Young people are falling into knife crime because ‘safety nets’ from youth services have been cut, a senior officer said today.
West Midlands Police Deputy Chief Constable Louisa Rolfe said austerity has played a major role in the rise of knife crime, which has seen 35 people stabbed to death in the UK so far this year with the toll rising.
But she said it was too simple to believe the issue can be solved just by putting thousands more police on the streets.
In an exclusive interview with the Express & Star, she said years of cuts to vital services including youth clubs and mental health support had hit people hard in deprived communities.
And she said the need for extra police funding and more officers was only a part of the solution.
DCC Rolfe said: “Austerity has removed the safety net that prevents people from being exploited, not just for kids, but for people with mental health issues and lots of other very vulnerable people.
“A lot of serious offences are happening in areas of deprivation that have been most affected by austerity.
“I’m realistic about the police role in reducing violent crime. We are only part of a complex picture.
“We can’t be in every pub, or in every street. If we had thousands more police officers we are not going to be the main driving factor in stopping knife crime.
“We have apart to play, but our bigger part is in working with other agencies to influence kids not to carry knives.”
DCC Rolfe warned that a “frightening” number of young people were involved in violent crime having been “cast adrift” due to school exclusion, often carrying blades either or as status symbols or because they were scared.
Her comments come after the region was rocked by four fatal stabbings over the last month.
It has led to officers using ‘Section 60’ stop and search powers in Birmingham in a bid to clamp down on violence, a response she says stretched resources and left the force struggling to deal with other crimes.
We're using Section 60 powers across #Birmingham again today, until 3am tomorrow. They give us the ability to stop and search people without the need to show reasonable grounds. Find out more here: https://t.co/JWOZWFLJUz #lifeorknife pic.twitter.com/abmaWba4oA— Birmingham Police (@brumpolice) March 7, 2019
“The challenge for us is that we can’t sustain the response we put in over the last few weeks,” she said. “Just by putting additional officers in to deliver the Section 60 has meant that we are not quite as fast at getting to our calls for other things like domestic abuse.
“There’s a cost to us. When we move resources in to providing a very visible deterrent effect in parts of Birmingham, we’re then not able to keep the lid on everything else.
“We are juggling resources constantly, and we’re having to make tough choices.”
West Midlands Police has lost £175 million in funding and more than 2,000 officers since 2010, and DCC Rolfe admitted that resources felt “pressured” at times.
“It is not as simple as giving the police more money,” she added.
“Look at those policy areas where austerity has been overlaid with multiple deprivation – it is not just the police. It is health, education, social care, probation services... all of those agencies are stretched. When you have investment in these areas you can make quite a big impact.”
To tackle knife crime DCC Rolfe called for a greater emphasis on national investment in prevention work, saying: “We can’t come at this issue using the old ways.”
West Midlands Police Deputy Chief Constable Louisa Rolfe talks about her life on the force
She was told she was a raving feminist and that there was no place for her in policing.
Twenty-eight years later, it is fair to say that Louisa Rolfe has proved the chief superintendent who uttered those words wrong in emphatic style.
During a glittering career across two forces, the deputy chief constable of West Midlands Police has spearheaded the development of an organised crime unit, helped support a new counter terrorism intelligence unit, was the first woman to head a force’s CID and now leads nationally on domestic abuse.
The 50-year-old mother-of-two’s work on the latter issue contributed towards her being awarded an OBE, which she received this week at Buckingham Palace.
But wandering into a jobs fair in her home city of Bristol in the early 1990s armed with a degree in zoology and psychology, she did not have the slightest inkling she would end up being a police officer.
“I knew I wanted a real job working with real people,” she recalls, “so I went across to the police stand and filled in a form.”
In her interview she was asked if she intended to get married and start a family?
“I thought ‘this is a test’, so I said it didn’t have anything to do with my aspirations of being a police officer, and they told me I was a raving feminist and there was no place for me in policing.
“That was a chief superintendent and a superintendent, and I think somebody in HR probably looked at that and thought, ‘we can’t say that’, so they offered me a job.
“I feel like I got in as a bit of a fluke, but I loved it from the first minute.”
Starting out with Avon and Somerset Police as a bright-eyed 21-year-old, she began working the beat in Southmead, a deprived area of north Bristol that borders more affluent neighbourhoods.
“In policing you have a lot of autonomy early in your career,” she says.
“You are sent out there and have to make decisions that can affect people’s lives.”
“Quite often you are on your own and you never know what you are going to deal with from day to day.”
Standing at 5ft 4ins, and always speaking with an air of calm authority, she admits she stood in contrast to some of her more aggressive colleagues.
And those days spent patrolling the beat were vital to her education as an officer. Joy-riders tried to run her over several times, forcing her to take evasive action by leaping into a hedge on one occasion.
She was threatened with an iron bar, and recalls getting into a “real fix” when responding on her own to a domestic violence call in Bristol’s Hartcliffe area when she was a sergeant.
“The guy opened the door and was quite friendly,” she says.
“He let me in, then shut the door and he had a big knife. I thought, ‘I’m here on my own’.
