South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner - Dr Alan Billings
June 2017 - Blog
The General Election started off as the Brexit election. It ended, in part, as the security election as a result of two terrorist attacks in Manchester and London within a couple of weeks of one another. Suddenly there was a focus on policing, keeping people safe and how much we spend on security and the police.
One consequence of the terrorist outrages was the raising of the threat level to critical and the appearance on our streets of large numbers of uniformed officers, many in high visibility jackets and some carrying firearms.
It's always a careful judgement that Chief Constables have to make about deploying armed officers. Will they reassure people? Or will they cause fear and alarm?
As far as I could judge, the majority view was that it was re-assuring. Far from being frightened, many took advantage of seeing so many police. They went up to them and thanked them for what they do. A lot of photographs were taken!
But we will all need to think more carefully about how the terrorist threat can be overcome and what the right policing response to it must be. Two things seem clear.
We have to get even better at gathering intelligence before crimes are committed if we are going to prevent them. In part that has to involve restoring and strengthening neighbourhood policing teams which have suffered during the years of austerity. People will give information to those they know and trust, and that means having officers and Police Community Support Officers who become familiar figures in their communities.
But second, we also have to understand that the police service needs staff who know how modern technology works. People who plan terror attacks use computers and mobile phones that need interrogating. Much of this is the unseen work of men and women in offices rather than on the streets. In the past, some of these types of job have been vulnerable because unlike police officers, who cannot be made redundant, civilian staff can.
So it’s not just about more bobbies on the beat – though we would all like to see that. It's also about getting the right mix of skills in the workforce.
Perhaps the one good thing to come out of the election from a policing perspective was that none of the political parties thought it was a good idea to cut police numbers any more.
April 2017 - Blog
Whenever I ask people what they want the police to do for them, they often say, 'I want to be safe'. Or, more likely, 'I want to feel safe'. They sometimes elaborate that: 'I want to be safe and feel safe in my home, at work, on the streets, in the town centre. I want to be and to feel safe by day and safe by night.'
The message could not be simpler: helping people to be safe and to feel safe is the ultimate aim of good policing.
People speak about being safe and also about feeling safe. The two are not the same.
The difference is this. When people talk about being safe they mean they want to be able to point to something objective. Actual crime and anti-social behaviour is coming down. Crimes are being detected, successful prosecutions are happening and villains are being put away. When that is happening people know they are being kept safe.
Feeling safe, however, can be different – and can present us with real puzzles. There are parts of the city that are objectively safe – there is very little crime or anti-social behaviour – yet people say they do not feel safe.
Conversely, there are other parts of the city where crime and anti-social behaviour is higher, yet people say they feel safe! This is much more difficult to understand and deal with.
One answer to the puzzle – and its only one - is what we mean by local or neighbourhood policing. In those parts of the town where the police are seen more often, where they build relationships with local shopkeepers, the residents' group, the Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator, and so on, that strengthens the sense of safety.
But it is getting harder and harder to put into neighbourhoods dedicated police officers and Police Community Support Officers because budget cuts mean there are fewer officers and PCSOs.
Last year I asked the new Chief Constable to restore neighbourhood policing, which had been considerably eroded in the year before he came. But it is not easy when nationally police officer numbers have fallen by 16% and PCSOs by more than 30%.
One reason for the increase in council tax in South Yorkshire this year is so that we can stabilise numbers and put some dedicated officers back into neighbourhoods. In that way, South Yorkshire residents should both be and feel safe.
March 2017 - Blog
The terrorist attack in London in which a police officer died reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a South Yorkshire police officer. She was recovering at home from injuries she had received while on duty. We had a cup of tea and a chat.
We had met briefly at a police Awards ceremony where she and a colleague had been commended for their bravery. These ceremonies happen each year across the county to recognise and celebrate outstanding work that particular police officers, PCSOs and staff do.
For obvious reasons, perhaps, South Yorkshire Police have often been reluctant to draw attention to any good work because it can trigger immediate criticism, especially on social media, from those who only want to remember past failings. But if the police service is to move to a better place, it has to be able to point to excellence with confidence. It needs to be able to celebrate what is good and take pride in it.
The police officer I called on had also been recommended for a national award for bravery. But she didn't feel this was quite right. 'I wasn't brave,' she said, 'I was just doing my job.'
