South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner - Dr Alan Billings
January 2016 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
One of the things I am required to do as Police and Crime Commissioner, is to gauge public opinion and try to ensure that it is reflected in the priorities of the police service. The reason for this is quite simple. Policing in this country is by consent. The police need to know, therefore, what they have to do to keep public trust and confidence.
So far so good. But how do you find out what public opinion is across the four districts of South Yorkshire - Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley – when each district and the communities within each district are so very different? South Yorkshire has ex-mining villages, inner-city areas, leafy suburbs, university campuses and rural communities.
I have a number of means of assessing public opinion – from telephone surveying to small tests of views at the various shows and events some of my officers attend. People also write to me and email. And I read the Star!
One of the most important ways is to meet members of the public at the various meetings I am invited to. Over the next few weeks, for instance, I will be with Cantley and Branston Parish Council, a Probus group in Dore, Rother Valley South Area Assembly and Cawthorne Parish Council.
But what I have discovered is that there is no such thing as a unanimous public opinion.
I went to one meeting where people were adamant that they wanted to see more uniformed officers out on the streets. But at another they said this would just cause panic and alarm in their area. So I have to find the right balance.
Wherever I go, however, and whatever the audience, everyone says they want to 'feel safe'. Safe in their homes. Safe in public places. Safe by day and safe by night. And here is the difficulty. You can record the number of crimes or acts of anti-social behaviour in an area, but how do you measure a feeling of safety, especially when it does not always correspond to crime figures?
There are parts of South Yorkshire where people tell me they feel 'very safe' and parts where they tell me they feel 'less safe'. But when I look at the crime and anti-social behaviour statistics, they don't always match up.
I visited one very attractive and relatively prosperous place where people complained about high levels of anti-social behaviour which made them fearful at night. This turned out out to be noise from people closing their car doors after leaving a rather nice local restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. I can think of other places that would be glad to swap their anti-social behaviour for this!
Nevertheless, everyone must be listened to and then a judgement made about how best to deploy officers and PCSOs. So in 2016, keep inviting me to your meetings and your groups. That is the best way I can get the feel of public opinion and test out what helps communities to feel safe as well as to be safe.
December 2015 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
As police numbers get stretched, the South Yorkshire force has to learn more and more to make strong partnerships with other agencies if it is not to be overwhelmed by the demands on it. Some of those agencies are obvious – like the other emergency services,
Ambulance and Fire. Others are not at all obvious and may even be quite surprising. Earlier this year I was introduced to one of them: Street Pastors.
If you've never heard of them, or seen them, you may wonder what they have to do with policing, particularly if you think Street Pastors are Street Preachers. It's true that they are all drawn from local churches, but they are not bent on some evangelistic crusade. Their task is highly practical.
Street Pastors are nocturnal: you will only see them late in the evening and until about three o'clock the following morning, chiefly on Friday and Saturday nights and mainly in town centres. The time is significant. It 's when people leave pubs and clubs after a night out.
As they make their way around the streets with their distinctive jackets bearing the words 'STREET PASTOR', they perform an invaluable service. Some who leave the pubs and clubs are a bit the worse for wear. The Street Pastors are on hand to help.
The equipment they carry is not a bundle of tracts but flip flops and bottled water. Flip flops because some of the women struggle to walk across cobbled streets or cracked pavements in their ultra high heels. The Street Pastors hand them a pair of flip flops and help them negotiate their way safely to the right bus stop or taxi stand. Others, dehydrated by an oversupply of alcohol, are only too pleased to receive a bottle of water.
Sometimes, the Street Pastors are just a friendly and helpful face. Someone to sit and talk to, a non-judgemental listening ear. It's often in those early morning hours that people want to unburden themselves.
At other times the very presence of Street Pastors seems able to ease tensions on the street, and that stops more unpleasant situations arising that might need police intervention.
I have heard from police officers how pastors have helped over-excited inebriated people to sit down for a while, step back and think twice before launching themselves into actions they might well later regret. There is evidence that this can reduce violent offences in town centres by as much as 12 per cent.
