After taking on the job as West Yorkshire’s top police officer in unusual circumstances, Dee Collins faces a host of challenges in a time of austerity. Rob Parsons reports.
Barely six months into her job, Dee Collins hardly had time to get her feet under the table at her new police force before she was thrust unexpectedly into a role as its most senior officer.
Having joined West Yorkshire Police as assistant chief constable last January, she was promoted to temporary chief constable in June when Mark Gilmore was suspended following the announcement of a probe into alleged criminal activity during his time in his native Northern Ireland.
More than a year on, and despite Mr Gilmore being told he will not face prosecution over claims he was involved in the allegedly corrupt award of police vehicle contracts, Miss Collins is still in the same post, and could be for many months to come.
Mr Gilmore has yet to return to Yorkshire’s biggest police force as a Lancashire Police conduct investigation is now taking place, and is being paid by his employer to work on a “transition project” for the National Police Chiefs Council.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post from her office in Wakefield, Miss Collins admits it has been “very challenging” to take over the country’s fourth biggest force in such circumstances in the middle of an uncertain period for the police service as a whole.
She said: “I had only just started to get to know the force’s communities, how things operate, and walking into the organisation at a time when austerity measures are in place and the complexity of what we are dealing with is getting more and more problematic, and some real uncertainty about the future as far as staff are concerned.
“That has built on the position that West Yorkshire Police has found itself in in the last two or three years, with some quite significant changes in terms of leadership. Putting all those things together it has been quite difficult.
“It has been more difficult actually for staff and for our partners and for communities than perhaps myself personally, because any changes could have a ripple effect in terms of uncertainty and anxiety.
“It is very important that although Mr Gilmore is not here at the moment, to carry on the direction of travel he has set us in, and after all he is the person who appointed me to be the deputy. That is what we have tried to do.”
Though she expects Mr Gilmore to return “unless someone tells me otherwise”, she doesn’t know when this will be. “We know Mr Gilmore is now effectively seconded to the NPCC doing some very important work there, and that will probably be for a little while yet, while the internal investigation matters take their course.”
Originally from Lymm in Cheshire, Miss Collins worked at the police forces of Cleveland, Cumbria and, most recently, Derbyshire before joining West Yorkshire last year.
In common with her chief constable counterparts around the country, she leads a force trying to come to terms with a range of emerging threats including cyber-crime and human trafficking, as well as a massively increased public awareness of child sex abuse in the wake of the Rotherham and Jimmy Savile scandals.
All this is with a force that has lost around 2,000 employees and more than £150 million from its budget since 2010, leaving it with what the Police Federation claims are 1980s levels of staffing that have contributed to a rise in crime.
Though she says West Yorkshire Police is “downsizing”, Miss Collins says local neighbourhood policing, the bedrock of the service since the days of Sir Robert Peel, will retain its importance.
What remains to be seen is the size and shape of this local presence, and the extent to which it will rely on the help of other local authorities. She cites the Troubled Families scheme, which gives vulnerable younger children from struggling homes a better chance in life, as an example of local agencies coming together for the common good.
“That is a really good example of where we can work together,” she says. “So neighbourhood policing will always be there, whether we call it neighbourhood policing, neighbourhood management, it matters not, as far as I am concerned we will continue to do that.
“Whether we continue to do it in the same way, with the same numbers, I doubt, because we are downsizing.
“What we need to look at is what works, what is most effective, what can we work with in terms of public expectation and ensure that they feel reassured, and what works for them, and also making sure we are having honest and direct conversations with the public...so that everyone has a shared understanding about what we can achieve, and being realistic about what we can’t. I think that is quite a different place from where we have been.”
Among the side-effects of police austerity is the difficulty in making sure female officers are able to progress their careers, and have the flexibility to accommodate their needs given that they are more likely to be the main family carer.
With the chances of promotion for both men and women now strictly limited, Miss Collins, who is herself President of the British Association of Women in Policing, admits the desire to see more women in senior positions has to be set against other considerations.
“If you want to be able to flexibly work in order to accommodate things the request has to be considered on balance with everyone else in that team, and of course you have got to meet the demands of the public, so there is an expectation that we answer the telephones, that we go out at the times it is busiest, so all of those have to be factored in.
“At one time where perhaps we had a bit more flexibility, we could accommodate people, but it is getting a bit more of a challenge. It doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t address it, but it is getting more of a challenge.”
In terms of ethnic diversity, she says the force is “not where I want it to be”. The Yorkshire Post revealed last year that just three per cent of officers at inspector level or above are non-white, despite more than 18 per cent of the county’s population not being white, and a third of all residents in Bradford.
This issue is equally challenging, and the force hopes to recruit a higher proportion of its special constables and volunteers from ethnic minority backgrounds in what Miss Collins admits is a more convoluted way of addressing the problem.
Miss Collins said visibility of officers and community relations are important, but that the force hoped to make itself visible to the public in different ways “without necessarily going and knocking on their door, so that where we are able to respond and deal with something, the public see that directly”.
She said: “Whether that is a uniformed presence, or indeed something else, is a conversation we need to have with the public. It will be terrible if a PCSO or an officer in a uniform was walking down the street being highly visible to everyone in that street, but in one of those houses an 11-year-old child is being groomed, and we don’t even know about it.
“The resource that needs to be respond to that is a specialist safeguarding officer, who might not necessarily be wearing a uniform. So it’s how do we explain to the public what we are trying to do, and all the different services that are available, which does not necessarily mean having a police officer in uniform walking past your front door.”
Among the biggest criticisms of West Yorkshire Police in recent years is the way it has dealt with complaints from the public and its own professional standards.
A senior official from the Independent Police Complaints Commission said in 2013 that the force was “ripe for improvement” in this area, and last year the watchdog identified “significant failings” in the way West Yorkshire Police deals with claims of discrimination from the public.
In the last 12 months the force has been responding to the recommendations of a report into integrity and complaints handling by Catherine Crawford, former chief executive of the Metropolitan Police Authority, who died earlier this year.
Miss Collins said that she realised the public had been left disappointed in the past by the force not having the “humility to apologise to the public” for its failings.
She said: “I hope that the public are now finding West Yorkshire Police is taking more responsibility and caring about their concerns in a better way, certainly that has been the push from me for the last 12 months.
“I think it is incredibly important. We are human beings, we don’t always get things right, and we should have the decency to apologise to people when we do get it wrong.
“What we are trying to do now [around our complaints and discipline process] is far more work at the early intervention, local resolution stage, when someone says ‘I am really not very happy about the way I have been spoken to’, or ‘I am really not very happy about an investigation’ or whatever, to take that matter very seriously and sit down with that individual and try and solve it there and then.
“Whereas once upon a time we would have taken a report and it would have filtered its way through the system, perhaps that member of the public not even be spoken to for three or four weeks, I don’t think that is acceptable.
“More often than not members of the public want to raise their concerns, they don’t necessarily want significant sanctions or the officer sacking, they just want an apology and want the individual officer, the individual member of staff, to understand the impact it has had on them. I think that is important.”