This is not the first time an officer who has been commended for bravery has said this to me. And they often go on to say, as this officer did, 'Any of my colleagues would have done just the same.' And that is true.
It made me think.
Perhaps we are wrong in locating the point of bravery at the time of an incident, whatever it is. The officers will do at that moment what they have been trained to do to keep us all safe, and to do it without hesitation. Much of what happens may be instinctual by then. It is how they deal with every situation every day, it's just that on this day something out of the ordinary came along.
This doesn't mean officers are not brave. It just means that the point at which they opt to be brave is not at that moment, but further back.
It's when they first join the service and its every time they start their shift. They know then that every day they potentially put themselves in harms way – for our sake. The bravery award simply recognises what that means. On this day they were the one who answered the call and the bravery that is there every day was revealed.
She was brave and she deserved the award.
February 2017 - Blog
For the past few weeks I have been consulting the public of South Yorkshire about the possibility of increasing the council tax precept that pays for policing. If we are to stave off even bigger cuts to police services, we need to raise a little more money locally – about 6p per week for a Band A property.
So we have been doing a number of things to gauge what you, the public, think. We have done some on-line opinion sampling. In addition, members of my staff have been to various public events and places – such as Sheffield and Rotherham markets - to speak directly to people. I have been to community groups and town and parish councils.
I quite thought there might be some real resistance this year. After all, these are financially difficult times for many people.
In fact, the overwhelming view – 90% - is that people across South Yorkshire are prepared to pay a little extra for policing the county in the coming year.
Many people said they regarded the police as a vital service because they want to feel safe as they go about their lives. They want to feel safe at home, at work and in town, by day and by night. And this feeling of safety is what a well-run police service gives people.
There were, however, two interesting provisos. The first was that neighbourhood policing is restored as soon as possible. Many people realised that the way the service had been re-organised last year to save money had led to a reduction in dedicated officers and Police
Community Support Officers in their neighbourhoods. People want as much visible policing as possible.
This is what I have asked the Chief Constable to make this his top priority. It will not be easy because savings will still have to be made. But the police recognise that the only way they can keep on top of crime and anti-social behaviour is by building local intelligence through close involvement with neighbourhoods.
The second thing that people wanted reassurance around was what happened after we leave the European Union. There is an anxiety that we might lose the ability to bring back criminals that flee to Europe. At the moment we can do this through the European Arrest Warrant.
There is also the potential loss of intelligence about criminal gangs or suspect vehicles that operate across borders if our relationship with Europol or the Schengen Information System is disturbed.
These are very real concerns and Police and Crime Commissioners must ensure that the government does not lose sight of them as it begins the complex work of exiting.
January 2017 - Blog
This is the time of year when I have to work hard with South Yorkshire Police to set their budget for the next financial year, beginning on April 1st.
The funding I receive comes from two main sources: government grants (77%) and the precept (23%), which is collected as part of the council tax. It gets spent mainly on the police service (around £240m), though I also have to fund some other services, such as those that help the victims of crime.
As far as government grants go, Police and Crime Commissioners were told just before Christmas what they could expect. The government said that we would have the same level of funding for the coming year as this year provided that we set the precept at the maximum level permitted.
For South Yorkshire this would amount to an additional £5 per annum for a Band D property – just over 3%. Many households will pay less because they are in lower Bands.
Although this is a decision for each Police and Crime Commissioner to make, after consultation, the implication of the announcement was clear: if you don't put the precept up, you cannot expect any additional help during the year. In the case of South Yorkshire, this could be quite serious since we have had to ask for Special Grant help several times in recent years – for such items as the cost of the Hillsborough inquests.
Even so, this only brings the same amount of cash for the coming year as this year. It makes no allowance for inflation – such as the extra costs of salaries, fuel, uniforms, and so on.
So, if the money stays the same, but the costs of running the police service are going up, savings have to be found if the budget is to balance.
In recent years savings have sometimes come from redundancies. This is not a road we want to go down again and I will be working hard with the Chief Constable to ensure this does not happen. But it does mean that every department has to think about how it can be more efficient.
So over the next few weeks I have to find out as far as I can what the public of South Yorkshire feel about paying a little more – around 10p per week - towards policing. I shall be doing that in a number of different ways – from opinion polling to meeting people in various community organisations.
