We had lost our way: South Yorkshire Police chief's vision for a transformed force

It was a year ago this month that Stephen Watson started work in his new job, after making the 115-mile journey from high-performing Durham Police to what was arguably the country's most ill-starred constabulary.

Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, Stephen Watson. Picture Scott Merrylees
Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, Stephen Watson. Picture Scott Merrylees

At that point he was South Yorkshire’s fourth Chief Constable in little over three months, facing a bulging in-tray and a force staggering under the weight of a succession of scandals, to such an extent that some questioned whether it should continue to exist.

Such was the maelstrom of controversies associated with the force that South Yorkshire’s crime commissioner worried whether he would get any applicants at all wanting to lead it.

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Mr Watson, who served as Durham’s Deputy Chief Constable for a year and was part of the Metropolitan Police’s Olympic Command Team in 2012, was praised for his “experience, energy, drive and leadership qualities” when he took on the role.

Stephen Watson has pledged to return more officers to neighbourhood policing.

And, speaking to The Yorkshire Post from his office in Sheffield this week, he tells of inheriting an organisation “which 12 months ago was going through a really tough time”.

“There were a lot of things happening, that which was impacting on the force in the here-and-now as well as stuff from yesteryear,” he said.

“Hardly surprising in a world where the organisation had been very soundly buffeted, it had started to lose its way a bit and there was a certain loss of confidence. To coin a phrase, people’s heads had gone down.

“We are an organisation of human beings and our people knowing that for the most part they and their colleagues do a fantastic job for the public every day, but that was being almost entirely crowded out by everything else that was happening in the world.”

Stephen Watson has pledged to return more officers to neighbourhood policing.

Since then, he says, things have moved on “tremendously”. As he talks, the force’s new delivery plan sits on his desk, set out on just one side of A4 paper, as opposed to what he described as “a 70-page nonsense document that nobody reads and nobody understands”.

A new leadership team is in place, including several outside appointments, and a new vision set out for the force, its values and the way it operates.

Independent scrutiny of whether this is working or not will come later in the year. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which last year described South Yorkshire Police as ‘requiring improvement’, the second worst grade possible, returned this month for an inspection whose results will be published in the Autumn.

The Chief Constable suspects it may be too soon for the force to re-classified as ‘good’, but expects the force’s positive change in direction to be acknowledged and says he is determined to get an improved rating the next time round.

“We have a lot of committed, talented people, who are very proud, very passionate, very committed to what we do, but they know the organisation is not in the right place”, he said. “There is a frustration amongst them to say, let’s get to the right place and quickly. As someone privileged to lead a large organisation which thinks like that, it’s proven to be an absolute privilege and a pleasure.”

So, how did things go so wrong for the force? It is, he says, a product of leadership failure where senior officers, buffeted by the scandals of Hillsborough, Orgreave, Rotherham and Cliff Richard, collectively took their eye off the ball.

“We have created a set of structures and processes which, taken together have conspired not to give shape to the brilliant people that we lead,” he says.

“Things have happened in our recent past and there was a collective appetite for these things never to happen again, which is entirely right to want to achieve.

“But actually some of that desire not to drop the ball again has created some structures which are defensively designed, to be risk-averse. Being risk-averse can actually invite the risk you were frightened of in the first place.”

In reality, he says, this meant much of the neighbourhood function, with officers on the ground and speaking to their communities, was lost, with a rise in centralised teams and a tendency to react to crime rather than stop it happening in the first place.

Part of his solution to this problem is to move hundreds of officers over from response teams back into local communities. From September, he promises, everyone in South Yorkshire will have a neighbourhood team, and putting their postcode into the force’s website will bring up details of their local sergeant, inspector, Pcs and PCSOs.

Some patches will have a lot of officers in a small area because of high demand, though he admits others with lower demand will have a dedicated neighbourhood team but will have to share it with others.

“The best person to know who is committing crime is neighbourhood people speaking to the local public,” he said.

