Catherine Roper has this week taken up office as the new Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police. The 16th Chief Constable since Wiltshire Police was founded 184 years ago in 1839, making it the oldest police force in the UK after the Metropolitan Police Service.
To date, Catherine Roper’s 23-year police career has been served in the Met. In her Wiltshire day one YouTube address she acknowledges that this is the first time she has served in a county force. The transition from the largest force in the country to being the Chief of one of the smallest will be challenging.
This is not the only test that the new Chief Constable has to face. Wiltshire Police are currently in Special Measures having been found wanting by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Police, Fire and Rescue Service. Last year, the Inspectorate highlighted concerns about the performance of Wiltshire Police in keeping people safe and reducing crime and in particular how the force responds to the public, protects vulnerable people and makes use of its resources.
More recently the Inspectorate noted that performance in investigating crime had “deteriorated” and that while improvements had been made in some areas, “meaningful progress” had not been made in others.
The Chief goes into this with her eyes wide open and has conceded she cannot state when Wiltshire Police will emerge from Special Measures. There are matters beyond her control that will inevitably impede the achievement of this milestone.
The funding of Wiltshire Police by the central government has repeatedly been questioned by successive Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioners. According to Mr Wilkinson, the current PCC, Wiltshire Police are the third lowest funded force in England and Wales per head of population. He has reported a budget shortfall of just over £3millions for 2023/24 and the need to make savings across the board.
By Mr Wilkinson’s reckoning, a fairer funding formula could allow for the recruitment of an additional 100 officers. The recruitment and retention of both police officers and staff continue to be a national problem, which impacts on Wiltshire Police. The government has recently announced a 3.5% pay rise for the public sector. This is at a time when it is asserted that in real terms police pay has been cut by 17% since 2010.
In order to meet targets for 2023/24, Wiltshire Police needs to recruit an additional 160 officers. Wiltshire’s Police and Crime Panel were recently briefed by the PCC that this will be far from simple. After 3 years of intensive national recruitment, the pool of suitable potential recruits is dwindling. Any failure to recruit the required number of recruits will adversely impact on service to the public and likely result in the loss of government funding.
The Inspectorate also highlighted the inexperience of many officers within Wiltshire Police, which is a further national issue. The failure to maintain officer numbers during a decade of austerity has eroded the skills base within policing. We have a significant cohort of officers being supervised by similarly inexperienced officers. It is no wonder that performance has declined.
A further challenge is an inability to meet public expectations when it comes to access to policing. This includes the vexed issue of the closure of police stations, the absence of the reassuring presence of bobby on the beat and simply just answering the telephone. Underfunding and the lack of resources will potentially continue to undermine public confidence in the police.
I am confident that none of this will be news to the Chief Constable. In my conversations with other officers, there is an acceptance that the quality of service to the public needs to improve. The scale of the task is not underestimated by them.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the new Chief as she sets out her plan for taking Wiltshire Police forward. The PCC has made his support of her clear. However, they will struggle without the active support of others and the PCC has committed to continue to lobby Wiltshire’s MPs for support.
Danny Kruger MP was quick to welcome the new Chief but as far as I can see has been quiet when it comes to the challenges I have highlighted. We need him and our other MPs to provide real and meaningful political support to our new Chief and the PCC. More importantly, the men and women within Wiltshire Police deserve nothing less.