place and many of the new team were not brought in from outside - of course, some have and we have been able to import some real talent from other quarters but we have also been able to recognise that there has been some fantastic people within South Yorkshire Police."

South Yorkshire Police re-introduced a neighbourhood policing model as part of his initial work as the force's new chief, which he said had been 'massively significant'.

The system sees 14 teams covering different areas across the county, consisting of 396 officers and PCSOs in total, who each work in a dedicated patch every day - speaking to the public in the hope of reducing crime.

Mr Watson said the changes represented the biggest spending on neighbourhood policing by any police force, adding: "That in a time of austerity dedicates our absolute commitment to getting this right because actually neighbourhood policing is about putting our people on the ground, in charge of geography, looking after dedicating communities and making sure we get upstream of problems - we don't just react to them after they've happened.

"Over and above that and what may be less visible to people is we have an ongoing programme of reform - the most recent element of that has been the investigative function. We have unpicked what was, frankly, an over-centralised function and we have returned to districts local CID officers, pretty much in the mould which has traditionally served us well."

The former Metropolitan Police officer said that South Yorkshire Police said that 'only a proportion of officers' now solely responded to incidents and explained how neighbourhood policing and speaking to communities can help reduce demand, which he said was growing 'inexorably'.

He said: "Some have determined in other parts of the country that austerity means that you can't afford neighbourhood policing. I have concluded precisely the opposite. Austerity means that neighbourhood policing and the problem-solving element of it has become indispensable.

"If we were to grab all problems at source and to the best of our ability reduced them to their irreducible core, it is entirely possible that we will see our neighbourhood strength actually grow and the response strengths start to fall."

He added: "What neighbourhood policing allows you to do is establish that there is a problem in a specific area and then the responsibility is with the inspector to speak to people and say: 'Fix this problem'.

"For example, if it's children in the looked-after system who have gone missing and are not being looked after, then we work with partners and the likes of Ofsted and we do something about it.

"People reported missing from homes takes up 24 per cent all our response officers' time and if I can take that and make it more like 10 per cent through neighbourhood policing that is going to save me millions of pounds."

Mr Watson said he was 'entirely confident' changes that he'd brought in would see a change in the grading the force is given when HMIC inspectors return in February after being assessed as 'good' for leadership, effectiveness and legitimacy in 2017.

It was still labelled as 'requires improvement' for efficiency but he said the force had already acted on some of the reasons given by inspectors.

He said: "When HMIC come back to the force in February, I am entirely confident that we will move to good for efficiency as well. We are on the very cusp of far from being at the bottom of the league table, we will, I confidently predict, in the early part of the new year, we will be getting into the upper quartile for force performance - that in anybody's book is a remarkable turnaround.

"But the point is, you can't turn things around that quickly if the core wasn't already pretty good. The staff here are genuine, committed, talented people and what has been reported on in the past has not been a fair reflection of their talents."

The Star will be running a series of articles with Chief Con Stephen Watson, where he speaks about the big issues he's faced in Sheffield over the last two years.