Perhaps I can ask the public of South Yorkshire to tell me what they think as well.
December 2016 - Blog
The past year has not always been easy for the police service. Each time there seemed to be progress, something from the past re-appeared to cause more instability and shake public confidence.
Of course, the repercussions of some of those past mistakes – such as at Hillsborough or child sexual exploitation – will be with us for many years to come. Mistakes have to be admitted if the service is to learn from the past and make improvements.
But the mistakes should not obscure the good things. Overall, South Yorkshire remains a pretty safe place in which to live, learn and work. We owe this in large measure to the police. They keep us safe by day and night, in our homes and in public places. And this year some have paid a heavy price for doing their job. We should never take that for granted.
I was struck by something an asylum seeker told me. In the country from which he had fled, a police officer was someone to be avoided at all costs. Now he finds their presence reassuring.
I have two wishes. I hope that Christmas will be as safe for police officers – and the other emergency services - as they will make it for us. And I hope that in 2017 we shall turn a corner and see the police service as a whole in South Yorkshire become as good as many of those individual officers we all meet.
October 2016 - Blog
Today is being kept as Anti-Slavery Day in the UK. We have been doing this now for six years.
This may seem a little strange. After all, the trade in slaves was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1807 and the keeping of slaves in 1833. This had been the life's work of the evangelical Christian William Wilberforce, who was the Member of Parliament for Hull.
In our time, we find it hard to believe that until the nineteenth century, people in all walks of life and of all philosophies and creeds, could see nothing wrong with slavery. They could look unmoved at the sight of fellow human beings in chains and under the lash. They believed that if slavery was done away with, the economy would crash.
Even in the United States, where the Declaration of Independence spoke about all people being created equal, they had to fight a civil war in 1861 before all the black slaves were set free.
We may well wonder, therefore, why we need an Anti-Slavery Day in this country if slavery has been abolished for more than one hundred years.
The reason becomes clear if we think about what it means to be a slave and why conditions in modern Britain make it possible.
Slavery exists whenever people are treated as if they were property and not fellow human beings. Property can be bought and sold and exchanged. There are circumstances in our communities now in which people are treated just like that – as if they were someone's property.
This is also something that becomes easier to do because of the globalised world we live in. Increasing numbers of people are being trafficked across the world and turned into modern-day slaves.
They may be from poor communities, or vulnerable in some way. They, or their families, may be in debt to the traffickers or they may simply be frightened and bullied.
In this country the police find that they have been brought here as domestic slaves or for sexual purposes. Many work in low paid jobs, but then are forced to hand over all their wages to pay for their poor accommodation.
Across South Yorkshire we have in some places the sorts of conditions in which modern slavery can find a footing - houses that are cheap for the traffickers to buy and low paid, manual jobs where few skills are needed, but hours are long.
The purpose of today is to make all of us aware of what modern slavery looks like. It is every bit as pernicious as those haunting images of men, women and children shackled together on those British ships making their way from Africa to the Caribbean.
The only difference now is that it is hidden.
September 2016 - Blog
Police in this country are largely an unarmed service. This is a tradition we value. It dates back to the time when Sir Robert Peel founded the first police force, the London Metropolitan, when he was Home Secretary between 1822 and 1827.
It was Peel's view that in a democracy there was no need to arm the police because, as he put it, 'The police are the public and the public are the police'.
This only works, of course, as long as the police retain the trust and confidence of the public. This is why some aspects of past conduct in South Yorkshire have been so damaging. It is why trust can quickly be lost – as it was for a while when the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandals were revealed in 2014.
Trust and confidence is built every day by officers doing a good job. This is why today's police work hard to show that they have learnt lessons from the past and are trying to get to a different place. It is something which I, as Police and Crime Commissioner, and the interim Chief Constable, Stephen Watson, are determined to work on together to get right.
The use of force is one dimension of policing where trust has to be maintained. We - the public - recognise that there may be times when the police need to use force in order to carry out their responsibility of protecting us. We understand that - though we also expect the use of force to be proportionate, to be properly recorded and accounted for. This is especially the case when force may lead to injury.
