'We are not an organisation in retreat' - police chief resolute in shaping force to tackle complex crime demands
In three decades of policing, Gareth Wilson has witnessed huge change - perhaps never more so than in his last three years as Suffolk's chief constable.
Mr Wilson, who spent almost a year in temporary charge before taking the official title, admits his force – like most – is doing more work with less money.
Imminent news of a funding settlement will dictate how much government cash can be budgeted for next year, but the chief constable insists Suffolk police is not an “organisation in retreat” and will evolve to net criminals exploiting new opportunities.
“I’ve seen significant changes in the course of my career,” he said. “Some current staff would be envious looking back at when evidence of fraud could be found in chequebook stubs. Now officers use technology to trace offenders at the other side of the world, and picking up work hitherto not the responsibility of police.”
The changes have been significant recently, with a new local policing model addressing more complex investigations of serious sexual assault, domestic abuse and human trafficking.
“We’re required to continually evolve to keep up,”he added.
“There are now different opportunities for those wishing to perpetrate serious crime.
“Villains have exploited the internet and we’ve had to adapt to stay one step ahead.”
Last year, the government announced direct resource funding would be protected at flat cash levels compared to the previous year – a real terms cut set against increased demand.
“We have to be realistic about what that means,” said Mr Wilson.
“We have to do more with less money and that’s tricky, particularly as we’ve had fairly significant calls upon our budget for improved technology.
“But we are not an organisation in retreat. We now have better mobile working devices, and body-worn cameras mean the public can be sure their interactions with police are auditable, and that if someone makes a complaint, an investigation that once took up to a year can be settled in minutes.”
Last April saw the closure of all but three manned front desks as part of plans to deliver £20.5m savings required by 2020 – plans which included reducing safer neighbourhood teams and PCSOs.
At the time, the chief constable said the changes should be seen as a new structure, not just a cost cutting exercise.
“During the review, we did lots of work on how front desks were used. Instead of sitting behind a counter seeing only a few people a day, officers can now be meeting 20 or 30 people.
“If we didn’t move with society, we’d still be running to blue telephone boxes. It would be remiss of us not to allow change.”
The issue of tackling migrating drug gangs has become one of particular importance.
An enterprise dubbed ‘county lines’ has seen vulnerable people groomed as drug mules by dealers expanding to rural areas.
The county and borough council have pledged to work with police to stamp out drug gang culture in Ipswich, which has seen a rise in knife crime to the highest level for five years, despite initiatives like the Bin a Blade amnesty.
“Gangs and their links to county lines are among our greatest priorities,” said Mr Wilson.
“We are seeing the consequences of violence surrounding drug related crime.
“Although knife crime is very targeted – and we don’t see a high volume compared to other areas – we know that, by taking a knife off the street, the amnesty has been worthwhile.
“I’m pleased the public sector is taking a more joined up approach.
“The amount of time we spend with victims of crime, people in crisis, or people with mental health issues who have committed crime has changed hugely, so we’re pleased mental health services are working more closely with us, but we need to step up a gear if we’re going to get it right.”
Before the Autumn Budget, police and crime commissioner Tim Passmore warned unfair funding threatened ability to fight crime and uphold safety.
Suffolk MPs joined calls for a better deal when the Home Office allocates police budgets.
Mr Wilson said: “The next few weeks and months will see us planning how best to use money to police Suffolk in the way we want.
“What’s important is that we continually adapt to threats that come towards us and continue to keep Suffolk a safe place.
“We are going to have to make changes, and the severity of those changes depends on the financial settlement, but one thing people can be sure of is that our staff are really committed and will go a step beyond to do their best for the people they deal with.”