Mark Cowan talks to outgoing West Midlands chief constable Sir Paul Scott-Lee about the highs and lows of his time at the helm.
It has been this focusing on the ‘local’ that has been credited with turning the tide against crime and also improving confidence among the public.
From the every early days of his arrival from Suffolk Constabulary in September 2002, Sir Paul decided simply reducing crime was not enough, the public had to feel safer as well. It was this desire “to make the world a better place” that characterised his reign.
He has overseen dramatic falls in crime - down a third from 372,120 offences in 2001/02 to 248,390 offences in 2007/08 - along with increases in people’s feelings of safety.
Coventry-born Sir Paul, added: “Most people want the same things, to be able to enjoy themselves, bring up their children and work hard without having to worry about their safety.
“What I said seven years ago was that there were no point statistically making a difference if people living here hadn’t noticed.
“The public of the West Midlands is as important to me as the crime figures. Clearly we have got to reduce crime but it would be wrong to do it in a way that didn’t give the public confidence.”
While slashing crime was one way to help reduce people’s fears, Sir Paul said tackling the issues that mattered most to those in local neighbourhoods, whether it be burglary or car crime, litter or graffiti, parking or street lighting, was key to their success, a success charted in the increasing positive feedback found during the force’s rolling Feeling the Difference survey.
While Sir Paul takes great pride in the impact the approach has had, an approach which is now influencing the way politicians and the Home Office look at dealing with crime and disorder, he modestly refuses to take the credit.
“It’s not what I have achieved, it is what has been achieved by the people of the West Midlands and their police service. I just happened to have been Chief Constable at the time it happened,” he added.
Despite the successes, there have been difficult moments for him, such as the death of police hero Mick Swindells in May 2004. Sir Paul also described the New Years’ party murders of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare a year earlier as one of the “darkest times” in his reign.
But he added the “futility of the waste of life” gave him the determination to dismantle the gangs and find ways of preventing others stepping into their roles.
The response saw key gang members jailed and transformed the way police nationally dealt with gun crime. The city pioneered mediation services to bring warring individuals to the table to talk through their differences, a move now being copied across the UK, and helped create firearms forensic unit NABIS.
“What we’ve found is that we can break the cycle of offending and take people out of that gang life,” said Sir Paul, 55.
Meanwhile, the threat of terrorism remains and could do so for the next decade, he warned.
During his time, Sir Paul had to make the decision to evacuate Birmingham city centre after a “credible” threat to the public.
There have also been a number of high-profile home-grown or Birmingham-based groups convicted of plotting or supplying terrorism.
“The threat of international terrorism has not diminished at all in recent years and we have to be vigilant,” he said.
“I would rather be in the West Midlands at this time of threat than anywhere else in the country because our communities have a history of living and working together.
“I sense the communities are behind us. They know it is only a tiny minority engaged in this activity and they are not letting it stop them living their daily lives.”
Despite the difficult days, Sir Paul said the good far outweighed the bad.
“The joy is not how you deal with catastrophe, but how you take the world forward.
“Everyone assumes chief constables spend their life looking at gloom and despondency, looking at the worst humans can do to other humans,” he said. “We do that but we also get to see the best of human nature. I’m routinely seeing people and hearing about things where people are just doing extraordinary things just to make the world a better place.”
He added: “I’m very fortunate to have been part of something worthwhile.”