THE tone was set at our first meeting: “How can I make a big impact in your paper?” smiled Mike Barton.

Here was something different – Durham’s new Chief Constable, back in 2012, seeking a newspaper editor’s suggestions on how to grab headlines.

It was a clear signal that he wanted to work with the media to send an uncompromising message to criminals that he was out to get them.

Around that time, I’d seen a London paper ingeniously print a feature called “Shop A Yob Bingo”. Photographs of 12 wanted men had been published in a grid, and readers were invited to win a prize by calling a Crimestoppers number and put names to faces by completing four corners, a line, or full house.

“Why not try something like that?” I suggested.

“I bloody love it,” came the reply, with a fist gleefully banging the desk.

As it happened, “Shop A Yob Bingo” was never played in County Durham but it made Mike think about another little game he could play with criminals. A special edition of an old board-game called Guess Who? was produced and he first played it at a public meeting in Bishop Auckland.

Members of the public were asked to guess the name of a criminal in their midst, with the Chief Constable unveiling the answer at the end. The criminal named in that first game was John Harrop.

“He was there – at the back of the room, trying to stare me out,” remembers Mike.

It was the new chief’s way of taking the fight to the crooks. “We were giving the community confidence that we weren’t scared of the villains and they’d have no hiding place.”

But wasn’t he worried about the legal dangers of publicly shaming those who hadn’t yet been convicted?

Another smile breaks out. “Part of me hoped they’d sue because I could have produced a lot more evidence in a civil court than a criminal court. If they’d sued, all my Christmases would have come at once,” he says.

“It might have cost us a couple of grand, but it was worth the risk because we knew these people were part of the small minority responsible for a significant amount of crime. In the North-East, it’s driven by addiction to class A drugs and the market is controlled by these criminal families.

“Some people said I shouldn’t be doing it because it was persecution. I suppose it was, but my message was simple: stop being villains and we’ll stop persecuting you.”

Having grown up in a farming family in Carnforth, Lancashire, Mike was torn between being a farmer or a cop.  After completing a law degree, he went back to the family farm for a while before joining the police in 1980.

“My second day on the beat in Blackpool was a night shift and we woke up a bloke in a bus shelter,” he recalls. “I checked him out and discovered he was wanted for a robbery.  My commanding officer said I wouldn’t always be that lucky, but he was wrong – I have been. You make your own luck and all cops should be curious.”

Mike rose through the ranks and joined Durham in 2008 as Assistant Chief Constable. He was promoted to Deputy the following year and has been Chief Constable for seven years.

Asked what has given him most pride, he replies without hesitation: “That we are now employing people with previous convictions.”

He’s referring to the Checkpoint programme, in which offenders can avoid prison by agreeing to a four-month “contract”. Durham employs 14 “Checkpoint navigators” who work alongside offenders to try to solve problems that lead to reoffending. Two of Durham’s navigators have criminal records.

“We can’t just go on recycling criminality, so we’re giving people a chance who’ve made mistakes and making best use of them,” he says.

Another source of pride is that Durham is the only force to be rated as “outstandingly effective” for four consecutive years. “Yes, that gives me quiet personal satisfaction, but I merely unleashed the spirit of the 2,500 people working with me,” he concedes.

“Mind you, I’m old enough and ugly enough to know there are still people in this organisation who don’t like my style, but leaders have to be authentic – there’s no point trying to be someone you’re not.

“The most important value for me is positivity. There’s room for people questioning what you do, but there’s a big difference between sceptics and cynics, so you need to sack the mood-hoovers who go round sucking up all the positivity.”

It’s clear, however, that Mike’s biggest frustration has been his failure to convince the legislators to think again on drugs.

“When I joined the cops, I was happy I was there to enforce the drugs laws. Thirty-nine years on, I see the folly of that approach,” he says.

“All the science shows heroin-assisted treatment is the way forward. I don’t want it to be a free for all on street corners, but I know that what we are doing isn’t working.

“We use methodone but it’s not as effective as heroin in getting people off drugs. I haven’t been able to convince enough people it’s the path they ought to commission but, hopefully, my successor will continue the debate and I’ll support it as a retired cop.”

So, what does retirement hold? “I’m going to build a greenhouse – I’m a frustrated farmer and I want to pick my own spuds for Christmas Day lunch,” he says.

He’ll also join the board of a parliamentary group as an unpaid advisor. As yet, it’s unspecified but it’s a safe bet drugs policy will be on the agenda. He’s also been elected to the Restorative Justice Council.

Seven years on from our first meeting, Durham’s departing Chief Constable ends our final meeting by picking up the latest edition of The Northern Echo from his desk. One of the two faces staring out from the front page is the man who was named and shamed in that first game of Guess Who? He’s starting a prison term for conning scores of victims out of £85,000 for bogus roofing work.

There was no hiding place for John Harrop. And that’s enough for Mike Barton CBE  to break out into the biggest smile yet.