September 25, 2021

Devastating dispatch from the worst force in Britain shows what’s gone wrong with policing


The attack was savage and swift. Like so many acts of violence in Britain these days, it happened in a tranquil place, and was utterly unprovoked.

One moment Jeanette Carroll was walking five dogs through a scenic country park, on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, Teesside — a job she does every day to earn a few pounds.

The next she was being punched in the mouth by a middle-aged man, who went berserk simply because she had let the well-trained dogs off their leads to run through the woods.

Jeannette Carroll was walking her dogs near Flatts Lane Country Park in Middlesbrough when an agitated man approached her and punched her in the face. He went mad because she had let the well-trained dogs off their leads to run in the woods – and the police’s response was disgraceful

He struck Mrs Carroll, 51, such a vicious blow that she was knocked unconscious and three of her teeth were loosened, but she managed to dial 999 on her mobile phone.

It was a despicable and cowardly act, yet it was the police’s disgraceful response to her distress call that makes this story even more disturbing.

Indeed, even in a week when the reputation of British policing has sunk to new depths, following the report into the Metropolitan Police’s appallingly mishandled investigation into a non-existent VIP paedophile ring, it almost beggars belief. For it is Mrs Carroll’s misfortune to live in an area where the police force is so dysfunctional that it makes the troubled Met appear to be a paragon of efficiency by comparison.

A damning report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, branded Cleveland Police to be ‘inadequate’ by every benchmark of policing standards, two weeks ago (file image)

A damning report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, published two weeks ago, branded Cleveland Police to be ‘inadequate’ by every benchmark of policing standards.

It is the first time such a poor rating has been awarded, which must make Cleveland the worst-performing force in England and Wales. Given the many failings of the police service as a whole, this is quite some indictment.

But back to Mrs Carroll. Incredibly, when she got through to the control-room, the call-handler told her the assault ‘wasn’t serious enough’ to warrant an emergency turn-out — though her attacker would surely have faced a charge of actual bodily harm, at the very least, an offence carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Ms Carroll was told her assault ‘wasn’t serious enough’ by Cleveland Police (pictured) and this meant she would not receive an emergency turn-out

Instead, though she was bleeding profusely and could barely function, she was advised to drive herself to hospital and contact the police again after her wounds had been treated.

Since the thug did not bother to run away — and also attacked a park warden who tried to intervene — Mrs Carroll believes he would have been arrested if a patrol car had been dispatched speedily.

Yet she had to wait for eight days — yes, eight — before an officer came to take her statement. To make matters worse, she says, she felt belittled by his ‘patronising’ manner.

Cleveland Police and Crime Commissioner, Barry Coppinger said he will not be standing for re-election next year

Mrs Carroll is sure she could identify the culprit, and believes he lives less than 200 yards from her Middlesbrough home. Yet he remains at liberty. She still wears a brace on her teeth, can only drink soup and takes painkillers.

‘I have always been very supportive of the police, and I know how difficult their job is because my nephew is a police officer, and I’m super-proud of him,’ she told me. ‘But the way I’ve been treated really is shocking.’

Everyone who reads her story will doubtless agree.

Middlesbrough’s mayor Andy Preston has said the force has struggled protect the 740 children at Ayresome Primary School. He says it has sometimes gone into ‘lockdown’ because intruders have come in with knives

According to HM Inspectorate, the failings of Cleveland Police are so serious they are deemed to be placing lives at risk. The force has now been placed under the national oversight process, the police equivalent of ‘special measures’.

Though it is one of the nation’s smaller forces, serving just 500,000 people — the majority living in the towns of Middlesbrough, Stockton on Tees, Redcar and Hartlepool — its demise is a matter of pressing concern to us all.

For at a time when the police appear to be losing the crime war on so many fronts — county-lines drug gangs, Romanian burglary syndicates, rampant knife crime — Cleveland, with its myriad shortcomings, might be regarded as a microcosm of our creaking police service.