The Street Pastors I have met are all ages, though many are well into middle age and beyond. Age doesn't seem to matter, though they do need that inner toughness that enables you to keep smiling even when the language directed at you is pretty coarse. Training is given – in street skills. Each evening begins with prayer, and other groups pray for their work even as they walk the streets.
I salute the Street Pastors. They help the police keep the night time as safe as possible. They will be there again over Christmas.
November 2015 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
It is now a year since I became Police and Crime Commissioner. I was elected in fairly miserable circumstances. Public pressure had forced my predecessor to resign in the wake of the child sexual exploitation scandals. The Hillsborough Inquests and other investigations were draining money from the police budget and affecting police morale.
So I have had to find a balance between holding the police to account, on the one hand, while ensuring that this does not depress morale any further on the other.
Holding to account means ensuring the force acknowledges where it has made mistakes and takes steps to put things right. There must be no denials and a genuine desire to change.
Encouraging the police is about acknowledging the good work that the force does. And there is a lot of good work, most of which goes on day by day but largely unknown and unrecognised.
For instance, every week I meet police officers and Police Community Support Officers, women and men, who have been in the force for a few or many years who all tell me the same thing. They love their job and they are never happier than when they come home feeling they have helped a member of the public at some difficult moment in their lives.
Some have told me about those moments.
There was the young woman police officer who spoke about the time when she sat with an elderly woman who had been burgled in particularly nasty circumstances, making her cups of tea and speaking gently to her until she stopped shaking and her daughter arrived.
There was the PCSO who was running five-a-side football sessions for a group of energetic teenagers from different ethnic backgrounds. On the streets, there had been a history of tensions and fights. Now, in the gym, they were playing respectfully together, and the most boisterous and challenging of them all called the PCSO, 'Sir'!
There was the officer who described how she had to tell two people that their seventeen year old son had died in a road traffic accident.
There was the officer who took me to see a young couple who are turning a former pub into a thriving boxing club for young people in one of the more deprived parts of South Yorkshire. The officer not only knew the area and the people very well, but he also cared about them and wanted to encourage anyone prepared to make a difference to the lives of those who lived there.
These are the daily activities of those who work for the police and I always feel humbled to hear their stories.
And all this is done in the knowledge that every day when they go onto the streets to keep us safe, they may be putting their own lives in danger.
The one thing I have learnt over this past year is that you only really have the right to hold the police to account if you also recognise the good work they do.
October 2015 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
At the end of this month I will have been Police and Crime Commissioner for one year. I was elected last year when my predecessor resigned following the Jay Report on child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham. Inevitably, therefore, CSE became my first priority.
So what has happened over these past twelve months?
There were a number of obvious things that had to be done immediately. First, I had to assure myself that South Yorkshire Police accepted the findings of the Jay Report without equivocation. There had to be no denial. No questioning the figure of 1400 victims. No attempt to do anything other than say, 'We made mistakes, now we must put them right'.
Second, we had to ensure that the unit where CSE officers worked was adequately staffed. In fact, they needed strengthening, and this was done. We also had to make sure that all police officers across the county had some basic training in spotting the signs of potential CSE and the staff dealing with it had more intensive, specialist training.
Moving on, we soon realised that we needed to bring together in one place all those who had a responsibility for CSE, whether they were police or workers from the local authority, the NHS or Barnardos – and this has begun to happen in each of the districts of Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley.
Then we had to be clear that we must start to build cases for those crimes that had happened during the period covered by the Jay Report, and to get suspects charged and brought to court with a greater sense of urgency. This too has been happening. All summer there have been arrests, charges and trials fixed, the first being in December.
While all these things – and more – were absolutely necessary, one other thing has been even more critical. I have been meeting with victims, survivors and their families after one father of a CSE survivor made contact. I asked them if they would agree to be a Victims, Survivors and Families Panel, that I could consult and that would help the police improve their approach to victims of CSE.
