South Yorkshire PCC candidates quizzed over women's safety

Candidates battling it out for South Yorkshire Police's top job faced questions over women's safety at a hustings organised by the Women's Equality Party.

Thursday, 22nd April 2021, 1:29 pm

The event was held via Zoom on Wednesday evening (April 21) and chaired by Charlotte Mead, Sheffield branch leader of the WEP.

Police and crime commissioner candidates from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives answered tough questions from the Women's Equality Party on issues such as on women's safety, CSE in Rotherham and rape conviction rates, ahead of the election on May 6.

The incumbent PCC, Labour's Dr Alan Billings, told the meeting that he took up the role during 2014, when the focus was on South Yorkshire Police during the Hillsborough Inquest and Jay Report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham.

The event was held via Zoom on Wednesday evening (April 21) and chaired by Charlotte Mead, Sheffield branch leader of the WEP.

"When I came in, not surprisingly, [SYP] were in a really bad state," he told the meeting.

"Because we'd been hammered over the Hillsborough football disaster and over CSE in Rotherham, and other things as well - they'd made a mess of an investigation into Sir Cliff Richard. According to her majesty's inspectors it was the worst performing force in the country.

"I'm glad to say the force is in a different place. Being outstanding in terms of ethical leadership is fantastic."

Joe Otten, the Liberal Democrat candidate, said in his opening speech that his focus would be on: "stronger emphasis on community policing and a police service that listens to people on things like better response to 101 numbers."

Councillor Otten, who is the Liberal Democrat Councillor for Dore and Totley in Sheffield, added that he was "horrified" by the policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard last month in London.

He told the meeting that the policing made him realise "how far we have to go" to reach equality.

"I don't feel that we've entirely come clean about what went wrong with the police in South Yorkshire. The Casey Report into the failings of Rotherham Council [made] national news headlines, the failures of the police were much much worse than the failures by the council.

"I believe that the force is much better now but I still don't think we can close the book on that until we've embedded all the lessons and that we've come clean on how it went wrong."

David Chinchen, the Conservative candidate, is a retired police chief superintendent who served for more that thirty years in the Metropolitan Police Service in London, before moving to Sheffield six years ago.

He said that he is standing for PCC because he "wants to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour."

"I do agree that the force is in a much better place," Mr Chinchen said, "but there are things that we still need to do."

He added that work is still needed to improve crime detection rates, and the "growth of violent crime" in the region.

"I'm actually really focused on the offender when it comes to crime, because I believe that ultimately, if you deal with offenders first, then fewer crimes mean fewer victims."

RAPE CONVICTIONS

When asked what would be done to improve low rape conviction statistics, that are "effectively decriminalising" the crime, Dr Billings said that "nobody quite knows what the answer is," adding that the closures of courts due to the coronavirus pandemic has led to "really serious crimes like rape, have been pushed back.

"The police have got to get better at presenting cases, their files have to be better when they send them off to CPS (crown prosecution service), CPS have got to be more willing to prosecute, the courts have got to clearly get back on track again."

Coun Otten said that it made him "shudder" to hear that the crime has been decriminalised.

"[The] last thing I want potential rapists to hear is that they'll almost certainly get away with it, even if it's true. I want them to have the fear that they will be convicted.

"I've raised issues directly with the Chief Constable a couple of times, the whole way of examining the phones of rape victims because this is another barrier to pursue the case to the courts because the intrusion that is entailed in going through somebody's phone.

"I still think there is more that could be done to to make the whole question of disclosure of data on phones proportionate, and to give victims assurance that that's not going to be abused."

Mr Chinchen said that rape conviction rates are "terrible," adding that the "best thing to do is go to the practitioners, the people are really dealing with it. The victims, the prosecutors, the investigators, and see what is happening in the data.

"I think length of trial is an issue, you always get more attrition in case rates. Most rape is about relationships, people known to each other so managing that through a trial process is really tricky and the longer that process goes on, the more problems."

WOMEN'S SAFETY

When questioned on ensuring women's safety, in light of the shocking incident in Endcliffe Park when an 18-year-old woman was raped in a car in March, Coun Otten called for "visible policing in the community", and a "police service that listens to the experiences of people in the community."

Mr Chinchen said that there is a "whole history of tactics that are available, to make our streets safer for women."

He suggested training for CCTV operators, minicab staff, public transport workers and bar and club staff to spot vulnerable people and "lone women being tailed off from venues"

Dr Billings told the meeting that a "big round table" of voluntary organisations and public bodies will take place in the summer, "to see what we can all do collectively to make things better, to see if we can hammer out a South Yorkshire strategy."

He added that the South Yorkshire Sexual Assault Referral Centre opened in Hackenthorpe in 2016, funded by the PCC, meaning sexual assault victims no longer need to travel from Snig Hill Police Station to Rotherham Hospital.

When asked about police allowing rapists and sexual abusers to self identify their sex, being sent to women's prisons and leading to the possibility fo women being "compelled to refer to their abuser in as female in court", Mr Chinchen said it is a "complex area".

"The police service should stay, and the criminal justice system should stay with the idea of defining in a binary way.

"But then we should accommodate the other views where we can, and based on an effective risk assessment, because you cannot have the police service putting people at risk by mixing different groups of people together where there's a real risk.

"It's a feature of policing for 40 years that you never mix male and female, in a cell or in a custody suite."

Coun Otten said: "I am actually quite worried that the fallout from some of these events an is going to impact the lives of trans people who just want to live their lives and not bother anybody else.

"We have the equalities act. It protects gender transition rightly, but it has exemptions rightly, for example prisons and also hospitals. And the important thing is making sure those exemptions are used correctly."

Charlotte Mead added: "Women's Equality Party challenge for viewers that next time we do one of these, we say we would really like to see some female candidates from all of your parties There must be some brilliant women in all of your parties who we're not seeing standing in PCC elections."