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Shape shifting across county lines

Leaving the Met to join Suffolk Police as Assistant Chief Constable has enabled Rob Jones to use his experience in tackling gangs in a new way. He tells Police Oracle why he made the move.

Anyone thinking that a move away from the capital to police one of Britain’s most picturesque counties is taking it easy can think again.

The ‘to-do’ list for Suffolk’s new Assistant Chief Constable Rob Jones is set by a job title of crime, public order and partnerships. But this includes gangs, County Lines, international organised crime and community relations.

None of these issues are new to ACC Jones who spent 24 years with the Metropolitan Police.  During that time he was Borough Commander in Newham and Lewisham.  

He was recently BCU Commander in Central London, with responsibility for local policing in Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea.  He has also worked at Scotland Yard on transformational change. He is an experienced public order commander and was previously head of crime and partnerships in Hackney.  

Those who have worked with ACC Jones describe him as “a thinker, adaptable, dedicated and a thoroughly decent guy”.

His appointment in April came as the COVID-19 outbreak had taken hold and the force was rapidly adjusting to getting its workforce to adapt to working from home.

For years, forces and the Cabinet Office have resisted the roll out of technology because of cost, IT system limits and concerns about protecting sensitive information.

He tells Police Oracle that the analysis is well under way about the gains of home working during the crisis.

“We’re doing quite a lot of work in Suffolk about the learning from working from home. People used to spend huge amounts of time travelling from home and from meetings. In policing in general, we’ve been much more slow than we could have been on this,” he says.

There have been multiple benefits, not least freeing up time: “We had a MAPPA meeting (Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements) to discuss risk and all the agencies were there. We used to really struggle with diaries. And we finished on time.”

It’s also cut car journeys - and ACC Jones says there are far bigger issues than saving fuel costs and wear on the fleet.

“One of the big ideas that we are looking at is about the environmental impact and moving faster to an electric fleet. People joining now are looking for the environmental strategy. I think it’s really good but I think we need to adapt quickly. If people come in and don’t get listened to, it’s a problem,” he says.

The crime issues are just as interesting. The force is not just a destination for County Lines Gangs but also a route through to Norfolk. Not only that but there is an international port that is a hub for organised crime. The port is a shipping point for the lucrative trade in stolen high value vehicles and parts. So much that there is a full-time police officer at the port who has recovered millions of pounds worth of cars in just the last year alone.

His work tackling gangs will call in his experience dealing with the issue in East London and Hackney. Some of most violent offenders in the capital were on his patch but he developed very effective local partnerships and supported initiatives such as the removal of gang videos from social media.

The 2012 Olympic Games also took place while he was at Newham so he had a role in both supporting the local community around the stadium as well as helping to deliver the Games.

“It was a fantastic time  - we did some amazing things,” he says.

So after 24 years with the Met, why go?

“In the last few years in the Met with Cressida (Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick) we became really conscious of UK policing and exchanging ideas between forces. I was among those picked when she took a delegation to Durham. The Met does a leadership course that looks at all this and I was lucky enough to go on that. It gave me a huge insight into how we can do things differently,” he says.

“One of the ideas was about how to promote awareness of domestic violence among your own teams. Another was a collaboration about knife crime where they talked to Tesco about ending counter sales. It changed my perspective. When I went on the senior command courses, I talked to colleagues about different challenges. That’s when I decided to find a challenge outside the Met.”

He now has the space – and rank – to try some of those ideas out as well as develop a few of his own.

ACC Jones says: “With Suffolk, it’s appealing in terms of size but a lot of the problems – like poverty and County Lines – are there but in a different form. Being among ACCs was really appealing in terms of the influence you can have with the different partners. I’m hugely enjoying it – no contest. I’ve come into contact with people who have gone the other way and they are hugely enjoying the Met.”

Like most other forces in the country, Suffolk has had to confront diversity in a way not seen since the Macpherson Inquiry. The force had to report itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct after an incident with two of its officers ended up on social media.

He does not discuss the specific case.

But ACC Jones believes the recent wave of protests has fundamentally changed how many people think about the issue of racism and that police leaders need to think carefully about their response.

He says: “I think the way the movement has grown across from America and throughout the world is a sign of feelings of discontentment about inequality and fairness that are really deep. But also there’s the democratisation of the internet where ideas and movements can grow really quickly. Felixstowe, Ipswich and Bury St Edmonds have all had their own kind of protests by people who have never been involved in that kind of thing before.”

As a result, working on trust and confidence in policing the community is one of two top priorities.

“In particular, that’s become challenging with the Black Lives Matters movement and legitimacy,” he says.

And tackling drugs is the other issue of importance: “There’s much more to be done operationally. The harm caused by drugs from cannabis right through to organised crime is incredibly important to tackle. There’s lots of things about violence that affect forces but those are the big two.”

Part of the problem with the protests was that police found themselves caught between enabling legitimate protest while enforcing lockdown legislation that banned mass gatherings.

ACC Jones reflects: “Police have always had a role in the public health and this been about finding a balance between intervention and information versus freedom of choice. I feel very proud about how we’ve done it but it’s been really difficult to reassure communities.”

He adds: “It’s really new and really difficult and we need to talk about how we adapt to the situation while looking after our own people.”

Building on community relations is not going to be about transferring an approach from his time with the Met as there are subtle differences between the communities.

“It starts with asking ‘right, what are the things that are important in our lives that will help us feel safe?’ I think the issues of poverty and inequality and feeling valued are the same in Suffolk as they are in London and across UK policing. But how do you build trust in a rural community with the isolation that comes with it?” he asks.

Suffolk is a much smaller force and although that means they have the challenge of covering a significant area, they have the advantage of established local ties and strong friendships among the 2,250 officers and staff plus 240 Specials.

He explains: “Our people believe in the mission and being empowered to do it. In Suffolk, most of the people grow up in the communities here and stay close or are in touch with their families and friends. In London, due to affordability people travel in. That changes the relationship a bit. In Suffolk that pressure doesn’t exist in the same way. People don’t need to move away from their support to become police officers or staff.”

But he isn’t taking those local ties for granted: “It’s about listening and responding to communities – that’s absolutely essential to policing. It’s the core business of building trust and legitimacy. It’s about seeking to understand and seeking to be understood.”

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