The law in his hands

West Yorkshire’s chief constable says he’s proud of efforts to promote diversity in the force but admits a lack of officers hinders the fight against crime and that mistrust in the police has grown

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You would imagine that the man who oversees the fourth largest police force in the country would have his HQ in some concrete and glass shiny big office complex. So it was a surprise that the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, John Robins, is based in a building in Wakefield more like an old university campus, all dark wood, sweeping staircases and stained-glass windows.

In his office, with a brass name plate on the door, is an imposing desk with a large and stately portrait of the Queen behind it and a trophy cabinet full of glittering prizes. In the corner there’s a comfy sofa and coffee table, and the door to a board room.

The Chief, as his staff affectionately refer to him, doesn’t usually do press interviews unless it’s a statement on a particular matter. He had agreed to this though after we met at a gathering to encourage more ethnic groups to join the police.

He’s not been afraid to speak out though. In 2019 he issued a statement condemning Boris Johnson for using a police recruitment drive visit to campaign against Jeremy Corbyn. The incident made headlines in the national press.

A police officer for 32 years, appointed as the chief in July 2019, Robins is a traditional, consummate professional copper. He has an answer for everything without revealing anything about himself or what he thinks, other than to confirm he’s a Yorkshireman.

“I’m West Yorkshire born and a vocational police officer,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to have done all my service in West Yorkshire. It is somewhat unusual for a chief constable to have done all of their service in one place. But I’m very proud of it. It means I understand the communities and areas of West Yorkshire, the towns and cities, because I’ve worked in them.”

Robins joined West Yorkshire Police (WYP) as a constable in 1990 and was also a nationally trained hostage negotiator, dealing with suicide interventions, kidnaps and criminal sieges. Promotions took him to Bradford and Kirklees before he became an assistant chief constable in 2012. In the same year he became chief constable, he was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for distinguished service.

His patch is massive: 780 square miles and 2.2 million people of many ethnicities, with one of the highest crime rates in the country – although under his watch the figures have gradually been going down. Last November, WYP was graded outstanding in four areas out of 10 assessed by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, good in four areas and adequate in two.

“We do have higher than average recorded crime in some areas,” says Robins. “But some of that is because we’re doing the right thing and we know exactly what’s happening across the county. When victims and witnesses come to us, we’re taking it seriously and recording it. Some of my frontline staff will say we’re recording things we shouldn’t be recording. But I prefer to be on that side of the pendulum than on the other where people are arguing about what crime has been recorded.”

He adds: “You know, my raison d’être is to reduce crime. Over the last five to eight years, we feel as though we got to a stable consistent platform. So yes, irrespective of Covid and the effect of Covid on crime, we are pleased that we have reduced crime across the county.

“It’s not a relentless focus on structures or processes but it is about care and compassion and staff who really do work incredibly hard in all the different aspects, from homicide to serious and organised crime and anti-social behaviour to assault crime to online crime. All of those people have got to be working really hard and be passionate about what they’re doing. But it’s been challenging because throughout all of that time, we’ve seen reductions in police numbers. We’ve seen a kind of rollercoaster of reducing officers the last 11 years.”

Last year, West Yorkshire got its first mayor, Tracey Brabin, who now has responsibility for policing in his area. She recently put out a survey asking residents if they would be prepared to pay a small amount of extra council tax to put more police on the streets. Robins is diplomatic.

“It’s still early days, just a year into it, but I think she and her deputy Allison Lowe have shown that they are absolutely committed and dedicated to supporting policing, community safety, violence against women and girls, race hatred, domestic abuse, sexual offences. I think they will continue that.”

Asked if she is a good boss, he’s quick to respond.

“She won’t mind me saying it but she’s not the boss. I don’t have a boss. The mayor is a public appointment. That’s really important because the operational independence and political independence of policing is absolutely paramount.”

His determination to reduce crime is evident, but he feels hampered by the Crown Prosecution Service’s lack of resources.

“Before we can charge anyone with a crime, we have to present a case to the CPS to determine whether it will go to trial. Certainly I understand why they may want to make that decision for a complex case that goes to Crown Court, yes. But I don’t think that they necessarily have the full resources available to them to be able to cope with what we’re sending to them, which is every case! I’m not criticising them for it. I just say that we’ve got the resources and they haven’t. And so I worry about the delays in the system.

“I think it’s almost an untenable position to keep the legal requirement to ask the CPS to decide on everything. If you think back to 25 years ago, the police used to decide on everything. Of course I’m not necessarily saying they got it right on all occasions, but it worked.”

We cover many topics and mostly the professional stance doesn’t slip. Robins is always on message. It’s evident that there is one area he feels strongly about though – diversity in the force. When he talks about it, you see the passion in the man.

In West Yorkshire, 6.2 per cent of the police force is from a BME background, while 18.2 per cent of the population is BAME. By comparison, 8.6 per cent of the force in Greater Manchester is BAME, compared with 16.2 per cent of the population. For the Metropolitan Police Service, it’s 15.5 per cent against 40.2 per cent.

