I have been in post for two months. Since it is also the start of a new year, this is a good moment to give my initial impression of what I have found.
The first priority: child sexual exploitation
I said when elected that keeping a focus on child sexual exploitation had to be a first priority. This was the circumstance that led to my predecessor resigning and the by-election being triggered. It is likely to dominate the local scene for as far ahead as we can see. So what have I done and what have I concluded so far?
I have met with many of those directly involved in Rotherham and Sheffield. I have spoken privately with some victims of historic abuse, with their relatives and with counsellors and social workers who seek to help. I have visited multi-agency teams involved in both historic and current exploitation issues and have had many conversations with senior police officers, local council officers and leaders and members of parliament.
I have agreed to increase the number of police staff working on matters of child abuse and backed a local poster campaign by South Yorkshire Police and partners to raise awareness in the community about child sexual exploitation.
At the moment I am satisfied that the present generation of police officers have a better understanding of what this form of abuse and exploitation is all about. They can see the victims as victims. They understand how a previous generation of police, council officials and councillors did not understand how grooming worked to persuade vulnerable and needy youngsters that what was happening to them was not exploitation but the offer of friendship and love.
But I think we still have a long way to go in understanding how we protect victims when perpetrators are now arrested, especially if they are bailed and return to the community.
Although I shall expect a focus to be kept on the historic cases, I recognise how difficult it can be for the police to build a case against perpetrators, especially where victims – who may be in their 30s – are reluctant to have their case brought to court. Some victims want prosecution but others do not want the past re-visited.
The police and Crown Prosecution Service are learning how to build a case from whatever forensic or circumstantial evidence is available. They also need to think very carefully about how victims can be protected as cases are brought.
In January the National Crime Agency will begin its work in Rotherham. They have the task of ensuring that all the historic cases of abuse are identified and those guilty of criminal behaviour are prosecuted. again, this is painstaking work and will take a number of years before it is completed.
I shall continue to monitor all of this and to make sure that the necessary resources are available.
Hillsborough & Orgreave
At the same time, I realise that the other big questions about police conduct and behaviour in the past are still to be fully faced: the Hillsborough Inquests are not likely to conclude before early 2016 and the Independent Police Complaints Commission report on Orgreave has yet to decide on its course of action.
One of the many worrying aspects of both of these is the cost. Unless we receive some form of special grant funding from the Home Office they could result in quite massive bills for South Yorkshire. At a time of sharp reduction in grant funding for normal police activity, this is potentially extremely serious.
I have also been busy in this short period of time visiting various parts of the police estate and meeting those who work there – from the call centre to the firearms team. And I have accepted many invitations to meet community groups of all kinds.
One of the encouraging things I have found is the degree of support people have for Neighbourhood Teams – both for police officers and police community support officers. Whatever the criticisms of the police, this is one aspect of policing that the public has more confidence in and want to see continued.
Neighbourhood Teams are, of course, all about boots on the ground – and that means salaries and big cost implications. At a time of falling financial resources it becomes even more difficult to maintain this commitment. So far the Chief Constable has been able to do it by taking out one level of supervision. But once that cut has been made it cannot be done again. So if I am to safeguard Neighbourhood Teams I shall have to find money from elsewhere to balance the books. Sometimes we shall be able to make genuine savings – doing something more economically or efficiently – but there will still be a need to reduce overall expenditure and that presents difficult and hard choices.
My main aim for 2015 will have to be about restoring confidence in the police service. This will not be easy given all the issues of the past. But unless South Yorkshire Police admit past mistakes and learn the correct lessons, trust will remain fragile. So the direction ahead is very clear even if the journey is going to be bumpy for a while yet.
I am sorry this message sounds unduly pessimistic, but there is no point in being anything other than realistic.
Despite that, I wish you a very Happy New Year and hope it will bring peace, both within us and between us.
Dr Alan Billings
Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire