António Rolo Duarte
In the space of less than a week, Sir Peter Fahy retired from being Britain’s longest serving chief constable, was appointed CEO of the charity Retrak and became an honorary professor of criminal justice at the University of Manchester. That comes after a 34-year career in policing, in which he was knighted by the queen, changed the lives of thousands of vulnerable people around the country and influenced security policy worldwide.
We had the honour of having coffee with Sir Peter at Christies Bistro on a blustery morning a few weeks ago, while just up the road the Manchester Christmas Markets were being evacuated due to a terrorist threat. Surrounded by Gothic-style architecture of the Whitworth Building and the Old Quadrangle, and with one of the university’s Nobel Prize winners sitting just a few tables away, we felt there could be no better setting to be inspired by the words of the man who for so many years kept our city safe.
You have just retired from one of the most admirable policing careers ever. Still, many years ago you were also a student, just like us. What kind of student were you?
Well, I did a lot of volunteering but I was also on the edge of fairly extreme politics. The big thing then was South Africa and the Apartheid, and the University of Hull [where Sir Peter studied Spanish and French] had shares in Barclays bank, who were big in South Africa. So one of the things we did was we had a big campaign to try and get them to disinvest from South Africa. We actually occupied one of the university buildings and I got carried out by the police.
You got carried out by the police... So how does one go from there to a life fighting crime?
After leaving university, I worked for about three months for Arthur Andersen, a big accountancy company. And one day in London I walked down the street at lunch time and there was a newspaper that was closing that day. All the staff were standing around because they were going to be made redundant. And I looked and thought: “I’ve lost my contact with you.” So I went back to the office, put in my resignation and joined the police. I wanted to do something where I was more in contact with the community.
Was that motivation important for your work in the police later on?
Definitely. People think that a policing career is all about studying the law. It is not, really. You can go on the internet to learn about law. The big thing is to be able to relate to people, to be able to talk to people. And certainly here, when I first became chief constable of Greater Manchester, it was a very traditional force. The change I tried to drive through was a far greater commitment to neighbourhood policing, building relationships with local people and trying to make long term change by engaging with the communities.
People think that a policing career is all about studying the law. It is not, really. You can go on the internet to learn about law. The big thing is to be able to relate to people.
The police has changed quite a lot since you first joined. Now there are more regulations, more oversight as well. Do you feel that these changes have undermined in any way the effectiveness of the police?
No, I would actually say the opposite. I think greater transparency enables us, and makes policing better. Every single development I have seen in policing which has brought in more transparency, oversight and independence, has helped improve policing.
Because it forces you to be more professional. It forces you to be more accountable, it forces you to think more carefully about what you are doing. It forces you to think about your justification because you have to explain it. And by having more oversight and more independence, you get more people coming in, who will then challenge you with new ideas. And the other thing is that for police to be effective, you have to have legitimacy.
Speaking of legitimacy, the UK is the country with the highest level of CCTV cameras per capita in the world. Is this a good thing?
In my entire police career I cannot ever remember anyone complaining about CCTV cameras, if anything it was always the opposite. For me, the strength of the oversight is very important. There should be no problem whatsoever for anybody to walk into the control room at Manchester City Council to see all the CCTV cameras, how are they are operated and what are the safeguards. You know, let’s be completely open.
More cameras have not made the student population less concerned about crime, especially crime towards women. Every year a number of rape cases are reported in student areas like Fallowfield. Has the police in Manchester failed us students in dealing with rape?
No, I do not think so. One of the changes we brought through in Greater Manchester Police was a huge commitment to dealing with vulnerable people, particularly with sexual offences. What you always have to remember within the offence of rape, is that sadly most rapes are between people known to one another. The impression always is that this is about a stranger being attacked in the street. Those cases are actually pretty rare. And it can just be “I met this lad in a bar and we had quite a lot to drink together and we were getting on pretty well and I went back to his flat and I never wanted this to happen” but that is sadly what most of the rapes are, cases between people who are known to one another. And that does actually make it harder to investigate.
What is the solution then?
We must never get across to women that in any way you are to blame for rape. But sadly we have to say that you need to use common sense. If one of your friends goes off with a complete stranger, be concerned about it. We also have to try and find a way of students organizing themselves, of students being able to take a stand about this themselves.
Another concern of the community is the one of drugs, not only the consumption but also the dealing.
Because we have given much higher priority to protecting vulnerable people, then it is quite clear that things like drugs are taking less of a priority. Our approach to drugs has largely been about trying to prevent harm. If people complain about a drug dealer in a given area, or drug use in an area causing problems, then the police will try and address it. But it is more about education, more about trying to keep people safe.
Some would say arresting the drug dealers could keep people safe.
We can arrest dealers and they can be sent to prison, but what then happens is you disrupt the market. Because now there are other dealers who are trying to get that position so you often get violence and shootings as somebody tries to take the spot. Also, if you have taken drugs off the market the price will go up. That means some of the addicts will have to steal more things to fund their drugs. So as a police chief it does cause you quite a lot of agony about what is the right thing to do, I certainly don’t think legalization is an answer…
Sorry, why not?
