PCC Blog 182

My emails are a barometer for what is on the mind of the public as far as crime and anti-social behaviour is concerned.

When I was first the Police and Crime Commissioner, almost ten years ago now, I was overwhelmed with emails about the 101 service. Then it was about the tree-felling in Sheffield. During and after the Covid-19 lock-downs it was speeding, especially in some of our smaller towns and villages. This was followed by concerns about dangerous dogs. While I still get emails about each of these from time to time, the volume has fallen away. But now, in the last couple of years, there has been a rise in something new: retail crime.

I don’t just mean shoplifting for personal use, though there is and always was shoplifting of this kind. I have had emails of despair from small shopkeepers to large store managers. I had the person responsible for security for a large national chain of shops contact me to say that their store in Doncaster was second in the list for the most incidents of theft – the first being in London.

A number of things seem to have changed – all for the worst.

First, shoplifting is becoming more and more brazen. Thieves are coming into shops of all sizes and simply helping themselves to high value, easy to take away, products. They don’t seem to care who sees them. One store manager told me that she knew the names of some of those prolific offenders who stole to fund a drug habit. Sometimes they were caught on CCTV and prosecuted; but even if they went to prison, it was only for a matter of weeks or months and they were soon back.

Second, organised criminal gangs are involved. They operate in groups and over a wide area. A regional spokesperson for a well-known chain of convenience stores told me that these gangs target particular places near to the M18 or M1, make their move and then get away along the motorways. Again, what they look for are high value but easy to scoop up goods – such as packs of meat.

Third, they are becoming more abusive and even violent. I have now met a number of shop workers who speak about how over the years they have become more fearful at the prospect of these thieves coming in, because if they are challenged, verbal abuse can quickly become physical threat. So the crimes are wider than simply thieving: they can also be about assault. In fact, a shop assistant is assaulted every 2 hours in the UK.

Fourth, because these thieves are brazen and operating during shop opening hours, members of the public are witnessing this and being affected by it as well. It can be a traumatic experience – though we probably have no way of knowing just how many people have been caused distress.

It is, of course, a national and not just a local problem. In part it may be driven by the cost of living crisis – people struggle to make ends meet. But it also contributes to the cost of living crisis because stores are having to cover the losses from thefts as well as pay for more and more security, and these costs – many millions of pounds – are passed on to customers in higher prices.

So I was pleased to attend a symposium that South Yorkshire Police held last week. This brought together retailers, local and national, local authority officers and the police. We sought to understand just what was going on, what was driving it and what, collectively, we could do to tackle it. Among those present were representatives from local shops, from chains such as Tescos, Dunelm and the Co-Op, together with police from the National Business Crime Centre. This was the start of a big conversation.

I came away with one statistic running through my head. When you list where the demand for police service is coming from across South Yorkshire, most of the top ten hot spots are retail stores.

My email barometer was spot on again.

Supplying chief officers to the police service

When I was looking to appoint a new chief constable in 2016, I wondered whether anyone would apply. The reputation of the force had been damaged as a result of criticism in the Jay Report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham (2014) and the verdicts of the Hillsborough inquests. Her Majesty’s Inspectors had said the force ‘required improvement’, morale was low and public trust in the police had been dented. Other forces across the country that didn’t have this legacy were struggling to put a short list together. The Home Secretary at the time, Theresa May, telephoned me more than once to assure me of her support at what she saw as a very difficult moment.

We were very fortunate. In the event, we had a strong short list and we secured Stephen Watson, the deputy chief constable from Durham. The improvement began. For three successive years South Yorkshire Police (SYP) was the most improved force in the country and today is among the top performing forces.

So it is not surprising that in the recent rounds of recruitment we have secured many good officers without difficulty: people want to join our police force and want to come to South Yorkshire.

In addition, officers from SYP are sought after elsewhere. In the last few years, senior officers from SYP have become chief constables for Cheshire (Mark Roberts) and Greater Manchester (Stephen Watson) and deputy chief constable for the West Midlands (Scott Green). Now our current Deputy Chief Constable, Tim Forber, is the preferred candidate as Chief Constable for North Yorkshire. Once confirmed, he will leave us at some point in the New Year.

Tim has played a crucial role in driving the further improvement of the force. In the latest inspection, the force was judged ‘outstanding’ in 3 areas, ‘good’ in 5 and adequate in 1. We had no areas that ‘required improvement’ or were judged ‘inadequate’.

He and I have always had a good working relationship – and I thank him for that. So many congratulations and all good wishes to Tim. He sets the highest bar for whoever may follow.

Have your say on future policing priorities

Each year I consult the public of South Yorkshire on two matters – the priorities for policing that I want to see in the Police and Crime Plan for the coming financial year and how much people are willing to pay for police services. The latter consultation is a statutory requirement.

It would be very helpful, therefore, if you would be willing to complete the consultation. You can find it here: https://shorturl.at/klqA6

Blue light carols

Last Wednesday, the annual Police and Fire carol service was held in Sheffield cathedral; but this time it was rather different. For the first time, it was a service for all three emergency services – Police, Fire and Rescue and Ambulance.

Although we are still liturgically in the season of Advent, the cathedral was very festive. Christmas trees with white lights were placed along the wall in both outer aisles all the way to the chancel. Two large trees stood either side of the chancel steps. And a nativity scene fashioned from Sheffield steel was placed further along towards the sanctuary.

When I arrived, the police band were playing Christmas tunes. The service was a mix of carols, readings and music by the choir and band. It began with a beautiful and moving solo voice piercing the silence with the first verse of Once in royal David’s city.

The head of each service gave a short Christmas message at different points. The partnership director of the Yorkshire Ambulance Service, Adam Layland, spoke about those in the different emergency services who would be on duty over Christmas and their families who supported them. We gave them all an appreciative round of applause. The Chief Constable and Fire Chief reminded us that next year marks the 50th anniversary of the two South Yorkshire services.

We sang Silent night and O come all ye faithful and the police lead chaplain, the Revd Derek Pamment, prayed for all those for whom Christmas would not be an easy time, including those displaced by war.

Afterwards, the cathedral gave us mulled wine and mince pies.

It was a warm and happy occasion with some good conversations between those in the different blue light organisations.

There were, though, poignant moments in the service when we realised that the land of conflict into which the Christ child came – which we once called the Holy Land – is the same place of conflict that we see today. One of the carols had the words:

O hush the noise of mortal strife,

and hear the angels sing.

I wish you a very happy and peaceful Christmas and New Year.