Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The very model of a modern Chief Constable.

Last Monday on the first warm(ish) evening of the year members of the local PACT group met at the Medical Institute in Hartshill to hear the Chief Constable of Staffordshire Jane Sawyers speak.

As public events go it isn't, perhaps, in the first division, there certainly isn't the associated cachet of say a junior minister venturing north to where they probably think dragons are to be found, it would turn out though to be surprisingly rewarding.

The fifty of so people who has turned up were put in a good mood by the provision of coffee and cake, a tactic for winning over their audience in advance more public figures should adopt.

When she took the stage Sawyers looked the part, all silver braid and medal ribbons. I'm not quite so far into my dotage that I've started to think that police officers somehow look younger than they used to; but I do like the senior ones to look the part.

Her speaking style was confident but not exactly spectacular, no bad thing there is only so much watching people in the public eye work through their suppressed desire to be in amateur dramatics you can endure and keep your objectivity.

The interesting thing though was what she had to say, beginning with the story of how she had come to be the county's top police officer.

By her own account Sawyer had never wanted to be anything other than a police officer, more specifically she wanted to be a police officer in her home county of Staffordshire. A decision that, until the law was changed recently, would have prevented her from reaching the top of the ladder unless she was willing to move elsewhere.

Sawyers told how she joined the constabulary in 1984 and was pitched straight into a front-line role in Cannock at the height of the miners strike; some baptism of fire. Thereafter she served in various roles around the county rising rapidly through the ranks to become first an assistant then a deputy chief constable.

Throughout, she said, he commitment remained first and foremost to serving the people of Staffordshire. This was said without any of the 'side' you might expect, and certainly made a change from the attitude usually shown by ambitious public servants, where where they are at any moment is just so much scenery outside the office windows made steamy by the white heat of their drive to get ahead.

Speaking about the 'challenges' faced by the constabulary she leads Sawyers said the police had been hit by £32 million in funding cuts since 2010, although front-line policing had been protected the cuts had hit back office services hard. Things were, she said, looking a little better for the future, but savings would still have to be made and new ways of delivering the same level of service devised.

One example of this being the partnership Staffordshire Police have entered into with US company Boeing to provide IT services. There will also be more investment in early intervention in the hope that curtailing criminal behaviour early on will cut down on expensive recidivism.

Sawyers praised the work done by the Ethics Transparency and Audit committee and the Safer Neighbourhoods Partnership, both initiatives introduced by the Police and Crime Commissioner. They had both, she said, helped to make policing in Staffordshire more accountable and improved the way officers do their jobs.

The elephant in the room, of course, was the coming election for the county's Police and Crime Commissioner set to take place in May. By chance Natalie Devaney, one of the three candidates hoping to unseat Matthew Ellis was present.

Chief Constable Sawyers described her relationship with Mr Ellis as being 'healthy', saying the he did not interfere with operational matters, though he officers did at times feel the weight of the extra accountability he had placed on the service. She was, no doubt, too diplomatic to even think it, but having been at the sharp end of policing its hard to imagine that in unguarded moments she might not think the cost of having an extra, politicised, layer of management might instead have made a dent in the £32 million in cuts to the local policing budget.

Taking questions from the floor Sawyers said that funding for community policing would be protected because the public value a visible police presence on the streets, but the way it is delivered might have to change.

She also responded to a question from the floor on cyber crime, something she had alluded to in her speech, saying the force was working with Staffs and Keele universities to recruit staff with relevant IT skills. Earlier she had spoken about the difficult balance that had to be struck between the visible policing the public like to see and the fact that ever more crime takes place online. These days Dixon of Dock Green would need a tablet as much as a truncheon.

On the one hand Jane Sawyers came across as being the very model of the modern Chief Constable, capable of churning out management speak from the podium in a convincing way. On the other though she seemed to be a throwback to an earlier age.

One where public servants built their careers in one place instead of hopping from one opportunity to another and on the grounds of having a sense of purpose and wish to serve focussed on a desire to use their position to do good.

That's why even this cynical hack listened to her say that she wants to lead Staffordshire Police into an undeniable challenging future with 'confidence and optimism' and to 'embrace change and promote standards' and mostly believed it.

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