Over the months, we have been able to build trust first between ourselves, and more recently between the Panel and the police.
Earlier this month, this group and others held a conference for all those working in CSE – police, social workers, voluntary sector workers, and so on. This was one of the most remarkable conferences I have ever been to. Normally, events of this kind are organised by professionals for professionals. This was run entirely by survivors and their parents. That was ground-breaking.
The survivors were moved to hear a senior police officer say she hung her head in shame when she realised how they had been let down in the past. I was moved to have a father say I was the first person in authority that had listened to them.
We still have a long road to travel. But we are in a far healthier place now than this time last year.
September 2015 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
We often note the way the police are getting younger. But this is just another way of saying that we are getting older. However, I find something else has happened to the police in my lifetime. And this can't just be the result of my getting older: the police have got smaller.
I don't mean they've been shrinking, just that they now come in different sizes from when I was younger. These days, some are no taller than me and others are actually smaller.
All my memories from the past are of my having to look up when speaking to police officers. This was obviously true when I was a boy, but even after I became a young adult the police were taller.
This was because in the past you had to be a certain height in order to be a police officer.
I remember a friend taking stretching exercises to get himself the extra half inch he needed to apply. Fortunately, the pain paid off and the last time I saw him he was in uniform and taller than ever – though this was because all the police you encountered then wore helmets that added several inches to their height.
But not any more. At some point the height requirement was dropped. Now anyone can be a police officer, however tall. The key to joining is fitness rather than height.
All this made me wonder whether this has made any difference to policing.
My guess is that it made the police have to rely more on the power of their personalities than simply their physical presence for some of what they do day to day.
A police officer who retired from the force twenty five years ago told me recently that in his day his colleagues were all over six feet. If they came across a group of rowdy young people behaving badly in the town centre their physical presence was enough to make them think twice about what they were doing and disperse.
Now, police officers have to be able to engage with people, to persuade with a mix of firmness and good humour – and to know when each is appropriate - to remain calm and sometimes to exercise even more patience than the average parent. This requires a range of skills that make modern policing ever more demanding.
And it's not only in situations of potential or actual disorder that personality is the important factor. As I listen to what police officers tell me about their typical week's work I am struck all the time by the number of different types of situation they increasingly have to manage.
At one moment they may be called upon to deal with someone who is aggressive and threatening. It may require a tough and physical response. The next moment they have to be gentle and compassionate with a confused older person who can't remember where they live or even who they are.
We rightly criticise the police when they get things wrong. We don't always notice when they get things right.
August 2015 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
A year ago this month Professor Alexis Jay published her findings into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham. The report fell like a thunderbolt. For the first time, those in authority sat up and took notice. In fact we all took notice. Eventually the whole country realised that CSE was not just a South Yorkshire problem. It was a national problem.
Even now, one year on, the revelation that so many girls had been abused over such a long period and that so many in positions of authority had failed to do anything about it seems scarcely believable.
Although the Jay report was about the local council, there was also criticism of South Yorkshire Police, both directly and by implication.
After all, if anyone should have realised that what was happening was criminal, the police should.
I was elected to my job as Police and Crime Commissioner as a result of the Jay report. My predecessor was forced to resign in the face of mounting public anger, not for anything he did as Commissioner, but for what he and others allegedly did not do as Rotherham Borough councillors. Inevitably, therefore, the whole matter of CSE has had to be a major priority for me.
I knew that this would involve both ensuring that everything that could be known about the past was uncovered, that prosecutions that should have been brought years ago were brought – however difficult that might be – and that everything that could be done to get things right for the future was being done.
I also knew that this was not going to happen overnight. Investigations take time, though some seem to me to be inordinately long when we remember that the victims are now in their thirties and the crimes were committed against them as teenagers.
But building cases to bring perpetrators to trial successfully, when so much time has gone by and there is likely to be little if any forensic evidence, takes patient and careful work. In addition, not all the women want their past raked up.