Of course, Boris Johnson and hard-line Home Secretary Priti Patel have pledged to turn the tide by stiffening sentences and recruiting 20,000 extra officers. They promise that the Tories will regain their reputation as the party of law and order.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has pledged to turn the tide by stiffening sentences and recruiting 20,000 extra officers

Yet to gauge the enormity of this task they should take a train to Teesside, as I did last week (passing the new Chief Constable Richard Lewis, who was heading in the opposite direction, having been summoned to London to attend a mandatory seminar designed to improve his force’s performance).

They might start by walking down Parliament Road, a busy, multi-cultural thoroughfare in Middlesbrough town centre, with takeaway food shops, convenience shops, and a wonderfully old-fashioned fishmonger.

In bygone years, this was the sort of street where order was kept by the presence of a firm but friendly bobby.

Fantasist Carl Beech made up a series of claims about public figures, prompting a bungling police probe. The police watchdog today stood by its finding that no officers were to blame

Today, those who live and work here tell me, officers seldom venture here to investigate a crime, much less walk the beat, so they police the community themselves. This can be a precarious business. In the corner newsagent he has run for 19 years, Usman Wajid shows me footage of two shoplifters filmed that day by his CCTV cameras.

‘We let this guy go with a warning because he only took some jam tarts, and pleaded with us that he needed to feed his family,’ he says, gesturing to a man slipping a packet furtively under his coat.

‘We didn’t catch the other one. But sometimes they’ll turn rough, so we have to pin them down and grab the stuff back, and it can turn nasty.’

Why not hold them and call the police? He shoots me a glance that suggests I must have beamed down from Mars. ‘We gave up calling the police for help a long time ago,’ he says.

This was the cue for Mr Wajid’s young cousin to describe, indignantly, how Cleveland Police treated him when he discovered his hospitalised father’s house had been burgled. Not only did they refuse to attend the scene, he says, but he was admonished for calling 999 for a crime that was ‘not high risk’.

Opposite the newsagent stands Ayresome Primary School, a community pillar since the days of inkwells and fountain pens. With its austere Edwardian facade, it looks reassuringly safe, but according to Middlesbrough mayor Andy Preston, its staff struggle to protect the 740 children.

‘The school sometimes goes into lockdown because intruders have come in with knives,’ he told me grimly. ‘Staff won’t go out for a sandwich because they get abused. The headmistress has reported these incidents to the police. Sometimes they come . . . the next day.’

The school did not respond to requests for a comment.

The Independent mayor, who made his fortune as a City hedge-fund manager before returning to Teesside, where he was raised, remains proud of this blue-collar sprawl, which once boasted world-renowned steel, chemical and ship-building industries.

Yet he portrays Middlesbrough as a town where the daytime streets are now plagued by drug-addicts, beggars and prostitutes, untroubled by the police.

And he cites the plight of decent residents, such as ‘Matt’, a single parent whose life, and that of his four-year-old son, is being made hell by the drug-dealers and sex workers dossing in the house next door. It’s a familiar story. The police do nothing, so Matt no longer even bothers to complain.

 Cleveland, with its myriad shortcomings, might be regarded as a microcosm of our creaking police service. The force has been placed under the national oversight process, the police equivalent of ‘special measures’ (file image)

Other locals do, however, especially when they discover, as those in the Acklam Road area of Middlesbrough have this week, that Britain’s first ‘shooting gallery’ is set to open on their doorsteps.

To widespread outrage, residents say they only found out about the new initiative at the clinic, in which 15 of the area’s worst heroin addicts will be provided with diamorphine to inject twice a day in a safe environment, on Facebook. It is the brainchild of the beleaguered Cleveland Police and Crime Commissioner, Barry Coppinger, whose office will foot a third of the £440,000 a year cost of the clinic.

Mayor Preston lays some of the blame for the local force’s failings on Mr Coppinger — ‘a nice guy, but out of his depth’ — who has announced that he won’t stand for re-election next year. The local newspaper has demanded that he must resign.

He also points to a crony culture in which those in authority — the commissioner, MP, councillors — never criticise anyone’s handling of police issues, because they are all Labour Party ‘mates’.

