Top Suffolk cop's cash warning

SUFFOLK Constabulary's Chief Constable Simon Ash must feel more like an accountant than a police officer.

Anthony Bond

SUFFOLK Constabulary's Chief Constable Simon Ash must feel more like an accountant than a police officer.

The 48-year-old insists he is enjoying his job, but as the New Year approaches the far-reaching implications of the current financial crisis are clearly one of the biggest issues he faces.

Not only has he to make £3.8million of savings for each of the next three years, Suffolk Constabulary has also been given the joint lowest government grant increase out of all forces nationally for next year.

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Then there are the social implications that financial problems have on people - and it is something he is acutely aware of.

“We are not yet seeing any obvious link between crime and the current economic climate but a lot of policing involves dealing with people at their points of crisis so it would be fair to anticipate that we will see potential pressures, be that around acquisitive crime [theft] and potentially it could emerge in terms of violent crime figures. There is no evidence of that at the moment but that is what we are monitoring as we move forward as the economic climate becomes more challenging.”

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The answer to this, some may say, is to put more police officers on the county's streets.

But this is not an option for Mr Ash.

As long as the financial climate is the way it is - be that one year or three - he has warned there will not be extra police officers on Suffolk's streets.

“I think we have to be very realistic that the financial climate we are operating in is a tight financial climate,” he said. “What we will be seeking to do is to drive efficiency from all parts of our organisation in order to divert as much resource as we can to front line policing but it needs to be understood that that is not going to result in increases in numbers of officers in the current climate.”

He may not be able to get extra police officers on the county's streets, but Mr Ash has a plan. It involves mobilising Suffolk's communities to fight against crime through the Safer Neighbourhood concept.

Recently the force launched a scheme which gives police powers to organisations such as Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Central Limited. It means that employees - such as street wardens and park rangers - will be able to give out fines and warnings for issues such as graffiti, litter and disorder and nuisance.

In 2009 Mr Ash is also looking to further develop the force's work with Neighbourhood Watch schemes across the county.

But perhaps the most interesting idea Suffolk's Chief Constable is looking at for next year is the use of volunteers within the force.

Unpaid civilian volunteers are already used to man Safer Neighbourhood offices but they could soon be used to also view CCTV images.

“What we are trying to do is to mobilise large numbers of people in communities to help both drive down crime and drive up feelings of safety and all the indications of the levels of crime and the way people feel at the moment would suggest that it is having the impact that we desire.”

One issue which always proves controversial is the force's collaboration with Norfolk Constabulary. From April 1 both force's will share a Major Investigation Team, witness protection and technical services - such as alarms and cameras for covert investigations.

“There is a requirement for forces to deliver efficiencies year on year and part of the way we are doing that is to review the way we use our own budget and deliver policing and that has led us to conclude that some parts of policing we can do more efficiently by working with other people,” said Mr Ash.

“Consequently we have formed a partnership with Norfolk [Constabulary] to deliver some aspects of policing collaboratively because we believe that will enable us to deliver better services to both the people of Suffolk and Norfolk.”

Mr Ash admitted that he will look at other areas the force can work more closely with Norfolk Police on in 2009. But he was adamant this would not include a joint police control room in the near future.

“I am not saying at no point ever in the future but at this stage we have no plans for any joint control room,” he said.

This month has been a tough one for Suffolk police, during which its custody standards have been heavily criticised. First there was the Ian Snelling inquest, following his death at Felixstowe police station in September 2006. Police officers caring for the 51-year-old while he was in a cell admitted they had “fallen short of the standards required”.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission also found “wholesale failings” in the way the force dealt with a 36-year-old Bury St Edmunds man who required hospital treatment in November 2006 following more than 20 hours in police cells.

But Mr Ash said a lot of work has been done since the two incidents to improve the force's custody standards.

“In that two-year period the constabulary has done a lot to correct what was an unacceptable situation and there is no doubt that at the time of those events some of the standards were not of an acceptable level.”

He added: “I am more than confident now that our standards meet the requirements of the national safer detention guidelines.”

What is clear is that 18 months since becoming Chief Constable, Mr Ash is enjoying his role. And he says it is through the strong communities within the county that will help him drive down crime.

“I really enjoy the chief constable role here in Suffolk. I've been struck primarily by how safe the county is compared to other places that I have worked and I have been particular impressed by the strong sense of community that exists in Suffolk compared to other places. That is a real strength in developing particularly the Safer Neighbourhood concept and a real strength in tackling local problems.”

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