When I meet the members of a Victims, Survivors and Families Panel that I set up earlier this year, we all understand the need for this painstaking work while getting more and more impatient that cannot be done more quickly. I have said I will give whatever resources are needed, but this is not the sort of work that anyone can do, and we do need to ensure that when cases are brought to court there is every chance that a conviction will follow. We must not let these young women down again. And cases are being put together for trials later this year.
In the meantime I work with the survivors. They are currently helping with police training. This, I firmly believe, has to be the way forward.
We didn't listen to these young women all those years ago when they were being abused. We must listen to them now as they help us get things right for the future.
July 2015 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
Some years ago, when I lived in Birmingham, I was burgled in the middle of the day. The thief or thieves must have been watching the house since we only nipped out to the shops for a relatively short time.
It was one of the most stressful things that ever happened to me and my family.
Although we lived in a relatively high crime area, I thought we would be safe because I had two dogs who barked furiously whenever anyone came to the door.
But it didn't protect us. We came home to find the back door forced and one of the dogs – part German Shepherd - lying stunned on the floor. She had been hit with a piece of wood. We assumed the other dog – a rather giddy Weimaraner - had been chased out of the house by the burglar. It wasn't until later that we found her whimpering under a bed upstairs.
We looked around to see what had been stolen. Predictably the laptops had gone. But then we noticed something rather strange. The thief had placed all the family photographs face down on the sideboard.
The police officer who came later to dust for finger prints said she had seen this before. “Some of them don't like to think about the people they are burgling.”
In that comment you have the germ of something that can be used to help bring down crime figures. It's called Restorative Justice or RJ.
RJ is about bringing the victims of crime and the perpetrators together so that the ones who commit the offence can hear first-hand from the victim about the impact their offending has had. It's only possible to do this when both victim and offender want it.
But why should anyone, victim or offender, want it?
The answer is that not everyone does. But sometimes they do. Sometimes victims of crime are left with lots of questions: What made him assault me? Why did he burgle my house? Did he not realise the traumatic effect this would have on me and my children? If only I could look him in the eye and tell him just what he did to me.
And sometimes offenders do start to show remorse. The thief who put the photographs of my children face down so he didn't have to look at them, might have been one.
Above all, for many victims, it gives them a way of exercising a bit of control again in a situation that often leaves them feeling helpless and powerless. Something has been done against them, yet the criminal justice system rolls on and they seem sidelined.
Sometime after my burglary I met a woman who had asked for Restorative Justice. She wrote to the youth who had stolen her car and trashed it. She told him about how this affected her. She was a single mother who relied on the car to get her child to school and herself to work every day. His stealing it had suddenly made her daily life many more times more difficult.
The offender wrote back from the Young Offender Institution where he was being held to say he was sorry. Finally, they met face to face at a carefully managed Restorative Justice conference.
RJ is now available in South Yorkshire for any victims of crime. It's not an alternative to criminal justice. People who commit offences are dealt with by the courts in the usual way. RJ sits alongside that for those who want it – and it has to be both victim and offender.
It has to be skillfully managed. But the evidence is that it can cut re-offending. And that has to be a good thing for all of us.
June 2015 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
For the past five years, all over the country, the number of police officers has been reducing. In South Yorkshire we have seen a fall of over five hundred. Yet, on the whole, crime has kept going down.
These are not helpful facts when Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables say to the government we cannot take many more cuts. They just reply, 'Stop crying wolf. Crime is falling'. So what are we to say about this puzzling situation – police numbers are down and so is crime? There are two points that need making.
The first is that falls in crime are not simply due to police activity. Yes, it's important that criminals are caught and successfully brought to trial. It's important that some are locked up. That stops them offending and deters others. This needs adequate numbers of police. It's also important that when offenders are released, police and partners manage their rehabilitation back into the community otherwise offending will start again.
But crime falls for other reasons as well. Thefts from cars have fallen because car security has improved and people are more careful about leaving valuable items in view. Burglaries are down because houses have been made more secure.