Public concern has recently been around the use of Tasers rather than firearms. Tasers are meant to be non-lethal weapons. They project small darts – electrodes – into the body and deliver an electrical shock which temporarily incapacitates.
Tasers also work psychologically. They are highly visible in the hands of the officer using one and their laser sighting system produces a small red dot on the body of the person being aimed at. Sometimes this is enough to calm someone down and ensure compliance. So, we find that while Tasers were used 10,329 times in the UK in 2015, they were only discharged on 1,921 occasions (19%). They are rarely used in South Yorkshire.
It is not for Police and Crime Commissioners to tell Chief Constables when to authorise the use of Tasers. That has to be an operational matter. But it is the job of a Commissioner to ensure, on behalf of the public, that their use is appropriate. That way public trust and confidence is maintained.
August 2016 - Blog
I recently met with a group of young women who in the past were the victims of horrific crimes. The crimes were sexual abuse and exploitation, dating back some ten years or more when they were mainly very young teenagers.
They prefer to call themselves 'survivors' rather than victims because they have reached a point now where they have begun to put their lives back together again and can be more positive about their futures. They give one another some of the support they need to do this.
They allow me to call them my Survivors Advisory Group, to be consulted on any matters to do with child sexual exploitation.
Over the past year or so I have learnt a great deal from the survivors, and in turn they have helped police officers and staff to understand better how children and young people can be helped when caught up in abusive situations.
What has become very clear in more recent months is the way the grooming of children has moved to the internet as well as the streets. But the way grooming happens is broadly similar and what these young women have to tell us is very important.
People sometimes say to me, “Why didn't the girls just say 'No' to those who exploited them?” If you hear the stories the young women tell, you will quickly realise how difficult that can be.
They all speak about how as young girls they met and were captivated by an older lad – someone in their late teens or twenties. He fulfilled their teenage need for someone to talk to who was not a parent. He gave them attention, affection, friendship. They thought they were in love. And they thought he loved them. It was this – romantic love - rather than gifts – bracelets, rings, alcohol – that really mattered.
That was the moment where the trap was sprung. They had become emotionally dependent and would do anything to keep the relationship.
But the price grew more sinister – sexual favours and then sex with other men. And the threats started. If they dared to tell anyone, they knew what to expect.
The grooming pattern on the internet is similar, though there the young people have no idea who is actually responding to them. So they post their images – and the trap closes.
The dilemma for parents and other responsible adults is plain. Young people look for friendships beyond the family. This is part of growing up. They are unlikely to tell parents what they are doing, however close the relationship with the parents might seem.
Young people need to understand the risks that the internet presents and, above all, to know that they will be listened to and understood if they feel they have done something foolish – or worse.
I wish my Advisory Group could speak to every school-aged child in the county.
July 2016 - Blog
We often say that policing in this country is by consent. What we mean is that what the police do is broadly speaking what we want them to do.
They tackle crime and anti-social behaviour. They manage public demonstrations and control crowds at football matches. And they do all this in ways that we think are fair and proportionate.
And if they get things wrong – and all organisations sometimes get things wrong - we are not afraid to say so.
This is why, of course, it is possible for our police service, almost alone in the world, to be mainly unarmed. They police by consent and not, on the whole, by force.
Even so, we may not always realise how fortunate we are to live in a country where policing is like this. On the day I am writing these words, two things have happened to me to remind me of this.
First, I was invited to one of our inner-city schools to present some junior school children with 'citizenship' awards. They were a wonderful group of young people – very polite, very attentive and very enthusiastic. They were also very diverse, coming from almost every continent in the world, drawn from different faiths and speaking – one teacher said – seventeen different languages. (If only Ofsted had a way of recognising the fantastic work such schools do.)
The teacher also explained how for some children, who had come from very troubled parts of the middle east, the sight of a police officer was not something reassuring, but frightening. They were having to adapt to what we take for granted: the police are here to serve us, not to intimidate and frighten. They police by consent.
When I returned home, the President of the United States, Barrack Obama, was just making a speech to a gathering of people in Dallas where five police officers had been slain by an African-American gunman because they were white and he wanted to retaliate against the seemingly casual shooting of non-white citizens by white police officers.
In many of the large conurbations of that country, policing is not by consent. All officers are armed and resort to force only too easily. Some white officers in particular have treated black and Hispanic citizens with brutality and contempt. Social media has enabled us to glimpse what that all means in practice.
