The (very) thin blue line

Michael Fotis 3 November 2009

Julie Spence “only does facts”. Britain’s most senior female police officer and Cambridgeshire’s Chief Constable talks candidly to Michael Fotis about fairness, the “tough ladder”, Fiona Pilkington, and being drawn into the immigration debate.

Chief Constable Julie Spence is not a racist; however, an interview published shortly before her application to run Scotland Yard, would not be so certain. It led with the following: ‘Julie Spence gets uncomfortable when she hears foreign languages on her beat in Cambridgeshire. Her remarks have already sparked outrage over a migrant crime wave.’

“That was wrong. That was absolutely wrong. That made me feel very angry because that’s not what I said. What I did say was around some of the fear that has come from Peterborough. Some elderly people felt that their community had changed so much, and were unsettled, not me.” Spence protests her innocence: “All I was doing was saying what the facts were – I’m only doing facts, I do facts, I’ll leave it to the politicians to do the spin.”

This sounds good, and seems genuine, but was she too naive, or perhaps arrogant, to assume that her nuanced argument would be taken verbatim?

The basic point, which she continues to make, seems straightforward enough: that the fastest growing county in the country has been short-changed by Westminster. “Our force is one of the lowest funded in the country, with one of the fastest growing communities, with one of the greatest complexities. If you don’t raise those issues, nobody ever knows, so the people of Cambridgeshire, wherever they come from, get a lesser service. As a public servant, I have a moral responsibility to make sure that people know the facts.”

This rather intellectual police chief decided to discuss these complexities in detail, which meant talking about the impact of migration on her force’s limited resources. “Four years ago Wisbech (a market town with a population of around twenty thousand) had no language other than English, but today they have over fifteen languages in their schools. I have never been in an area where I have seen such rapid change in population and growth.” Spence cites ballooning translation costs as one such additional cost. Perhaps unbeknown to Spence at the time, she had in effect waved a red-rag, which was seized upon by the media. 

Controversy soon followed, with Spence providing a number of what seemed to be not so shrewd quotes, such as the following, ‘Lithuanians probably live in houses of multiple occupancy, and they spill over into the parks, and they drink, urinate, and actually all they are doing is having fun, but it doesn’t help tension and cohesion.’ But doesn’t a blanket statement like that rouse confrontation? “If you take the conversation out of context, it can stir it, and that’s what some media did, it’s about having honesty around friction points…you can’t blame me for the way it gets reported.”

Spence was also manhandled by the media on the subject of knife crime, with a number reporting on the police chief linking certain ethnic groups to particular crimes. “I was asked an honest question by an MP in the House of Commons Select Committee, I gave an honest answer. I did not say that Poles have a greater propensity for carrying knives. I was asked a question around which nationalities, outside white British, were carrying and using knives. This is actually about having a responsible press. What we need around the whole debate is a responsible press, because it’s not about migrant bad, settled good.

“It wasn’t saying that migrants were criminal. Nineteen percent of our county’s population were migrant workers, but only sixteen percent of our cell-block population were migrant workers, so it did show quite clearly that it was a proportionate number of individuals, they were no more, no less.” In the midst of a ‘migrant crime wave’ such pesky caveats were left behind.

“From some cultures, to carry a knife is not a crime, whereas in Britain it gets filed under knife crime. It’s not about being racist; it’s about making sure that those who come here to earn a living actually don’t get into trouble with us, because the majority come here to be hard workers”. Spence insists that the “uplift in knife crime was linked to migrant workers, not knowing and understanding that you couldn’t carry knives, and through education we’ve stopped that happening.” Julie Spence is un-yielding sort of person: “it’s a tough journey, the ladder is tough.”

She is also admirably optimistic, advising “you can never be a leader if you’re a pessimist. Who’d follow a pessimist?” In this light, Spence also talked of “the nice connectivity between town and gown, and her travels through the streets of Cambridge, wondering “if I’ve seen the next Prime Minister.”

Spence joined the Avon and Somerset Constabulary at a time when only seven percent were women. Indeed she was the first married woman in that force. “It took them (the police) a while to realise that actually what you need is brains not brawn.” Unsurprisingly Spence has been a strong advocate for minorities in the police, and asked if the police are still institutionally racist, Spence is startlingly unguarded, “I don’t see the service as institutionally racist, but there are elements where we get it wrong.”

In addition to keeping her beat safe, Spence leads the Associations of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) ‘citizen focus’ initiative, which seeks to make policing more responsive to the public. So what about the crime-screening Spence had previously defended?  “We don’t mention the word crime-screening anymore.” Spence has modified her stance on this subject, having attempted to justify her force’s failure to follow-up 1/3 of calls received in 2007 as a “reasoned assessment of the chances of achieving a positive result.”

Quite simply, there is such a thing as a negative result, which the Fiona Pilkington case would make disturbingly evident. Could Fiona Pilkington have lived in Cambridgeshire?

Pilkington’s pleas for help were dismissed by the police on thirty-three separate occasions. Ultimately, the “low level nuisance behaviour” which provoked these calls accumulated to such a point that…. her inquest would report that “police errors and inaction were partly responsible for driving a vulnerable single mother to kill herself and her severely disabled daughter after years of abuse from youths.”

“Yes, that incident could happen in any force in the country, because we don’t currently have the technology or analytical capacity, to do more longitudinal studies of all the calls that we get… we need to improve.” Disturbingly, Spence revealed that the “caller history is not there…  you don’t know if this is the fourth, fifth, sixth, or one-hundred and fifth call that has happened.”

It’s a little difficult to protect and serve with such an information deficit.

Although this may seem simple, it is exactly the point Spence seems determined to make.

Policing is highly complex, but has been dumbed-down so that the public have been led to believe that any issue can simply be solved by placing more Bobbies on the beat.

Spence’s discussion relies on complex causation, and multi-factor explanations, and she is at the forefront of a truly honest discussion around policing. “We’re 140,000 officers policing 61 million; people are not going to see an officer on every street corner.”

“I am not sure what the future holds, but I am sure that when I come to the end of policing I will find somewhere to be able to live what I believe, which is around being open, honest, transparent, and fair, and if I see unfairness in anything, that is the thing that makes me want to do something differently.”

As I left, Spence gave me a thumbs-up. As a public servant with morals, courage, and application, it is Spence who deserves the thumbs-up.

Michael Fotis