THE region’s newest police chief has firmly rejected Government moves to bring in top cops from overseas. Mark Tallentire reports.
“IT doesn’t strike me that policing is broken,” says Mike Barton, minutes after being appointed chief constable of Durham Constabulary.
A year ago, perhaps few would have argued.
But the last few months has seen one police officer arrested over alleged leaks linked to the Andrew Mitchell “plebgate” affair, another jailed for offering to sell information to the News of the World and, most damagingly, publication of the damning report of the independent panel on the Hillsborough disaster.
It was perhaps given these developments that when police minister Damian Green suggested opening up police recruitment to overseas applicants, business people and high-flying graduates last month, the idea received a relatively sympathetic welcome.
But if Mr Green persists with the move, he will have a strong opponent in Mr Barton, who was given Durham’s chief constable post permanently today (Monday, February 11), following four months as temporary chief.
“We brought in Gary Ridley (Durham’s assistant chief officer) as part of our top team four years ago,” Mr Barton says.
“He’s not a police officer. He’s an accountant. And we couldn’t do our job without him.
“British policing absolutely brings in people to the top table already. But there are certain jobs in policing where we need police officers.
“Nobody would suggest bringing in a brain surgeon because he’s good with his hands. We should have police officers being police officers.
“I’m more than happy to bring in people where appropriate, but we have to be very careful if we’re bringing in people to run firearms jobs, for example.
“When I command a firearms job, I draw on 33 years of experience – not a book I read last week.”
It’s a stinging response from a man who has spent 33 years learning his trade, firstly in 28 years in his native Lancashire and latterly as assistant and then deputy chief constable in Durham.
“Any police reform has got to be considered seriously. We’ve just been through a seismic six months,” he says, referring to the introduction of elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).
“If people are saying we should bring people in because there’s a dearth of talented chief officers, I’d take issue with that.
“Crime has never been lower. We’ve got the lowest crime rates in 20 years, despite working with fewer staff and on more complex issues.
“It doesn’t strike me that policing is broken.”
The 56-year-old takes a similarly strident stance against suggestions the police should be routinely armed.
“I share an ambition with the PCC (Ron Hogg) and the constabulary to make Durham the best police force on the planet.
“UK policing is the best in the world because we are routinely unarmed,” he emphasises.
“There are small towns in America with more serious crime than County Durham and Darlington. People who say we’ve huge lessons to learn from elsewhere – they’re wrong.
“I care passionately that we remain principally an unarmed police force.
“We police by consent, with consent. If we don’t have that consent, that’s when civil disobedience breaks down and disorder begins.
“The reason why this country is a safe and pleasant place to live is because we’ve got good neighbours and if people see anyone behaving badly they give them a hard stare of tell them to pack it in. That’s what makes Britain a great place to live.”
Mike Barton was born into a farming family in north Lancashire. But he always wanted to become a police officer, he recalls, playing cops and robbers from a young age.
Asked which role he took, he laughs, before replying, diplomatically: “I think we took turns.”
Having missed farming while studying law at Newcastle University in the 1970s, he returned to it after graduating.
But the calling to join the thin blue line persisted and, after flooding damaged the profitability of the farm, he joined Lancashire police.
Mr Barton was head of crime at the force when at least 21 cockle pickers were drowned by an incoming tide at Morecambe Bay, in February 2004.
In Durham, he has led the fight against organised crime, famously pursuing an “Al Capone” approach of prosecuting known criminals for any offence possible.
He is also a devotee of the American-born “broken windows theory” of crime fighting, which suggests if small problems are not deal with quickly, this encourages more serious crime.
The introduction of Police and Communities Together (Pact) meetings to Durham was his idea, for example.
And he is a keen supporter of restorative justice, describing it as a “game changer” in cutting re-offending.
With spending cuts biting across the public sector, Durham Police has faced a 20 per cent budget reduction – and as a result its constable count has fallen from 1,750 to 1,370.
Austerity means police chiefs must challenge the way things have been done, Mr Barton says.
“That’s not to say we’ve got to be revolutionary and throw everything up in the air,” says, “But if we do what we’ve always done but dilute it, the public will lose out.”