He speaks optimistically of making the streets safer by boosting the number of ‘neighbourhood wardens’ from 12 to 60, equipping them with body-cameras, and giving them powers to issue fines of up to £1,000 for anti-social behaviour. However, the Inspectorate’s report suggests it will need more than this to safeguard the people of Cleveland, whose police service is said to have ‘declined significantly’ since the last inspection two years ago.

Fewer resources are dedicated to community policing; the force is ‘without a clear plan or direction’; and though it is good at fighting organised crime, it ‘needs to improve’ on tackling the everyday offenders who cause untold fear and misery.

These so-called ‘lesser offences’ are not always allocated to trained staff, the report says, nor are they investigated thoroughly or supervised efficiently (as Jeanette Carroll knows all too well).

There are ‘serious concerns’ that the force doesn’t adequately protect vulnerable people, and in Middlesbrough — which has some of the country’s most deprived wards — there are many of those.

The desperate cry for help might come from a woman being beaten by her partner, or a frantic parent whose child is missing. Yet all too often it is simply forwarded to a front-desk answering machine.

HMICFRS inspector Mike Gormley, who led the review of Cleveland Police, told me the failure to identify and prioritise such calls was placing people in danger.

But the report highlights many more failings: Cleveland treats the public and its own workforce poorly, and misuses resources.

Officers of superintendent rank are often uninspiring leaders who fail to act as role models, and conceal the true extent of problems from the top brass; the force’s ‘ethical behaviour’ is unsatisfactory.

And, unsurprisingly, in a force mired in scandals for decades and which has seen six chief constables come and go in the past six years, the Inspectorate says action is needed to ‘root out corruption’.

Among senior officers dismissed for wrongful conduct is former chief constable Sean Price. A female chief inspector with whom he was having a relationship (they are now married) was subsequently arrested for drunkenness and allowed to resign. She denied any wrongdoing.

Then, last year, a detective inspector — in the force’s professional standards department —resigned following accusations that he coerced a junior officer to have sex.

In a particularly ironic episode, Cleveland Police were also caught hacking into journalists’ phones. Seven officers were served with disciplinary notices.

Which brings us to Mike Veale, whose lack of judgment might be regarded as the precursor to the Operation Midland debacle.

During his time as Wiltshire’s police chief, he was responsible for launching the much-cricitised investigation into allegations made by Carl Beech, alias ‘Nick’, that former prime minister Edward Heath was part of a child-sex ring.

Mr Heath’s supporters claimed the investigation was one-sided, but Mr Veale has insisted it was even-handed and in the public interest. A report later concluded that, had he been alive, Mr Heath would have been interviewed under caution for alleged serious sex offences against young boys.

For reasons best explained by crime commissioner Coppinger, when Wiltshire did not renew Veale’s contract, he was appointed to take charge of Cleveland.

He didn’t last long, resigning after being accused of a disciplinary breach — yet to be uncovered — of ‘a serious nature’. And so this sorry saga rolls on.

In the Inspectorate’s report, the shamed police force offers several excuses for its abject performance. It points to the area’s social problems, saying it has Britain’s highest number of asylum-seekers, and an increase in violence that mirrors the national trend. Inevitably, it also mentions spending cuts, which have seen the force’s annual budget reduced by £35 million, and lost them 488 officers.

I’m afraid this just won’t wash. How can they plead poverty when neighbouring Durham, whose funds have been similarly reduced, has been Britain’s best-performing force for four years running?

And consider this fact: in recent years, Cleveland is reckoned to have spent at least £40 million investigating, and paying-off, its own officers!

So what is the truth behind Cleveland Police’s cataclysmic decline? After all, it hasn’t always been this way. Formed as one of the new ‘metro forces’, in 1974, from parts of Durham and North Yorkshire constabularies, Cleveland developed a reputation as one of the most effective and innovative forces in the country.

Credited with much of its success was Ray Mallon, a ferociously-driven detective whose adaptation of the Zero Tolerance policing methods pioneered in New York had slashed crime rates, and brought him national renown. Headline writers called him ‘Robocop’.

