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Ten years at the top

Gary Mason talks to Simon Cole, the UK?s longest serving chief constable
Published - 12/06/2020 By - Gary Mason

In 2018 Simon Cole was offered a five-year extension of his contract at Leicestershire by Police and Crime Commissioner Lord Willy Bach.

At that time he was already the UK’s longest serving police chief. This week marks his tenth year at the top of the force and he still has three years of that contract left to run.

Given that the average length of tenure of a chief constable is three years he is in an unusual position and has some interesting thoughts on leadership and the value of experience.

“There are advantages and disadvantages,” he says. “The advantages are there is some continuity, ownership of previous decisions, people are familiar with the boss and you get to know your own people very well.

“The challenges are around not getting complacent or inward looking and you need to keep making sure that you are up to speed and outward looking.”

He adds that three years “doesn’t seem a very long time” and notes that the legislation around chief officer appointments talks about five years in the first instance.

“I think there are lots of reasons why that is,” he says. “People tend to try and time their arrival at senior rank to career length which is a product of the system rather than the best way of doing things.”

He sees the benefits of having mixed teams at all levels of management. His force has two direct entry Superintendents  -  a system he says he  supports  - but he also places a premium of retaining the skills of experienced officers.

A mix of skills

“Policing at its best is all about working as a team and you need your team to have between them all sorts of different skills,” he says. “But experience is one of those skills and is absolutely valid.”

Reflecting on the highs and lows of his 10 years with the force offers insight into the challenge of responding to events that often happen outside the control of the community and the force that serves it.

He says: “We had the joy of Leicestershire City winning the Premiership followed by the tragedy of the helicopter crash at the ground  [in which the club’s owner and four other people were killed ] “

“We had the reinterment of Richard III which was a massive international event that brought thousands of people into the city over the course of a week and we had the dreadful murders in Hinckley Road {in which a building was destroyed in a deliberate explosion that killed five people in order to make a false insurance claim].

Like every other force in the country Leicestershire has also had to deal with austerity.

When he arrived as chief constable the force had 2,300 officers but at its lowest point during the government imposed cuts the force had over 500 fewer to call upon.

“That’s a really difficult thing to deal with given you are taking that number out of a force when the population has grown by 10 per cent,” he says.

“I have never been to a public meeting where people have said they want less policing,”

In order to try and maintain service levels chief constable Cole had to make reductions from “across the force” including neigbourhood policing, response and investigations.

“We have had to be innovative under intense budget pressures,” he adds. “I inherited a legacy of strong neighbourhood policing and I have sought to continue that style of policing.”

Replacing capacity  

The force is only just starting to see a recovery through its share of the uplift. “We went through some periods where we were not able to recruit anybody,” he says. “But we are now recruiting in significant numbers and we are now beginning to replace some of that capacity we lost.”

But he says you cannot underestimate the damage to policing “because the vast majority of our money is spent on people.” 

As all forces start to recruit at pace with the ring fenced money from the Home Office uplift, PCCs and chief constables are more conscious than ever of the need to make sure the new intake is reflective of the community it serves.

Leicestershire has completely revamped its recruitment strategy and is in a good place to make sure this happens according to the chief constable.

“We have a small but dedicated recruiting team who have pushed recruiting out into local communities,” he says. There is also a mentoring scheme to support BAME recruits.

“We have seen our recent intakes are very reflective of the place where we police. Broadly speaking around 20 per cent of the population has a BAME background and we have around the same figure for our more recent  recruitment intakes.”

He thinks the additional levels of entry to the service are more appealing to the BAME population including degree holders, apprenticeships and direct entry schemes.

The COVID-19 emergency has clearly impacted the recruitment strategy with the force moving largely online and having to do it “at a distance” but the virtual sessions he says have been positively received and have not affected the demographics the force was able to attract before the pandemic.

He says policing remains a popular career choice for many with 10 applicants for each constable vacancy that is advertised in the force.

Taser is safer

Police use of force is a hugely hot topic for chief constables now but chief constable Cole is a supporter of the roll out of taser and says his force’s experience to date suggests that it leads to fewer injuries to both officers and members of the public

In the most recent bid for Home Office taser funding the force was able to allocate the equipment to 100 more officers.

“We are rolling out tasers to officers who want the equipment and can pass the course,” he says.

Leicestershire has a community panel who monitor use of force by officers and have access to body worn video footage of incidents.

“They have a feedback loop to the officers involved which includes saying ‘you got that right’,” the chief says. “Sometimes we think of feedback loops as negative. But it is not uncommon for the feedback to be along the lines of  - you know what that was really good.”

The chief constable says that a major challenge as a manager is that a Leicestershire officer is assaulted every day.

“Some of our work with taser suggests that both the people we are dealing with and the officers themselves are injured less," he says.

“Taser provides an option of safety and distance and when it is deployed it is rarely discharged. Without it you are into captor spray, batons and more hands on tactics.

“But the work we have done in recent months suggests that the risk of injury with taser reduces.”

Prevent “not about surveillance”

Simon Cole is NPCC lead on Prevent which is currently under Home Office directed scrutiny with the stalled appointment of an independent reviewer of the counter terror radicalisation strategy which has been the main stay of police preventative work with other agencies for many years.

The review was first announced in January 2019 and it has been beset by delays. Its first chair, Lord Carlile, was forced to step down in December 2019 and it took four months for the Home Office to launch a recruitment campaign for his replacement.

Since then, the Home Secretary has extended the window for applications from 1 June to 22 June with the final interviews not taking place until the end of July.

Chief Constable Cole say that some criticisms of the strategy are based on misconceptions.

“Prevent at its heart is a voluntary safeguarding scheme,” he says.

“There are things around governance and transparency that I would expect the reviewer to have a look at and make some recommendations on.”

He stresses that “this isn’t just police business” and that there are many other partners involved. “Prevent is a preventative thing  - it is there in the name. The origins of the strategy were discussions with community about how to reduce radicalisation. It is centred around mentoring, support and help.

“The other day I heard someone saying Prevent is all about surveillance. It just isn’t.” 

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