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A decade in policing Bristol

John Long, Acting Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police, is set to retire at the end of August. As he comes to the end of a highly successful policing career he reflects on a decade of policing Bristol with the current Bristol Area Commander, Chief Superintendent Jon Reilly.

My earliest memory of John is of sitting in the sergeant’s office at Broadbury Road station on a late shift; I’d heard about a new Superintendent but thought so what? How can it affect me? Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and John introduced himself. We spoke about the detection challenge and that first conversation really impacted on me. The hand on the shoulder has continued, steering me in the right direction.

John Reilly

When we first started working together Bristol had just amalgamated from three separate policing areas to the city we know now. I used to chair intel tasking meetings in north, south and central Bristol every second Wednesday and - surprise, surprise - the same offenders popped up every time. So I just knew that in making one policing area we could do a better job and work much more closely with the local authority as one voice for policing. This was a significant step for the city. Back then, Bristol had the highest crime rate outside London, worse than Manchester, worse than Sheffield, worse than Birmingham. Ten years later out of the eight core cities Bristol has the second lowest crime rate. In 2002 we recorded 80,000 crimes – three times the level of crime in the entire Dyfed Powys area - and last year it was just over 40,000.

John Long

It was hard to manage the avalanche of crime so we carved it up to focus on crime types. A decade ago you said Bristol’s badge of shame was its reputation as the car crime capital of Europe so we started with car crime and Operation Hornet.

John Reilly

That’s when we started developing the idea of integrated offender management. Probation came in with us; we arrested the most prolific offenders and probation came up with a more bespoke plan to try and break the cycle of crime. Some of the officers who worked on the focus teams are still very memorable. Bristol’s a living example of just how much you can achieve when you give people the chance to fulfil their full potential and we reduced car crime pretty quickly. Having made some great inroads to that we moved on to tackle other crimes such as burglary and robbery.

We were blessed with a first rate team on the front line and a senior team who recognised the challenges of working in the city but never shrank from them for one moment. We used to talk about making Bristol the safest city in the world and lots of people raised their eyebrows but when the team got their teeth into it we really believed it could be the case.

John Long

And there was violent crime too. Today we record a fraction of the crimes we used to. Even a fraction is still too many - but cutting crime by half in a decade is a huge achievement.

John Reilly

But our success is more fragile than we like to believe and we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball for one moment.

John Long

I know you’ve been a long-standing trustee of Bristol Drugs Project. That’s something we tackled too but we need to keep it up. Drugs still cause so many problems across the city for families, for communities, for crime rates too. We’ve made real inroads but we can’t lose sight of it either.

John Reilly

Sadly it’s often those who’re most vulnerable who are most prey to that kind of social problem.

John Long

That’s part of the fascination and challenge of working in Bristol. It’s the second most diverse city outside of London, fifty different countries of birth and ninety one languages. It’s one of the richest too. There are more graduates and post graduates per square mile in north Bristol than anywhere else in the country yet one in four children live in poverty – the national average is one in five – and that creates all sorts of responsibilities for us that are broader than just crime.

John Reilly

The changes in the city clearly show how policing and education go hand in hand. Before Bristol was amalgamated into one we were at the bottom of the educational league tables and 70% of children would leave without qualifications. Now all our schools bar a couple are good or outstanding and we’re working with those that still have problems. The work we did through the Safer Bristol partnership has been critical for this. I’ve been lucky to work with people who believe passionately in the power of partnership. We couldn’t have achieved success without people like Councillor Gary Hopkins who championed Neighbourhood policing and PCSOs. They all took political risks whichever party they were from to work tirelessly in creating a strong alliance for policing.

John Long

We succeeded because of the longevity of people but they stayed because they could see we had a passion and a vision and wanted to try and see things through.

John Reilly

IMPACT and IOM were almost born out of a poverty of resources – the government’s spending formula for police always meant we had less than we should have - so we had to think quite radically about how we could make a difference. Bristol was always innovative in finding ways of doing that. People with a talent for working with offenders started to get these people to look at their lifestyles and turn them away from offending. I knew we’d landed something special when one of our most problematic car crime offenders got a job cleaning vehicles at Avonmouth because he got so sick of being ‘managed’ by us he’d decided crime no longer paid! If you give people a chance and help them make better choices most leap at the chance. Now we’re working with domestic abuse perpetrators and organised criminals to show them a similar pathway and Bristol is still at the leading edge of this work nationally.

But you’ve got a much tougher job now Jon. In the past we had more resources, more budget and more people on the teams to do the work but we’re seeing the cuts really bite into that now.

John Long

Resourcing has always been an area of contention - even when we had lots of money we wanted more staff. But that’s where we have to pay tribute to the staff in Bristol today. It is a difficult challenge and I am so proud of the work they do. You hear about some of the dramatic things they do to help the public day in day out across the city, 24 hours a day. They all go the extra mile; the people who work there are absolutely fantastic.

John Reilly

And they’ll literally jump into the harbour to help someone! I often do the ‘taxi driver test’ and ask them if they think the city has changed; almost without exception they say it’s improved. And they’re the ones who really know.

John Long