On the eve of the 1997 general election, burnishing his fabled, and ultimately hollow, mantra — ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’— Tony Blair (accompanied by the actress Helen Mirren) dashed to Teesside to stage a photo-op with Mallon.

However, ‘Robocop’ was abruptly stopped in his tracks. Despised and distrusted by envious superiors, he was accused of misconduct — unjustly, I wrote, after investigating his case — and suspended.

After fighting for four years to clear his name, he admitted to 14 regulatory offences, though only, he has always maintained, so that he could resign in time to stand in Middlesbrough’s first mayoral election, in 2002, which he won by a landslide.

Mallon was among 61 officers suspended during Operation Lancet, one of the most protracted, and many would say futile, police corruption inquires ever staged.

And according to some former Cleveland officers, the bitter divisions and climate of suspicion it created persist to this day.

Among informed observers who believe those tumultuous years contributed to Cleveland’s current woes is Jack Straw, home secretary in Blair’s first Cabinet.

In a letter to The Times last week, Mr Straw said Cleveland Police had become ‘systematically hopeless’ during his term of office, and was now ‘worse’. He regretted not merging the force with an adjacent police authority.

Mr Straw told me: ‘I know from my experience and knowledge that it [the force’s malign culture] has been going on for 20 years.’

He is convinced it is now beyond salvation.

Mallon, who stepped down as mayor in 2013, and now does charity work for Middlesbrough FC’s foundation, is similarly dismayed.

When I met him last month, he said the first thing the police needed to do was return to the rigorous standards that he once set.

He describes a force where no-one dares use ‘proactive policing’ methods, as he did when ‘camping on the doorstep’ of known burglars, and where officers are ‘scared of their own shadow’ for fear of offending against some politically correct doctrine laid down by professional standards mandarins.

Yet it is when he turns to the behaviour and image of Cleveland’s Police officers that he becomes most animated.

‘The other day I saw an inspector address the TV cameras after a court case, and he had no hat on, no jacket, no tie, and his hands in his pockets,’ he says incredulously. ‘That told me everything I needed to know about Cleveland Police.

‘You might not think it’s important for a police officer to wear a hat, but to me it’s vital. It gives them a presence and makes them stand out from the crowd, so it is a crime prevention tool.’

Another bugbear is the way, he claims, Cleveland Police routinely flout rules which apply to ordinary members of the public. ‘They’ll park in disabled bays, and they aren’t supposed to do it unless they’re answering an emergency.

‘Then you’ll see kids riding their bikes on the pavement, and a police officer can’t be bothered to tell them to get off.

‘These might seem like small things, but they all add up. Zero Tolerance was just about not walking by. It’s about policing the streets, not de-policing them.’

As so often, Robocop has his finger on the pulse.

On exiting Middlesbrough station earlier that day, I had been surprised to see a police car abandoned in a space for the disabled for 15 minutes. According to an irked taxi-driver, the police regularly park there while buying coffee, but a Cleveland spokesman said the female officer who returned to the car had been answering a ‘concern for safety’ call.

As Cleveland’s new chief constable, Mr Lewis, only took his post in April — after rising through the ranks in Wales — it is too early to say whether he will prove more effective than his predecessors. So far, however, he has impressed observers. And has won support for his candour, admitting, for example, that the failure to dispatch officers in attack-victim Jeanette Carroll’s case was a mistake, and ‘exactly the type of thing’ flagged up by the HMICFRS report.

Mr Lewis said: ‘This report echoes my initial assessment of the force and will act as a line in the sand. Improvements have already been made and I take full responsibility for driving through the changes that are so obviously needed. We do not underestimate the challenges ahead of us.’

He urges people to give him enough time to bring the organisation back to scratch. They have no choice. But during my time in Middlesbrough it became very evident that the public’s patience is fast running out with Cleveland Police.

Jack Straw is not alone in believing that this shambolic force has had too many second chances, and that it would be in everyone’s best interests for its flickering blue light to be extinguished.

Meanwhile, for police services across the country, the struggle to maintain standards at a time when challenges grow ever greater, continues.

Additional reporting: Kevin Donald.

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