Dudley police chief: ‘Violence is now a disease on streets’
“We have to treat violence as a disease – we can’t just police our way out of it by arresting people.”
The police commander’s solution to the scourge of knife crime and other forms of life-threatening offending may cause eyebrows to rise but she is fervent in her belief that reaching out to lawbreakers is more effective than simply locking them up.
Sally Bourner has been reflecting on her one-year anniversary as Dudley’s police chief, 12 months which have seen a number of headline-grabbing incidents including an attempted car-jacking involving an elderly couple in Pedmore, stabbings in Stourbridge town centre and an increase in hate crime.
The issues facing her in Dudley are replicated in towns across the West Midlands and beyond. The Black Country borough is a microcosm for what is happening in many of our communities.
The officer says the negatives should be considered as “troughs” in what she sees as a successful year that has seen Dudley maintain its status as the safest borough overall in the West Midlands and the second safest, behind Solihull, for violent crime.
While she has not seen crime fall in her first year at the helm, neither has she seen it rise.
Her priorities are to be proactive in reducing violent crime and house burglaries while keeping a strong focus on meeting the daily demands of the public, a difficult balance with the force receiving up to 7,000 contacts from the public a day across the region.
“Last year, when I started, I shared that probably the biggest challenge we faced was how to juggle the need to deal with the here and now, when people need our help, with a desire to be more proactive and more preventative,” she said.
“Across the board we have seen some good levels of control around all sorts of crime types. We haven’t seen significant increases. When we look at crimes per 1,000 head of population, Dudley remains the safest borough in our region and so much of that is down to partnership work that takes place.
“When you look at violence, it’s the second safest after Solihull but the safest in the Black Country, so we’ve maintained some really strong areas of control, with some peaks and troughs around that.”
She is keen to spell out that crime, particularly violent crime, is not as prevalent as media reports of serious incidents suggest.
The biggest volume of violent crime takes place at home, with 10 cases of domestic violence reported across the borough on a daily basis. There is an average of one robbery a day, and five burglaries, whilst any type of offence involving a knife is happening at the rate of 17 a month.
Not seeking to make light of people’s fears, she said it was important that people understood the reality compared with the perception.
In the last month alone, officers in Dudley had arrested 26 people specifically for more than 40 offences of burglary, many of whom were now going through the criminal justice system and remanded in custody.
On knife crime she said: “We’re doing loads of work with young people in schools to get them to start thinking about the consequences of carrying a knife. We also have knife arches, and we’re working with partners to develop our mental health approach to violence through the months ahead.
“We have to work within a whole system and involve others in the solution. Policing plays a role but we don’t do that in splendid isolation.”
She talks of the importance of collaborating with organisations like the council, health services, schools and colleges, charities and youth services in keeping crime figures down. Between 30-40 per cent of all policing work now has some link to mental ill health.
“As other services have also shrunk during the period of austerity, we are finding that more and more people in need will come to policing, not as a last resort but as a first resort, because we’re here 24/7,” she says.
“We might not be the best people but we can help by linking them up with other people who can help.”
Reaching out and helping people in need, and often great trauma, has always been part of the job. A police officer’s kindness and sensitivity at a time of personal tragedy in her own life was the reason she wanted to join the force, she reveals.
“I’d always wanted to be a police officer. I’ve got a photograph of me on my fourth birthday in a police officer’s uniform.
“Then, when I was 17, my father died very suddenly and the police officer who came and helped my mum, sister and I changed our lives in the moment of our greatest need, and that was the factor that ultimately led me to think I want to do that.
“It was that being there for us in the hardest time of my life, coming to our home and helping us and being there for us. Policing is such a privilege, entering into people’s lives, often only for a few minutes, when their whole lives have been turned upside down by unspeakable tragedy and offering the hand of friendship.
“Often people on the outside of policing will see us as the law enforcer, and it’s an important part of an effectively functioning society, but there’s so much more to it.
“Policing is a vocation. I speak to colleagues who are joining us, and those who are about to retire and there is a consistent theme that runs through their reflections around why they joined, and it’s about helping people.”
In her spare time, the amiable and outgoing chief enjoys singing and has performed both with the City of Birmingham Choir at Symphony Hall and as lead singer for a five-piece band.
She lives with her long-time partner Jules, after coming out as gay in her 20s. It has never been an issue at work where she says she has always been accepted for who she is.
Speaking in May ahead of the Birmingham Pride festival, she said: “Being gay is not something that defines me. Rather it is a part of who I am and I am very happy and proud to love and be loved by a woman. I started to realise I was gay in my teens, in the 80s. Throughout uni, I ignored my feelings and thought they would go away. But in my early 20s I realised that life is a precious thing, I’ve got to be true to myself.
“I then met my partner Jules and we’ve been together for 27 years now. She keeps me grounded, she is the foundation for everything. After I met her I felt more confident being me, so I started to come out. Our family and friends have always been amazing and very supportive of us.
"In 1994 I started to come out at work. I had an amazing inspector, who was really kind and really supportive. People at work have always accepted me for who I am. It was hard though, in those early years – it is almost like whenever you met new people you had to come out again.
“I sit here now feeling incredibly proud – I am very blessed to be able to live an authentic life, with a wonderful family and incredible friends.”
Reflecting on her first 12 months in her Dudley role, Sally Bourner is enthusiastic about her new patch and optimistic about its future, citing the £1 billion investment heading its way and new developments at Dudley College, the Black Country Living Museum, a new music college at Brierley Hill and the extension of the Midland Metro to the borough.
Walking through Dudley town centre she strikes up a conversation with youngster Katie-Mai Totney about sausage rolls and future careers. In Coronation Gardens she calls out a cheerful “Hi guys, all right?” to a group of youths as we pass by.
“It’s a place that is filled with really kind, proud, warm friendly people,” she says. “Dudley is incredibly humble and doesn’t shout particularly loudly about how incredible it is. One of things I, as a senior leader, not just in police but part of the social fabric of the borough, have a responsibility to do is to evermore put Dudley as a borough on the map and advocate for the incredible people that are here.”
And she renewed her appeal for the public to be the force’s “eyes and ears”, in particular, to get involved in Street Watch, where residents volunteer to keep an active look-out and report anything suspicious. They would not be vigilantes but good citizens who were properly trained and supervised, she stressed.
She also asked that people relieve the strain on back-office staff by contacting officers with non-emergency issues via the force’s webchat portal, Live Chat, open between 8am and midnight at west-midlands.police.uk/contact-us
The service was staffed by “real people”, not robots, she added.