'Police are getting on with the job'
As Chief Constable Mike Cunningham marks three years at the helm of Staffordshire Police, he talks to Alex Campbell about the challenges of budget cuts, falling officer numbers and working with an elected commissioner
GOVERNMENT funding cuts of £34 million will leave Staffordshire Police with almost 500 fewer officers than on the day Mike Cunningham took charge.
The county's force will employ a record low of about 1,750 officers by 2015, and from next month senior officers must work alongside an elected police and crime commissioner (PCC) who will have their own views on how to manage spending cuts.
Mr Cunningham, who left his post as deputy chief at Lancashire in September 2009, admits cuts have dramatically changed both his job and policing – but insists residents have every right to expect high standards.
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He said: "It has changed the role quite considerably. For some years we had the challenge of how to manage growth and use additional resources, now it is about managing reductions.
"It isn't just about taking out a huge amount of money, but about how you can continue to deliver the high quality policing which our communities rightly expect. That's the real challenge, and it isn't going away."
Cuts have led to several controversial decisions, including paying consultants £800,000 to draw up savings, and a policy to favour 'alternatives to arrest'.
Officer numbers have slumped through a recruitment freeze and forced retirements, while changes to pay and perks have hit morale.
Mr Cunningham said: "I'm alive to the fact that officers are seeing reductions in numbers, alterations to their pay and conditions, and changes to pension arrangements.
"I go out with officers regularly and I'm always hugely impressed. I hear concerns about morale, but the evidence is that when it comes down to it – responding to calls or caring for vulnerable people – they are getting on with the job."
Mr Cunningham has maintained a neutral stance on cuts – refusing to blame funding pressures when The Sentinel revealed the force was missing eight of its ten priority targets for the year.
He said: "If we reach the stage where I think things are becoming fundamentally unsafe it is my professional responsibility to say so. But I won't say we can't cope, because that is not true.
"It's difficult, and it's going to become more difficult in the future, but I believe the last thing staff want to hear is me bleating about it. They want me to work out how we can deliver policing confidently and safely in the future."
Voters across the county will elect a PCC to oversee force budget and priorities on November 15, but Mr Cunningham said he is 'not nervous' about working with a political figure.
He added: "When you boil it down, it's not about a commissioner and a chief constable, it's about the policing service.
"I'm not naïve about this. I'm confident they will make decisions based on good arguments, rather than politics."
And Mr Cunningham says the force is determined to continue reducing crime, despite national upheaval.
He added: "Three years has passed in the blink of an eye. I didn't know Staffordshire very well before I was fortunate enough to be appointed. It has been a joy to get to know the area, our excellent staff and getting to understand the communities we serve.
"We're very fortunate that in just three years crime has reduced overall by 22 per cent. August this year, compared to September three years ago, there was 20,000 fewer crimes, and 20,000 fewer victims. "But the job's not finished and we've got a lot more to do."