“For the last 32 years I’ve been in policing, we’ve had a focus on diversity across the county. It’s not something new. People say: ‘They haven’t tried hard enough.’ Well, we have done an enormous amount and I regularly remind politicians that we are complying with the law and legislation.

“I have gone on record saying I think some of that should change. I didn’t used to believe this, but I think we should now move to a position of positive discrimination.”

Does that mean he would employ someone from a BAME or other background over someone else?

Without perhaps answering directly Robins says: “I’ve seen dedicated, committed individuals over many decades working as hard as they can to change diversity within the force. But within the current laws, it’s really difficult to do so. In West Yorkshire again, we’ve continued to focus on it, to do new and different and innovative things with a whole variety of people.”

I’d seen him in action personally at a gathering in Leeds of Jewish policemen from across the country. Half of the day was given to recruitment and members of the Jewish community and Jewish students had been invited. A full kosher buffet was provided. Part of his sell to ethnic groups is the facilities that are in place in stations across the county.

“Every police station has a prayer room,” he says “Every police station is working towards having washroom facilities. I defy you to find other public sectors having anything like that. We have a mix of gender-neutral toilets and male and female toilets. We have quiet rooms as well. We have educational work ongoing about menopause, about menstruation, about disability. We recognise people’s dietary requirements and religious holiday needs.

“As I say it’s a vibrant, inclusive, exciting, caring organisation. I’m not saying we’ve got everything right all the time. individual officers or staff do make mistakes around things, but it’s phenomenal in terms of what we do do.”

Surprisingly West Yorkshire has one of the lowest homelessness rates in the country – 4,248 people according to Shelter. Although being homeless isn’t directly a police matter, it is an area Robins’ force is involved in and he shows empathy.

“We all know homelessness is driven by many factors, whether that be poverty, addiction, circumstances, abuse – there’s all sorts of drivers behind it. And those people who find themselves rough sleeping or sofa surfing or being homeless are often more vulnerable and victims. And what a frightening, terrible environment it must be to be sleeping on the streets with all of your possessions and being open to any form of physical, sexual or verbal exploitation and abuse.”

The force works with local authorities, charities, religious groups and national organisations on homelessness, Robins says. “There is by the nature of it some criminality and aggressive begging, some acquisitive crime and abuse of drugs, alcohol and other substances. So that doesn’t help. But I think we’ve got to a place with partners where we approach it with a problem-solving approach, in a caring and compassionate way.”

We discuss the growing public mistrust of the police in the wake of the Sarah Everard murder by a serving police officer and the George Floyd killing by a police officer in the States. Robins believes both events have presented the force with its biggest challenges ever.

Speaking before Met chief Cressida Dick resigned following London mayor Sadiq Khan’s withdrawal of support for her, Robins says: “In the last two years, the challenge has been all about trust and competence in policing for all those reasons. Crime complexity is a challenge and is always changing without the issue of Covid, which was another area we had to respond in.

“We’re a responsive service by our very nature – we respond to what happened and see what comes our way. But yes, certainly trust and confidence in policing has been rocked and shocked. But in other ways, I genuinely believe the overwhelming majority of the public in West Yorkshire and in the United Kingdom support and trust policing. But with some of the scrutiny on some of the cases we’ve had recently, it’s right that people want to ask further questions.”

We discuss all types of crime from cyber and hate crime to sexual and domestic abuse. Robins believes the only way to combat this for the future is education.

“We’re in the process of launching an educational programme. We’re running a pilot in schools and working with all of the local authorities and all of the education establishments to try to start taking children through an educational programme from ages six to 18. There are various elements, which will include violence against women, girls’ dignity, respect, crime, hate crime, bullying, inappropriate relationships, sexual assaults.

“We’re also including more traditional things around drugs, alcohol and driving. If we can make people aware from a young age of the consequences of actions, hopefully we will reduce crime in the future.”

Robins also believes the public need to play a part in reducing crime.

“In things like internet-related crime, that’s for everyone to police really. We do obviously have a cybercrime team, but we need people online to challenge other people’s inappropriate behaviour. In the same way with violence against women and girls, it is for men to challenge inappropriate behaviour in public spaces.”

As our interview comes to an end, I try a line of levity, asking him what he thinks of the plethora of cop shows on TV and what he watches himself.  He’s still on message when he answers.

“There is a disproportionate amount of TV programmes about policing, which I’d like to see as a good thing because people are interested in the danger for us all.”

What of the most successful police drama, Line of Duty, rooting out corrupt police officers?

“They portray policing as full of corrupt police officers engaged with organised criminality. Occasionally, terrible things happen with policing. Police officers do bad things, but I suppose one rotten egg and all that. It’s certainly not at the level portrayed in drama.”

Asking how he switches off and relaxes, he again answers professionally.

“I think everybody’s entitled to relax at some point in the day. Whatever job you’re doing in policing or within the public service, as long as you’ve tried your hardest and done everything you should do, it makes it easier to take those times for relaxation.”

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