“I remember hitting the button on my radio to call for support and my colleagues turned up in numbers.
“They immediately hit him with CS spray and it was resolved very quickly, but I was thinking I had put myself and them in danger.
“I had to work out ways to persuade people how to come quietly without having a fight.
“Often they wouldn’t be sure how much self-defence training I had had, and it would be a lot more embarrassing for them if that little woman ended up putting them on the floor.
“I used that to my advantage. You use your brain and your communication skills a lot more in policing than your strength.”
After five years’ service she started to rise through the ranks after being accepted onto the accelerated promotion course.
She became a sergeant after seven years and later an inspector in the centre of Bristol, setting up a pioneering retail crime prevention team.
Then came a challenge of a different kind when she returned to work after having a son in the high-pressure detective inspector role she had long coveted.
With her husband also an officer, she says she ended up “working all hours” and relying on her parents a lot, although they couldn’t always be there.
As the senior investigating officer in a murder investigation Mrs Rolfe recalls conducting a briefing while her son slept in his pram in the adjacent stationery cupboard.
He quickly became au fait with police jargon, as a four-year-old advising his mother that a victim needed a post-mortem after overhearing her on the phone.
She became the first woman head of CID for Avon and Somerset in 2008-09, helping to implement the findings of the ‘Closing the Gap’ report that changed the face of policing in England and Wales by bringing forces closer together.
After becoming assistant chief constable, she felt it was time for a new challenge.
Mrs Rolfe applied for DCC at West Midlands Police, a role of which she says: “I didn’t think I had a cat in hell’s chance of getting it.”
She liked the idea of working with “really impressive” chief constable Dave Thompson.
“You always know where you stand with Dave, and he’s incredibly ambitious for the force,” she says.
And after being taken with the friendliness of people in the West Midlands she took the plunge and moved her family to the Midlands.
Her “day job”, as she describes it, has been to run WMP’s 2020 change programme brought in to transform the way the force responds to crime. She is deeply concerned about the rise in knife crime across the region, particularly among young people.
“There just seems to be no qualms about carrying a knife and using it,” says Mrs Rolfe.
“Many of the incidents we have dealt with are things where in the past a few punches might have been thrown, but now a knife is involved.
“If you stick a knife into somebody’s torso, unless you are incredibly lucky the chances are you are going to kill them.
“Kids don’t understand that, or even think the consequences through.
“If we are going to deal with it well, we need a real understanding of what motivates teenagers, because they don’t think of the future as much as older people.”
She adds: “The teenage brain is short-term and thrill-seeking, and is much more influenced by peers than anything West Midlands Police puts on Twitter.”
Domestic violence has long been an issue close to her heart, and since 2013 she has been the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on it.
“I was a bit nervous about taking the role as people weren’t exactly queuing up to take it on,” she admits, recalling criticisms that her predecessor, former Gwent Police chief Carmel Napier, had devoted too much time to the issue.
Following criticisms from HMIC over police responses she has spearheaded a number of key changes, including bringing together police forces, key charities including Women’s Aid and Refuge and other agencies to look at improvements.
“I was able to look at what we needed to do to get it right and develop a plan,” she continues.
“We have got better at how we deal with victims’ calls, much better with first responders knowing what to do when they turn up.
“We arrest more people, we prosecute more people, we gather the right evidence.
“We’re also better at the safeguarding work we do with families.
“The areas we haven’t made as much progress on but are focusing an awful lot on now, are how you manage the most dangerous perpetrators.
“A lot of perpetrators are vulnerable themselves. They may need support with mental health or drug and alcohol issues.
“Often addressing those needs will reduce the risk of offending.
“But there are some incredibly manipulative, horrible, coercive, controlling perpetrators out there who our job is to prosecute them to keep victims safe.”
Mrs Rolfe said she remains positive despite the numerous challenges facing modern day policing – some of which she says have little to do with how forces operate.
“Look at organised vehicle crime, where the increased demand is being driven by the insurance industry’s change in approach to writing off cars.” she adds.
“It has caused an epidemic in vehicle crime.”
“Now there is a glut of high valued cars, written off as ‘can be repaired’ that go through auctions, and there are virtually none that they write off as ‘must be scrapped for parts’.
“So what you have is loads of Audis, BMWs, Range Rovers out there that can be picked up for a fraction of what they would be worth if they weren’t a write off, but you’d have to spend twice as much on parts if you went to the official dealer.
“It’s an example of a huge increase in crime that policing had very little to do with.”
On Thursday this week she was a guest at Buckingham Palace where she received an OBE for her dedication to policing and tackling domestic abuse.
She was handed her award by Prince Charles.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but I want to share the credit with others,” she says.
“I’ve played a part in a much bigger endeavour.”
Having joined the force thinking she was “going to stick around for a couple of years”, Mrs Rolfe says she’s “never had any regrets” 28 years down the line.
“I’ve never chosen easy jobs in policing.
"Sometimes I look back and think ‘why on earth did I think I could be a detective inspector with a baby investigating murders?’ In some ways I’m a glutton for punishment.”