Because I cannot see that that will actually solve the problem of the violence and the crime that drug dealing generates. The people who are dealing the drugs are not suddenly going and operate a soup shop or open a supermarket. All that will happen is that they will try and gain different substances, they will try to undercut the official price and they will go more into some of the other substances. And also I do not think as a society we can give a green light to people putting dangerous things into their body.
70,000 police jobs were eliminated in the last coalition government. Nevertheless crime is still relatively low overall. Does this mean austerity is working?
No, I think what it shows and what research has shown for quite a long time is that the number of police have little impact on the level of crime. And some of that is clearly about better technology and the fact that a lot of things people used to steal are now very cheap. But I personally think that it is because people are more civilized. And I do actually think that your generation is more civilized than my generation was.
I am highly optimistic about your generation. Your generation takes fewer drugs, drinks less, commits less crime and is not involved in so many dodgy relationships. I think you are a lot better at communication and relationships and I think that, strangely, social media has enabled that to happen. You are also growing up in a more diverse world and you do not have all the prejudices that my generation had. Every generation will say: “it is young people who are the problem”. But actually all the evidence shows that your generation is actually a lot better than my generation.
After the Paris attacks, some American politicians argued that if the attacks had taken place in US soil the outcomes would have been very different. Due to different gun control laws, the Americans could more easily protect themselves. What do you think of that?
Nonsense, absolutely nonsense! Look at all the mass shootings they have in America. And we only hear about the more serious ones. They have mass shootings every single day. You can get very upset about Paris, but look at the number of people being killed every single day in America. No, the problem they have in America is the availability of weapons. And unfortunately the problem they have in mainland Europe, particularly in France, is the availability of military level weapons.
If a situation like the Paris attacks happened in Manchester, would the police here be prepared to respond?
I do not think we would be any better prepared to respond than the French police were.
Talking about terrorism in an interview to the Manchester Evening News, you said that “people should be realistic but not scared”. You said this before the Paris attacks. Now, after the Paris attacks, people are, understandably, scared. So does the police role change? Is it more about informing rather than preventing or reacting?
You do try and inform, you do try and calm things down. You do say to people: “be vigilant but don’t be scared”. Unfortunately terrorism produces a huge emotional reaction and some of that reaction can be pretty irrational. For instance, people will say: “it is not safe to go to Paris”. And you try to get across to them saying that actually the most dangerous thing you can do is drive a car. For women in Manchester, sadly, you are more likely to be attacked by someone you know than by a terrorist. So the most important thing is to get across that it is not essential for a police officer to have a machine gun in order for you to be safe, the most important thing is that people in a mosque or in a school are aware of what to look out for and will be prepared to tell the police if necessary.
It all goes back to the links with the community then.
Yes, you always have to be realistic that just having more and more guns will not protect you. Because it sadly did not protect people in Paris. It is about your relationship with local people, your relationships with schools and communities and places of worship. The big question about Paris is: why did nobody see it? Why did nobody say these people were planning this? The big question must be why this was being planned and nobody saw anything or said anything or felt they should tell the police.
You have to be realistic that having more and more guns will not protect you. Because it sadly did not protect people in Paris.
You retired from the police little more than a month ago. Were you happy to leave the police at this point?
I was happy certainly about leaving the police, but that was more a feeling of satisfaction that I had achieved all I wanted to achieve. Part of that is that I won some battles but there are some other battles that I did not win and did not want to keep fighting them. I am not going to succeed. I have tried, but now somebody else can try to do it.
So what is your biggest dream for the future?
My biggest dream would be that people of different faiths live peacefully together. Because unfortunately this is the root of quite a lot of dissention in the world and one of the great things about being a chief constable in a place like Manchester, is that you meet people from all sorts of religions and races, and you see the richness of them. So I think one of my biggest dreams is that people in the world from different backgrounds realize that what unites us is far stronger than what divides us.
And that links to your new job as CEO of a charity, Retrak.
Yes, Retrak is a charity which works with street children mainly in African countries. What it does is to rescue street children that want to live life on the streets, find out the reason why they left home and then hopefully reintegrate them back into their families and communities. And also trying to get them to understand that running away is not a solution to anything. When the chance came to do some work in Africa I absolutely loved it, I love Africa, I love the show of humanity and the vibrancy of the place.
Will we still see you influencing the criminal justice system though, perhaps in your new role as honorary professor at the University of Manchester?
I hope so, I believe that is one of the reasons why I wanted to get involved with the university, to see whether we can use a lot of the power of academic research and thinking to influence the criminal justice system.
As a final note, in your life you have been interviewed hundreds of times and asked many different questions. Is there a question you wish people asked you more often?
I think the difficult ones are always about your personal dilemmas, and what would you resign over.
So what would you resign over?
I hope I would resign over a political initiative that I felt would do harm to vulnerable people or where a short-term political initiative was overriding my professional judgment about the liberty of individuals. I do think that is always a difficult question. And an almost more difficult question is: what you think you should have resigned over? But I am not sure I have an answer for that one. TMM
Sir Peter Fahy is now an honorary professor of Criminal Justice at The University of Manchester.
He is also Chief Executive of Retrak, and you can find more about that at www.retrak.org