“Effective neighbourhood policing means we know who registered sex offenders are, who know who people who are susceptible to being radicalised, we know who is vulnerable.

“We know who might be being picked on, because they have mental health issues or because they are just old, or because they are young and being preyed upon by people who would abuse them sexually.

“We know where the vulnerable areas are, where people are frightened to go. In the absence of an effective neighbourhood function you lose all of that, and all you do is wait for someone to phone, and you respond to something when it’s already happened.

“It seems to me that, far from not being able to afford neighbourhood policing, I firmly believe that done well and properly, services can’t afford not to have it. All the evidence tells you that if you don’t get upstream of demand, demand will grow.”

The task of re-shaping South Yorkshire Police is all the more difficult given the straitened times the force finds itself in, with £72.4m less a year to work with than in 2011.

Zuleika Payne, chairman of the South Yorkshire branch of the Police Federation, said communities “want to see more bobbies on the beat”.

But she added: “What has to be borne in mind is that with 1,100 fewer officers, any return to ‘Neighbourhood Policing’ is not going to resemble that which we saw before.

“As well as implementing a new policing model in its quest to address needs, the organisation is also only too well aware that it has to manage public expectation.”

She added that the demands of day-to-day policing meant that officers in the county were being “pulled from pillar to post”.

Mr Watson refuses to endorse the gloomy views of some of his fellow Chief Constables, most notably Dave Thompson of West Midlands Police, who warned last month that police would face “real challenges” tackling a repeat of the 2011 riots following years of budget cuts.

“Candidly, and it certainly hasn’t happened in our region, but I do have a problem with Chief Constables telling the public we can’t cope, I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think there is a police force in this country that cannot cope,” he said.

“Telling the public that it’s doom and gloom and frankly you’re just all unsafe is irresponsible. That is certainly not my approach.”

He accepts that the level of resource is a ‘massive issue’, but insists there is ‘masses’ that can be done with a force employing 5,000 people and with a budget of a quarter of a billion pounds.

“With the best will in the world, if someone waved a magic wand and gave me another 1,000 cops, I would be absolutely delighted because I know what we can do with that for the public.

“I am just two steps behind those who would say, it’s all over, time to pack up and go home. I just don’t think that is what the public want to hear from their chief constables.”

Mr Watson’s first year in charge, which saw him living temporarily in a flat in student-heavy Sheffield city centre before moving out to the Peak District, has not been without its controversies.

The force was heavily criticised for its role in the felling of trees around Sheffield as part of the £2 billion partnership between the city council and contractor Amey.

And last month, The Yorkshire Post revealed how some new officers had told members of an independent panel that they faced pressure not to record incidents as crimes “to avoid adding to already heavy workloads”.

The 1989 Hillsborough disaster will be forever associated with South Yorkshire Police, and the recent announcement of charges relating to the events of the day and the alleged cover-up means the tragedy will remain firmly in the public consciousness for years to come.

“We can’t reinvent our legacy, it is what it is,” says Mr Watson. “It gives us a fantastic opportunity to learn from our legacy, but I use the phrase ‘we have learned’ from our legacy rather than ‘we are willing to learn’.

“If all you keep talking about in the present is, we are willing to learn lessons, you end up sounding like a dull person who just can’t pass the exam. There does come a point where you need to say ‘we have learned’ and have baked that learning into what we do.

“I think people who don’t interact with our people on a daily basis are likely still to be stuck in the vernacular of newspaper headlines from 12 years, 15 years, 30 years ago.

“Our people locally will probably have a different view, because they see what our people do on a daily basis. That is not to say that our legacy doesn’t impact on our local communities too, because some of that has got to wash off on people.

“I do not detect that our people have lost trust and confidence in South Yorkshire Police, but what I do detect is that trust and confidence is not automatically conferred today as it might have been before, and our people have got to work just that little bit harder to meet them half way.

“But actually I generally perceive the force to be buoyed up at the moment on a positive bubble of goodwill where our communities want to see what is, after all, their police, doing well.”