Proud of his force

HE'S been involved with the miner's strike, Greenham Common protests, and lately the Ipswich killings. But at the end of the month Suffolk's Chief Constable Alastair McWhirter is retiring from the force.

HE'S been involved with the miner's strike, Greenham Common protests, and lately the Ipswich killings. But at the end of the month Suffolk's Chief Constable Alastair McWhirter is retiring from the force. Today JAMES MARSTON looks back at a career which has spanned 30 years.

AT the age of 11, as he was growing up in Hamilton, near Glasgow, Alastair McWhirter wanted to be a journalist.

Now he is getting the chance, because when he retires at the end of the week he's going to join the hallowed ranks of the fourth estate as a expert contributor to the Sunday Post, in Scotland.

He said: “I was interviewed by a reporter from the paper during December's murder investigations and afterwards, when he found out I was retiring he asked me if I'd consider being a commentator for them and I said yes.”

But it is Suffolk, his home since he moved here in 2003, is where Chief Constable McWhirter has decided to stay.

He said: “It's my choice to retire from the force and I'm going to be sorry to leave. I've enjoyed the operational side of my career and I'll miss being involved but I don't have any regrets and if I was 24 again I'd do it all again.”

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Now 53, 54 in a few weeks time, Mr McWhirter is ready for a change and, after 30 years in the force, he is preparing for a life out of uniform.

Reflecting on his career he summed up his time simply.

“I've enjoyed it enormously,” he said.

But what first made the married father of two first think about a career in the police force?

He said: “I did reasonably well at school and I went to Aberdeen University where I studied English, history and philosophy. I decided to be a teacher and in 1976 I started teaching in Winchester in Hampshire. I taught English and drama. Nine months into it I knew that although I enjoyed it I didn't want to teach for the rest of my life.

“I was crawling around the floor with a blindfold on in the name of drama when I had a moment of revelation. I thought “what am I doing here?” and I had always wanted to be a police officer.”

In 1976, Mr McWhirter said, the police force was not a good career move for a graduate.

He said: “The pay was poor and there was corruption. But I took a pay cut and joined Hampshire Constabulary.”

Spending his first four years in the force as a beat and patrol officer in Havant, Mr McWhirter began to learn his trade.

He said: “I was 24 and it was a wonderful time. I was recently married and I was learning a new job. I was meeting interesting people and arresting them.

“I was building up policing techniques and learning how to communicate with people in crisis. I cut my teeth on domestic disputes, no different to young officers today or the first police officers when they formed county constabularies back in 1841.”

In 1981 he took the sergeants exam and went to Bramshill Police Staff College for training and he joined the police advanced promotion scheme.

He said: “I spent a year as a sergeant in Shirley in Southampton and at the end of a year I was promoted to Inspector.”

Now 30, and recognised for his ability to translate theory into practice, Mr McWhirter was involved with murders, armed robberies and other serious cases.

While working in Havant he was assigned to the murder of Kelly Thomas, a young girl found dead under some bushes. He said: “She was stamped to death, something I had never come across before. She was killed by a 14-year-old boy and his mother, who knew he had done it, was covering up for him.

“In murder cases you start by working out a timeline and cross referencing witness statements and interviews. We found he told us he was in all evening but he had been seen by a witness. It raised a question and lead us to the killer.

“It was an invaluable experience to see how enquiries like that worked.”

In 1984, Mr McWhirter was sent to Nottinghamshire in one of the UK's most famous periods of industrial unrest.

He said: “In the first month of the miner's strike I was sent to police a picket line at a pit called Thorsby in Nottinghamshire. Tensions were heightened and it was a political battle I had to justify to myself. Miners in Nottinghamshire had voted to stay at work and we were protecting these people that wanted to go to work which is what democracy is about.”

In 1985 he moved again, this time to Hampshire Constabulary HQ where he was assigned to research and development writing police policy. He said: “It was the first time I was working with senior officers. The Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act was being introduced across the county.”

In 1987, now a chief inspector of operations in North Hampshire, Mr McWhirter oversaw the policing of large events such as the world famous Farnborough Air Show.

