Cleveland Police chief speaks of her turbulent two years in charge of the force (From The Northern Echo)
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Cleveland Police chief speaks of her turbulent two years in charge of the force
THE last two years have been some of the most turbulent in the history of Cleveland Police with the force grappling with the dismissal of senior officers and dealing with governmental funding cuts. Graeme Hetherington speaks to the woman who was brought into overhaul the force, Chief Constable Jacqui Cheer.
The arrest of the force’s chief constable, Sean Price, and his former deputy, Derek Bonnard, in August 2011 was the catalyst for the appointment of Ms Cheer in October of that year.
When she took over the reins of the beleaguered force, the then Deputy Chief Constable of Suffolk Police realised the enormity of her task but wasn’t fully aware of the depth of the problems.
In the two years since her temporary appointment, both Mr Price and Mr Bonnard have been sacked for gross misconduct and the force has paid out millions in court settlements, including one to Sultan Alam, the former officer wrongly imprisoned, and another to leading Teesside solicitor, James Watson, for wrongful arrest.
Speaking in her office in force’s Middlesbrough headquarters, Mrs Cheer says she firmly believes the worst scandals are behind Cleveland Police but a further four years of spending cuts will result in a difficult future for forces across the country, not just Cleveland.
“Did I know it was going to be as difficult as this? Yes. Did I know it was going to go as deep into the culture of the force? No,” she says, looking back over the last 24 months.
“I likened the experience to that of going over a waterfall in a canoe. That happened when I came here, since then we have negotiated the rocks at the bottom but we are still in the fast moving river. I believe the worst is over but there are still some challenges ahead.
“Now it feels like the challenges we are facing now are more akin to the challenges faced by every other force around the country.”
The main issue hanging over Cleveleand Police, which is also potentially the most damning, is Operation Sacristy an ongoing investigation into individuals with past and present associations with Cleveland Police Authority.
The probe involves several people who are on police bail, including Mr Price, and the evidence is in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service awaiting a decision on whether to charge the people involved.
Any concern that the ongoing investigation is having a damaging impact on officer morale is downplayed by Mrs Cheer, who insists that national issues are having a more detrimental effect of her officers.
“What happened to the former chief and deputy chief constable did affect the officers but they knew that the problem was at the top of the force and not with them,” she says.
“If your boss is caught doing something wrong, it should have an effect on you but that is only part of the problem.
“It’s not just about changes to their pensions and working conditions, the officers are facing the prospect of having less money in their pockets, which is difficult for everyone.
“We have some of the most dedicated officers I have ever worked with and that fact that many of them have chosen to stay regardless of all that has happened in the last few years is testament to them.
“Many of the officers were born in the area and still live in the area where they are policing, so they are doing their work for the community and for their own families, which is quite unusual.”
Having dealt with a difficult first 24 months in the role, Mrs Cheer, who was given the job permanently earlier this year by Cleveland’s Police and Crime Commissioner Barry Coppinger, is looking at a difficult few years ahead.
Every force in the country has struggle to balance their books with four years of budget cuts and Cleveland is no different, she says.
The force has lost £20m of funding in that period and 300 of its most experienced officers, combined with a recruitment freeze, has left them facing a taxing next four years.
“We know what the figures are for the next two years and that is going to be difficult to deal with but we have no idea what will happen in the following two years.
"We have always said that we will protect frontline staffing and that is what we have been able to do so far. However, there are only so many savings to be made from buildings and cars.”
The force is undergoing a substantial transformation with the merging of specialist units from across the force’s four different districts - Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Stockton and Redcar and Cleveland.
Major investigations, whether they be for murder, organised crime or road policing issues, are all dealt with by a central unit working across the force area. However, keeping community officers in place will remain a high priority for the force.
“All of the changes have come from officers within the force, it has not been led by senior management, and after consulting with everyone we came up with a plan to move forward," says Ms Cheer.
"We know we have fewer officers so it is about using those resources as best as we can.”
Ms Cheer accepts that she has faced some major problems in her first two years in office and realises she is facing further difficulties in the years to come but she is adamant that the standard of policing in the force will not drop.
“Cleveland Police is a good police force, it did have its cultural problems in the highest ranks but that has gone now - the force is more open and transparent and we still have the support of the communities we serve.”
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