So crime can fall even if police numbers are down for these non-police reasons. This is why these sorts of crime have fallen not just in this country but across Europe.
But the second thing that has to be said, so that both government and public are clear, is that crime is not the only thing the police are concerned with.
In fact, if you look at what the police do, 80 per cent of their time goes on non-crime matters. Non-crime but no less vital.
I recently spent some time walking around parts of Goldthorpe and Rotherham with local police and Police Community Support Officers.
They spoke about neighbour disputes they helped to resolve. They told me about low level anti-social behaviour they dealt with before it got out of hand and perhaps resulted in criminal activity. They went into schools to talk about being safe on the internet. They assisted with crowd control at football matches and helped search for missing children or adults with dementia.
None of this was directly concerned with crime, yet it was all crucial in keeping communities safe and well-ordered.
So governments may continue to cut the funding of the police, and crime figures may still go down, but the community may start to suffer in other ways. This is why we must try to maintain good numbers of both police officers and police community support officers in all our communities.
One of the things I find most heartening as I go round with the police in the many different types of community that make up South Yorkshire, is the way local officers can tell me everything about the people and places in which they serve, and people speak to them as they go. That is policing as it should be.
May 2015 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
People often ask me what I do as Police and Crime Commissioner. I suppose this is because Commissioners are a relatively new idea. They have only been in existence since 2012.
The work of the police used to be overseen by a Police Authority. This consisted mainly of councillors drawn from local councils – in South Yorkshire that was the four district councils.
But the Home Secretary, Theresa May, felt that these Police Authorities had not been as effective as they should have been. They had not always been robust in questioning the police. And the members of Police Authorities were largely unknown to the public.
She wanted a single person who would have a higher public profile and be directly elected. All his or her working time and energy would be focussed on policing and criminal justice matters. Now there is an elected Commissioner for each of the police force areas of the country.
I took up my post in November 2014 following a by-election across the districts of Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley – about 1.3 million people. So I have been Police and Crime Commissioner for just six months.
Briefly, there are two parts to my job.
The first is outward focussed. I have to get around the county and listen to what the people of South Yorkshire want from the police service. From that I can work out what the priorities of the police should be for the year ahead. I have to set that out in the form of a Plan – the Police and Crime Plan. The police then have to work to achieve the Plan throughout the year.
The second part of the job is to monitor what the police do to achieve the Plan: I hold them to account. Sometimes that means challenging them, sometimes encouraging them.
You can read the Plan on the website for the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire and let me know what you think. I would very much welcome any ideas, comments or suggestions you might have.
So I have to get to know people across the county by meeting individuals and groups in as many different situations as possible. So far, for example, I have been to these meetings: associations of ex-service men and women, Community Forums, Tenants and Residents Associations (TARAs), Partnerships and Communities Together groups (PACTs), boxing clubs, churches and mosques, voluntary bodies.... and many, many more. I visit several of these and other groups every week.
But trying to discover what the public want and expect from the police is not as easy as I thought. As I have gone around the county, the one thing I soon discovered was that there isn't just one 'public' but many! Different groups of people want different things from the police. Sometimes these have been incompatible.
It is not always easy to reconcile, for instance, what some motorists want and what some cyclists want. Or what some farmers want and what some ramblers want. Or what people in rural areas consider a priority and what people in urban areas think most important. I quickly found that what some older people call anti-social behaviour is what some young people call 'just hanging about with my mates'. And being Yorkshire, people give me their views forcefully and with passion.
But there was one common theme running through everything people said: everyone wanted to feel safe – at home, at work, in the street, in public places, on foot, on the road, by day and by night. So I called my Police and Crime Plan, 'Putting Safety First' and made that the overriding outcome of what I want to see the police help to deliver. Over the coming year, making South Yorkshire a place where people both feel and are safe is what all the energies of the police will be directed towards – and on that my term in office will be judged.
So that's what I do as Police and Crime Commissioner. One thing I am not. The Star once called me 'South Yorkshire's Crime Boss'. My neighbour thought she must be living next door to the Mafia.