He added: “I also had to organise the policing of hunts and the movement of cruise missiles out of Greenham Common. I liaised with the Americans and protestors to ensure the safety of the missiles as well as making sure people could protest legally and safely. It was rather bizarre.”

Back in Shirley in 1988 as operations chief inspector, Mr McWhirter was involved again in industrial action policing dock strikes and an unsolved gangland murder.

He said: “I was driving home from a meeting and saw a police constable outside a jewellers run by a well known criminal called Ricky Hayward.

“I stopped and helped him out. The jewellers shutter was left ajar and wasn't locked. We round the back of the shop to the flat where Hayward lived. His door was locked.

“He was a well known crook suspected of being involved with the drugs trade. The shop was really a front for money laundering and he was a target of the regional crime squad.”

After breaking into the flat the pair found Hayward dead in the bath.

Mr McWhirter said: “He had been executed. He had been shaving in the bath and he was shot five times in the head with a small calibre gun. It was a gangland revenge killing but despite huge efforts it remains unsolved. So many people wanted him dead.”

In 1990, Mr McWhirter was promoted to superintendent and worked in career development. In 1991 he was posted to Andover.

He said: “I dealt with the last mass invasion of Stonehenge. In the end we brought all sides together, English heritage as well as a man who called King Arthur Pendragon. It was reconciliation and it worked. We stopped it.”

Rising through the ranks Mr McWhirter was superintendent at Aldershot and Farnham in 1993, in 1996 he was promoted to assistant chief constable in Wiltshire where he worked on the Zoe Evans murder.

He said: “She was a nine-year-old-girl found buried in a badger's set on Salisbury Plain. She had been murdered by her stepfather.

“We found a blood stained vest on the ground. It was a cold January and it was dry underneath. We discovered it had rained only at 2.10am on one day between December 26 and January 10.

“Her stepfather had told us she was alive the morning after the rain so we knew it was him as she was already dead by then.”

In 2000 Mr McWhirter was promoted again, this time to deputy chief constable. He was awarded the Queen's Police Medal for setting up a joint emergency services control room in the county.

In 2002 he answered a job advertisement and became Suffolk's Chief Constable.

He added: “For me my career has been about people and making a difference to their lives.”

Time in Suffolk

MR McWhirter joined Suffolk Constabulary in early 2003.

He said: “I was struck by the similarities of Suffolk to Hampshire and Wiltshire. All are rural counties with urban centres.

“Swindon is much like Ipswich and Salisbury akin to Bury St Edmunds. Suffolk was a really good place to come to. It was a high performing force.”

Counting its survival among his major achievements, Mr McWhirter is proud of the constabulary.

He said: “We were not resistant to change but we were resistant to the proposed merger of the forces. We managed to prove Suffolk police could continue to be effective and cost effective as an organisation and I think the murders here in Ipswich in December proved that.

Paying tribute to the force, he said: “It was an unprecedented situation and I believe the performance of the force in the initial stages of the enquiry was excellent. We came out of it as a stronger force.”

A colleague told me when I moved here that Suffolk would be “a calm in a tea cup”. I replied that it would be my job to keep it that way.

SIZEWELL nuclear power plant, the American air bases in Mildenhall and Lakenheath are all potential terrorist targets.

Mr McWhirter said: “The community is at risk of terrorism and it is a challenge for the whole community. Our community is constantly changing.

“When I came here four years ago there was a large Kurdish and Iraqi community in Ipswich, in that time a large Portuguese population settled here and they have in turn been overtaken in numbers by the polish community.

“It is a continuing challenge to adapt to these changes.”

A KEEN amateur photographer, Mr McWhirter is also going to try his hand at bee keeping.

He said: “I am also going to be the chairman of the Suffolk Primary Care Trust. It is part-time and non executive but it will be a challenge.

“Thee trust is experiencing financial difficulties but its performance is improving. I want to do my bit to help it out of its problems.”

Annual Budget £106million

Officers 1,350

Special Constables 300

Community Support Officers 142

Other staff 700

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