The new head of one of England’s biggest and most criticised police forces has insisted it is not a failing organisation but vowed he will quit if it is not in a “demonstrably better place” within two years.
Stephen Watson took over as chief constable of Greater Manchester police (GMP) this week after his predecessor was forced to step down over an inspection report that found the force had failed to record 80,000 crimes in a year.
He defended the Conservative government’s austerity push – which resulted in 20,000 fewer police officers on England’s streets from 2010 to 2019 – saying it was too often used as “an excuse” for poor policing.
“I do see it here, where if you talk too much about what you haven’t got and what you can’t do it gets into the psychology of the organisation, and people start to use a loss of resources as an excuse not to do as good a job,” he said, in an interview outside GMP’s headquarters in Manchester on Thursday.
Pre-austerity, some forces were “just not that good, frankly, at understanding the value of a pound”, he added.
His predecessor, Ian Hopkins, regularly complained that police cuts made it difficult for the force to investigate crime properly. Shortly before taking office in 2015, he warned that cuts meant police may not have the time to investigate burglaries straight away. For those who are “perfectly capable of phoning your insurance company, getting the locks sorted or the window boarded up, then I don’t see the necessity for us to turn up at that stage,” Hopkins said at the time.
Watson promised his officers would attend all burglaries in Greater Manchester. “I’m 48 hours into the job, but into the future, you will not have the situation where people’s homes are burgled and the police don’t come. That’s not happening. We will investigate all burglaries and that will involve physical attendance of premises,” he said.
Hopkins was asked to resign in December by Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, who also has the role of the police and crime commissioner. A report by an HM inspector of constabulary, Zoe Billingham, had found the force had not recorded one in five reported crimes in the year to 30 June 2020. “Victims of crime are too often being let down by Greater Manchester police. The service provided to victims, particularly those who are most vulnerable, is a serious cause of concern,” she said.
Watson, who spent the last six years as chief constable of South Yorkshire police clearing up after the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal, admitted his new force could do much better, but insisted: “I think it’s objectively unfair to describe it as a failure. There are many facets of what GMP does that are actually quite good. What is not in dispute is that the force is significantly underperforming its potential.”
He said he was confident about turning around GMP. “I am going to pull it off because I am surrounded by thousands of really good people who really want to make a difference,” he said. “If within two years this force is not in a demonstrably better place, I’ll have gone.”
Three hundred and twenty-five new GMP officers will be hired by 2022 and paid for by an increase in council tax, as part of an election pledge by Burnham. In addition, the force should get its share of 20,000 officers the government has committed to recruit nationally by 2023.