One African-American mother in Dallas explained how she feared for her junior school-aged son every time he went out of the house. Would she ever see him again?
It's hard for us to imagine what it's like to live in those places where policing is not by consent, but by force.
For all our criticisms of the police, from time to time it's good to remind ourselves how fortunate we are in having officers who are not armed because, by and large, they police as we would want them to.
June 2016 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
I live in Crookes, a part of Sheffield that attracts students. Like any migrant population they have both a negative and positive impact on the area. Occasionally we have to tell them to turn the volume down or do something about their front garden. Bot on the whole, their influence is wholly beneficial for all of us.
We have flourishing shops, take-aways, cafes and restaurants in Crookes. On Friday and Saturday nights I don't have to phone for a taxi, I just walk towards the shops and flag down a black cab – thanks to students for whom it's cheaper for a group to pile into a taxi than to get on the bus. They put thousands of pounds into our local economy every week.
The ones I get to know best are from Europe, some on Erasmus schemes, funded by the European Union – one of the many unseen benefits of membership that will be put at risk should we leave. The two universities with their 60,000 students and 10,000 staff make a big difference to both the richness of life in Sheffield and to its financial health.
I asked one student why she chose Sheffield. She said, 'Because it's a safe city.'
That is not to say we don't have some serious and worrying crimes – such as sexual assaults - that sometimes involve students. But on the whole, what the student says is true.
This relative safety does not happen by chance.
My Police and Crime Plan seeks to make South Yorkshire 'a safe place for all who live, work and learn' here – a deliberate reference to students. And South Yorkshire Police work with the universities to ensure that students are well protected.
Operation Kaizen, for instance, puts significant numbers of officers into the city centre until 4am. This is in addition to the university's own mobile patrols. There are also special operations at the end of term – when spirits are high post exams – and at the start of the year – when spirits are high pre exams.
All overseas students have a safety briefing from the Police Universities Liaison Officer to remind them that they are an attractive proposition for opportunity thieves. One student house may have rich pickings – mobile phones and laptops – that are easy to carry off and sell on. The house may also have an open window or unlocked door. Students need to be especially vigilant in underpasses, like the one at the end of Hanover Way.
Sheffield benefits in many ways from its two universities. South Yorkshire Police play their part in drawing students to the city by keeping them, and us, safe.
May 2016 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
Where is the front-line when it comes to policing?
This is the question I found myself thinking about more and more during the course of the recent elections for Police and Crime Commissioner in South Yorkshire.
At each of the hustings that were held earlier this month, at least one of the candidates and someone from the audience said the important thing was to 'strengthen the front line'. And they went on to explain what they thought that meant. Some said, 'We want more visible policing'. Others said, 'We want more bobbies on the beat' or 'We want to see more yellow jackets on our streets'.
And of course, the highly visible Police and Community Support Officer (PCSO) or uniformed Police Officer is front-line – and always very re-assuring.
Interestingly, although the numbers of police officers have fallen in the last six years – as a result of the cuts – you may become more aware of them. In South Yorkshire, officers are now equipped with lap tops and hand held devices which enable them to stay in the communities longer while they write up their reports. They do not have to keep going back and forth to a police station to get onto a computer. They can do it from their cars or by popping into a local library or cafe.
Walking down Ecclesall Road recently I saw two officers doing just that sitting outside a local cafe. This is a good way of keeping police officers in the community and highly visible. It's also a good chance for them to have the kind of informal chats with people that make for a highly effective police force that knows its patch and what the local issues are that concern people.
But is that the only front-line?
Most people do not contact the police by bumping into them in the street or calling at a police station. They phone. In many ways, therefore, those police staff that work in the call centre at Atlas Court are just as much the front-line as the officer in the street.
And this is highly skilled work. As soon as a call is received, the call handler needs to understand how to respond effectively. But successive calls can be very different. At one moment the call is an emergency and a decision has to be taken immediately to get a car and officers to the scene. The next moment it is a confused elderly person who needs a lot of help articulating just what it is that has concerned her enough to make a call. Call handlers have to make judgements and get the right response first time.
This is why I have committed considerable sums of money this coming year to getting new technology into the call centre to help get those responses better. The call handlers are also part of the front-line.
March 2016 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
I became Police and Crime Commissioner a year and a half ago as a direct result of the child sexual exploitation scandal that engulfed both Rotherham Borough Council and South Yorkshire Police. I said at that time that confidence in the police service would only begin to return when there were convictions of those that had abused children in the borough all those years ago.
Last month in Sheffield Crown Court the first trials were held and the first convictions obtained. We should not underestimate the significance of that moment – for the women who were abused, for the town of Rotherham and for South Yorkshire Police.
For the women, this had been a very difficult journey. After years of being ignored and rebuffed by the authorities, they had to be sure that this time they would be believed and action would follow.
Then they had to face those who had abused them in open court. They had to remain strong as they re-lived the time of their exploitation and as defence barristers questioned them. The stiff sentences handed down to their abusers after the guilty verdicts came in were the final vindication.
But their ordeal is far from over and we need to think about how they are cared for in the future.
These verdicts also enable the town to begin to move on. Those who were denied justice as children have finally found a measure of justice as adults.
For the police, the trial is a tangible sign that lessons really have been learnt. As one of the survivors said, South Yorkshire Police are in a very different place today.
That is true, though I doubt whether the public fully appreciates just how far the force has come.
There are now dedicated and committed officers who have worked long and intensive hours to get to this point. They have learnt to listen with great patience and growing understanding to people who have not found it easy to recall the past and tell their stories. Some of this has been harrowing, so this has been emotionally draining as well.
Similarly the Crown Prosecution Service has had lawyers who have given everything to bring this complex case to court.
This is only the start, though the signs are looking favourable. Already new witnesses and survivors have come forward to the police. They know that this time they will be believed and what they have to say will be thoroughly and properly investigated. They also know that they will be looked after throughout the process.
Of course, there are still questions to be asked about past police conduct. But we should be in no doubt that a corner has been turned and today's force is, as Her Majesty's Inspectors recently found, now at the forefront of this kind of investigation. That has to be good news.
February 2016 - Dr Alan Billings Blog
Until I became Police and Crime Commissioner, I had no idea that there was an organisation called the South Yorkshire Police Cadets. I came upon them by chance at the Rotherham Show.
As I was walking round the stalls I saw two young people coming towards me looking extremely smart in their police uniforms.
Like most people, one way I note my own ageing is by seeing the police get younger; but these two seemed very young. And indeed they were Teenagers. They were Police Cadets.
I now know that there are over 70 cadets across the county, aged between 15 and 17, meeting on Wednesday nights in central police stations in Barnsley, Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster. Their evenings are spent picking up some useful practical skills – such as basic first aid – and learning about aspects of modern policing.
They also do some drill. They learn how to look smart and work as a team.
What they seem to enjoy most, however, is being able to get out and about. Sometimes this might be with serving officers on their neighbourhood beat somewhere. Or it might be at one of the many shows across the county, being generally helpful to visitors who have questions or get themselves lost.
I recently met all them at the Lifewise Centre in Rotherham. One of them – Kaylen - was presenting a cheque to McMillan nurses for over £500 – money he had raised himself – something that seemed typical of the motivation of all the Cadets: they want to do good in their communities.
It was a good evening. I told them what I do as Commissioner and they told me about the Cadets.
Two things occurred to me.
The first was how fortunate South Yorkshire Police are in having this group of young people at all.
They were from different parts of the county. They came from different social groups. They were ethnically mixed with more than twenty per cent from ethnic minorities. They were male and female. They were intelligent and thoughtful.
Above all, they were from an age group that many organisations find hard to engage with. They can, therefore, be something of a bridge between the Force and that generation.
Second, not all the Cadets I met will become police officers, though some will, and it would be very good if some from the minority communities did. Most will go on to other jobs, though they may still wear police uniform as volunteer Special Constables.
But the ones that go on to other careers will carry with them an understanding of the police that they can share with others whose knowledge and experience of modern policing is limited. That is important because to do their job well, the police need the public to have some feel for what they do to keep the rest of us safe. As bridge-builders, the Cadets are invaluable.
Not every police force in the country has Cadets. We do in South Yorkshire and we should encourage both these young people and those who make their various activities and commitments possible.
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.