The public are “fed up” with police officers’ virtue-signalling rather than locking up burglars, one of Britain’s most senior police officers has said.
Stephen Watson, the new chief constable of Greater Manchester Police (GMP), said police officers’ traditional impartiality is being put at risk by “making common cause” with campaign groups by, for example, taking the knee or wearing rainbow shoelaces.
He believes “woke” policing is at a “high water mark” and needs to be rethought. Asked if he would take the knee in uniform, he said: “No, I absolutely would not. I would probably kneel before the Queen, God, and Mrs Watson, that’s it.”
Mr Watson, 53, has been handed one of the toughest jobs in policing: to turn around one of Britain’s biggest forces after excoriating criticism of its poor performance and the premature departure of its previous chief constable.
In an interview with The Telegraph, he pledged to restore confidence by investigating every crime however “minor”, banning the recent fashion for “screening out” weak cases and restoring neighbourhood policing, or more colloquially “bobbies on the beat”.
His track record suggests he can do it: he turned around the struggling South Yorkshire Police force with a similar strategy such that it was rated by HM Inspectorate of Police as the country’s most improved constabulary for three years on the trot.
His return to Manchester also completes a circle – it was after a chance meeting with two bobbies on the beat in the city that as a young student he decided, in 1988, to turn his back on the family’s naval tradition (his father and grandfather were naval engineers) and join the police.
Stephen Watson CV
A no-nonsense policing style
Now in charge, he has a no-nonsense style which includes spurning social media except where it helps in the pursuit of criminals and informing the public. He has said empathy with the public is an important part of policing but the way it is being done is too often “cack handed”.
“Whether it be through adulterating the uniform with pins and tabs and badges or whatever, and having all manner of florid social media accounts. These are all things which I think leave the public cold, and I just personally don’t think they have a place in policing,” he said.
While the GMP is “embracing and engaging” Manchester’s vibrant LGBT community, Mr Watson draws the line at “police officers putting rainbows on their epaulettes and wearing rainbow shoelaces”.
“If you ever see one of the guards outside Buckingham Palace doing that before getting the next plane to Afghanistan, give me a ring because I’ll be very interested,” he added.
He is concerned such approaches threaten officers’ traditional independence. “Impartiality is in danger of being upset in our urge and desire to demonstrate that we would like to make common cause from time to time with people whose agenda is very difficult to disagree with,” he said.
“I do not think that things like taking the knee, demonstrating that you have a commonality of view with the protesters that you’re policing is compatible with the standards of service that people require of their police.
“Officers could put themselves in a difficult place because if you demonstrate you’re not impartial, and you then have to make an arrest, how on earth do you assist the courts to come to just judgement as to you having executed your powers of arrest in an appropriately impartial professional manner?”
It is why he spurns social media. He said: “I really don’t think the public care what I had for my breakfast, and the idea that I’m some sort of wannabe celebrity.”
“I think we’re past the high watermark. The public are getting a little bit fed up of virtue-signalling police officers when they’d really rather we just locked up burglars.”
An end to screening out so-called minor crimes
Mr Watson acknowledged declining detection rates for burglary and theft are partly due to police “screening out” so-called minor crimes and using it as an “inappropriate method to manage demand”.
“I simply will not accept that,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve sort of banned the phrase ‘screening out’ on the basis that it becomes misunderstood.”
He starts from the principle that “all crime should be investigated” and that the significance of any offence is not whether it is categorised as “minor” but its impact on the victim.
Cases he cited included a plumber whose tools are stolen from their van or a corner shop owner facing persistent shoplifting, both of which are business-threatening events.
The best and worst police forces for burglaries
“Another classic example is when somebody drives off a petrol forecourt having taken some windscreen washer fluid worth £10 and we somehow conclude that’s not very significant,” he said.
“Call me old-fashioned, but the sort of people who do that can commit lots of other crimes. In those circumstances, we have CCTV footage of the individual plus their number plate.
“I just find it an anathema to me and it is an anathema to the public if we do not get on the end of those investigations and lock people up.
“Because the one thing that the police are uniquely uniquely empowered to do is to arrest criminals and if we’re not doing that then nobody is, and that is a problem.”
It means that every burglary victim in greater Manchester will now receive a visit by an officer and forensic investigator “wherever appropriate,” said Mr Watson.
He knows resources are not “limitless,” but even with crimes where there are no witnesses, CCTV or forensic evidence, he has said the public should still expect a desk-based investigation and “quality of communication” that leaves them “feeling satisfied we’ve tried our best in those circumstances”.
Restoring bobbies on the beat
When he took over at South Yorkshire Police, neighbourhood policing had been decimated due to concerns it was too expensive. It left the force in a cycle of “reacting” to crime instead of proactively preventing it. It now has 600 officers on the beat and has reduced crime demand by 23 per cent.
“What you come to discover is that far from being a luxury that we cannot afford, I believe neighbourhood policing is something you cannot afford not to have,” he said.
However, it requires beat officers to really know their areas, be able to solve problems in conjunction with other agencies and root out criminals rather than purely being about “reassuring visibility and getting involved in kids’ face-painting competitions,” he added.
As a senior police officer, he accepts his role is to uphold the laws laid down by Parliament. But he is concerned the police could be overwhelmed by moves to create new “hate crimes” which “sought to criminalise what people think about difficult social issues, as opposed to what they do”.
“I know it might sound at first blush like a relatively outlandish comment but you know it is not an offence to be a misogynist, it is not an offence to be a racist,” he said. “What is an offence [is] if in holding those unfortunate beliefs, you act them out in such a way as causes harm to another.
“If you take misogyny, for example, within the current criminal code if, as a misogynist, you harass another, there is an offence called harassment aggravated by your misogyny. If you lay hands on another, it’s a criminal assault in statute, aggravated by the fact that you’re a misogynist.”
He warned that any legislative attempt to get behind that “originating thought” will be “very difficult” and could end up “populating your crime records with literally thousands and thousands of additional crimes”.
And that gets us back to where we started. He said officers would be “chasing their tails in ever decreasing circles” which would “detract” from their core role of tackling not only “higher” crimes such as child sexual exploitation and organised crime groups but also locking up burglars, robbers, car thieves and “thugs who decide to thump you” in a drunken rage on a night out.