Without will of the people, we lose legitimacy, says Suffolk’s departing police chief
This week, Suffolk’s chief of police announced he would be retiring from the constabulary’s top job next April.
Following the announcement of his planned departure, Chief Constable Gareth Wilson stressed the importance of retaining public confidence in the face of budget constraints and rising crime.
Mr Wilson insisted he had no set plans for retirement after 30 years’ service with the police and more than four as Suffolk’s chief constable by the time he leaves.
In that time, he has seen a change in oversight from now-abolished police authorities to publicly elected police and crime commissioners, a 29% drop in ‘real terms’ central government funding since 2010/11 and a shift towards enforcing certain types of complex crime, including areas of ‘hidden harm’, such as sexual offences, online crime, domestic abuse and modern-day slavery.
Against that backdrop, he said the force must remain focused on ensuring traditional ‘majority’ types of crime, including violence and burglary, remain among priorities.
“In terms of demand, there was a step change when we started dealing with crimes like child exploitation and serious sex offences in a way, perhaps, we should have many years before,” he added.
“The public will have seen that crimes affecting the majority of people are not being dealt with in the same way – and that’s something that does concern me.
“To lose the will of the people makes it difficult for us to maintain legitimacy.
“I still ensure I go out with staff to see what it’s like at the sharp end – and I’ve seen their job change significantly.
“It was fairly easy when I was a constable, in that the victim of a crime and the offender were usually in the same location. Now, they can be on the other side of the world.
“The pressures are more acute and the scrutiny they’re under has changed as well. It brings its own advantages and disadvantages.”
Mr Wilson’s decision to retire comes following a restructure of local policing, which will see 104 officers move into Safer Neighbourhood Teams (SNTs) at the expense of cutting police community support officers (PCSO) numbers from 81 to 48 full-time equivalent positions.
The new model diverted from plans set out in the Suffolk Local Policing Review of 2015 but promised to be more effective in meeting challenges against a £2.3million budget deficit.
Meanwhile, government plans to increase pension payments could cost the constabulary another £4.1m – potentially wiping out an additional £2.9m raised by the police and crime commissioner, Tim Passmore, increasing the council tax precept by 6.8% earlier this year.
Mr Wilson said: “Thankfully, Suffolk remains a very safe place to live, but we have to recognise we’re the second worst funded force per head of population.
“My concern is if we face any further budget cuts. We’re living in a time of ambiguity but things will become much clearer in December [when Home Secretary Sajid Javid presents the provisional police funding settlement for 2018/19].
“The work Suffolk Constabulary does is exceptional. It has developed in the time since I started, and over the next few months I hope leave a steady ship for whoever comes in.
“I felt now was the right time to go, having reached the culmination of the change programme and addressed some of the issues raised around the first iteration.”
As well as heightened pressure and closer scrutiny, Mr Wilson has seen an appalling rise in assaults on his officers – now equipped with body worn cameras, hoped to help drive down the 341 attacks recorded in 2017-18.
“When someone has such disregard for society that they will attack the person there to maintain order, the full weight of the law should be brought down upon them,” he said.
“For me, it’s about recognising the importance of the role of constable.”
In a recent column for this paper, Mr Wilson wrote that reduced public spending had led to less preventative work by some organisations – leading to more acute issues requiring immediate or urgent police response.
“I’ve seen the start of multi-agency collaboration around mental health, but the only way to become better is with a more joined-up approach – and not in isolation,” he said.
“There’s far more work to be done. As organisations, we still work in silos, and I’d like to see more openness in terms of the issues around mental health.”