‘Politics and policing shouldn’t mix,’ reflects chief constable of Sussex Police upon retirement

Outgoing Sussex police chief constable, Martin Richards
Outgoing Sussex police chief constable, Martin Richards

From the miner’s strike to the anti-fracking protests in Balcombe, as retirement is upon him, Martin Richards, chief constable of Sussex Police is in a reflective mood.

“There is a symmetry there in career terms,” he says, discussing his initiation as a police constable in Nuneaton, a mining town in Warwickshire in the early 1980s.

Cuadrillas in the mist. Cuadrilla fracking rig is driven away from the Balcombe site escorted by part of the massive Police presence at Balcombe.Exclusive picture by photographer David Burr.

Cuadrillas in the mist. Cuadrilla fracking rig is driven away from the Balcombe site escorted by part of the massive Police presence at Balcombe.Exclusive picture by photographer David Burr.

“It was an interesting education for me in later life, if you fast forward to the drilling in Balcombe.”

Both episodes have been defining moments during his 32 years of public service with the police force, and while much has changed during that time, the chief constable perceives one element that remains constant – the police ‘stuck in the middle of it’.

Other parallels persist too, he says, comparing old footage of the ‘pushing and shoving challenges’ with picketing miners to the scenes witnessed in Balcombe last summer between police officers and environmental protesters.

“And you have the drilling company Cuadrilla, the equivalent of the National Coal Board in the miner’s strike,” adds Mr Richards, “and you had a strong Government element to it too - is this the way we as a nation wish to develop our energy sources?”

Katy Bourne

Katy Bourne

While in the 1980s coal mines were being closed, today new shale reserves are being explored, but according to the chief officer the police maintain a ‘familiar role somewhere in the middle’.

It is a role that should be carried out ‘with humility and a generosity of spirit’, he says. These are the two personal values Mr Richards, the son of a vicar and primary school teacher, championed when he became chief constable six years ago.

“Humility is the nearest I can get to the opposite of arrogance, and I cannot think of anything worse than an arrogant police officer, or an arrogant politician.”

He describes his proudest moments as reading correspondence from the public highlighting the generosity of spirit shown by Sussex Police officers whilst on duty.

During the chief’s six year tenure the influence of politics on the police has changed with elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) replacing Police Authorities.

Mr Richards likens the relationship to that of a chairman and chief executive, and has ‘no difficulty’ with the concept.

However, he admits: “What I hadn’t foreseen is the fact that if your single elected PCC is a politician and elected on a party political ticket of any persuasion, then that brings a new dimension.

“Politics and policing in my view shouldn’t mix, and don’t really mix, but when we had a Police Authority there was more of a balance I think it is fair to say.”

Sussex PCC Katy Bourne stood on a Conservative ticket, and Mr Richards recognises her affiliation does have some influence on the force.

“In operational terms I am not sure that it does make much of a difference, but a sensitivity to areas of interest that a political party might have is something that we have to be mindful of.”

Every Friday morning the chief constable has had to have a meeting with Mrs Bourne, and once a month these sessions have been web-cast. Mr Richards admits that, while he dreads to think what the filmed sessions are like for the viewers, for him at times ‘it has been quite nerve wracking’.

“Probably the one that was most watched was a combination of the monthly performance figures and Balcombe and the drilling, where I think she asked me questions for about 45 minutes just on the police operation associated with that,” he says.

Considering the high profile nature of the operation and its £4 million cost, such questioning was legitimate. But in the run-up to the next PCC election is there a danger political point scoring could overshadow the virtues of transparency and public accountability?

“I am really quite concerned about the election next time, ” states Mr Richards. “The nature of an election is competitive and every PCC in the land will be criticised by those trying to oust them, I suspect.

“Irrespective of party politics or performance, the losers will be the public because, if the arguments are predominantly negative, many people won’t see the distinction between the politics, the election and PCC, and policing as a whole.

“They will read about negativity and the word it is associated with is police, and therefore confidence in policing is affected and morale and confidence of police officers could be affected.

“I don’t think we’ll be hearing what fantastic things police officers do on a daily basis and I don’t think we will hear about the marvellous service provided.

“We’ll have people taking pot shots at one another.

“I am not looking forward to two-and-a-half years time when those elections come round.”

However, it will be a new chief constable in the political crossfire, as Mr Richards stands down on February 7.

Hopefully for him, the political point scoring will not concern the number of ‘bobbies on the beat’, a term that frustrates the chief constable

“I can’t stand that phrase,” he says. “It demeans the role.”

Other frustrations from a lifetime’s police experience include the public’s overly simplistic perception of the constabulary’s work.

There is a lack of understanding when it comes to the ‘complexity of policing the human condition and investigating a serious matter’.

Another frustration with the job is people ‘blaming the police for other people’s criminality’.

Does he believe in evil? “Yes I do, I am a vicar’s son,” he says without hesitation, continuing to quote Jonathan Swift: “I heartily hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth.”

Mr Richards adds: “In other words it is the individuals who fight the fight, but there is something inherently evil about some elements of society.”

Such a stance may explain his view that ‘the emphasis on crime reduction at all costs is misplaced’.

“Policing comes in to its own when the crime happens, when the disorder or natural disaster occurs.

“We are a reactive force, and when people really judge the police is when they call 999.”

With the benefit of hindsight, what would he have done differently during his time at the top?

“This is where I start to get into contentious waters,” he says, revealing that the austerity drive afforded them excuses to make changes he would have preferred to have made earlier.

A prime example is closing police stations across Sussex.

“I recognise the iconic status of the buildings but they serve very little purpose in real terms to members of the public.”

Mr Richards likened the Sussex force to a company with a £250 million turnover, 5000 staff and 1.5 million customers, that has a duty to provide best value for money.

Over the past four years he has orchestrated an initiative entitled Serving Sussex 2015, its primary objective to maintain public service while saving £50 million from the annual £250 million budget.

“I am pleased to say we are on track to do that, and that’s one of the reasons why I feel it is a good time for me to step aside and give somebody else a chance, as we are now about to embark on the next lap.”

While the chief will be retiring from the force, he intends to find other employment, although he says quite what form this could take remains to be determined. He and his wife, a head teacher of a lower school in Hove, will continue living locally.

“Sussex as a county to police and as a county to live in is just fantastic,” he says. Although, for the sport-loving police officer the area has also proved one of his greatest career disappointments.

“I thought Brighton and Hove Albion were going to sort it for me,” he says, revealing that in 32 years serving in Warwickshire, Avon and Somerset, Wiltshire and for the last six in Sussex he has ‘never policed a premiership football team’.

However, he has been immortalised in the crime novels of best-selling author Peter James, in which the writer bases the fictional chief constable of Sussex Police Tom Martinson on Martin Richards.

When he first took up the post he was described as an ‘athletic-looking no nonsense chief constable’ which flattered Mr Richards. It is a casting the chief has ‘tried to live up to’ - but six years on, how will his character now be portrayed in the next Peter James novel?

“A slightly less athletic-looking no nonsense chief constable,’ admits Mr Richards, laughing at the notion.

Deputy chief constable Giles York will become acting chief constable upon Mr Richards retirement next week.

Mr York has already taken the hot seat at Mrs Bourne’s weekly chief constable meetings, and it is the commissioner who will appoint the next chief constable of Sussex Police.

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