Interview: Rod Hansen, chief constable of Gloucestershire
- Credit: Archant
While out on the rural beat Katie Jarvis met up with Rod Hansen, chief constable of Gloucestershire. She doesn’t envy him his job, but is glad he’s got it
Curiously – and, I think, a first – I’m going to start this piece with silence.
But the reason I’m starting with silence is that it’s a telling silence. A listening silence.
So I’m in a police station; and then in a patrol car; and then at a kitchen table in a gamekeeper’s house, researching a piece on rural crime.
There’s a lot of chat going on: banter, information; opinion. PC Ashley Weller – champion sort of chap – is talking about his beat in the deepest Cotswolds. Will Pratt, Calmsden’s dedicated gamekeeper, is explaining his problems with poachers, alongside describing the plight of the grey partridge.
You’d think, faced with a journalist doing an article, that the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire – if he were here, too – might well be interjecting during these chats; regularly proffering his point of view; making sure (in short) that everyone knows who’s in charge here.
And, indeed, he is present. And in charge. But he isn’t butting in at all.
Instead, he’s listening; taking it all in. Absorbing what Ashley is saying about the problems he faces on a daily basis; acknowledging the excellent relationship his PC is forging with local experts.
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And when he does speak – almost exclusively when he’s addressed directly – what he says is worth hearing.
I note other things, too. That Ashley – PC Weller – feels free to share the odd humorous aside with his boss (about taking work phone-calls out of hours; about actually having time to eat his sandwiches during the day). But I also note the deferential respect he shows Rod Hansen. “Mr Hansen, sir,” he says, with a naturalness that’s striking.
So. This isn’t a grilling of Gloucestershire’s new(ish) Chief Constable, Rod Hansen. This isn’t a confrontational piece about cuts and crime figures and public confidence. It’s not meant to be. It’s a portrait of a person who strikes me as interesting.
We’re in the patrol car, driving between rural visits on Ashley Weller’s beat; and it’s impossible to miss that both Rod and Ashley are wearing body armour; ballistic-quality. Since the security threat was raised to ‘substantial’, that kind of protection is not optional, even in Cirencester.
And I get it – I get why that’s a mandate. But fascinating, isn’t it (speaking objectively), how threats never quite come from where you’d expect. How death can visit a regular constituency office in Birstall; or stalk a simple walk home from school in Chillenden.
Rod Hansen nods. He’s had personal experience of that conundrum over the years. So have his officers. “I was talking with PC Mel Earnshaw, who was shortlisted for the police bravery awards this year,” he says. Without a second’s thought, this outstanding officer stopped a Gloucester woman with mental health issues from setting fire to herself. During the tussle, Mel herself was doused in fuel as she made to grab the cigarette lighter the woman was wielding.
But that wasn’t the incident she was discussing with the chief. “Shortly after that, Mel went to a domestic incident that was many hours old and not deemed high risk. Just a quiet afternoon. Yet, within minutes, Mel found herself in a headlock with someone she wasn’t anticipating would be there.”
Rod reflects on that moment. Most of his colleagues will be out on their own when facing these kinds of unanticipated situations.
“And they’ve got to make dynamic decisions in kinetic situations, based on what they see and hear. They are expected to - and do - put themselves in harm’s way. My job, as the chief, is to make sure they’re fully supported and protected as well as possible.”
“You’re extremely proud of them, aren’t you...”
“I am extremely proud of them. It’s a privilege to be in policing.”
Of course, he’s walked many-a-beat himself. January 23, 1989, he started patrolling the market town of Chipping Sodbury - “A frosty morning for an early turn; I remember it well” - fresh from a geology and geography degree. “Sometimes, I wonder what use a geology degree is. But, occasionally, when people are throwing things at you, you can work out whether they’ve got a piece of sedimentary rock or granite,” he says, in jokey aside.
There’s an art to good patrolling; a sixth sense you pick up. Signals you learn to interpret without even thinking; lessons you garner from bitter experience. Take the tragedy of ‘domestics’ as an example.
“And an experienced officer going into a domestic dispute will almost invariably encourage all parties out of the kitchen. A member of the public might well think, ‘We’re in the safety of the kitchen!’ But a police officer will know that’s a place of ready access to weaponry: knives in drawers.”
Psychology, of course, is what it’s all about.
And Rod Hansen’s a psychologist, for sure. That came into play during his years as a hostage negotiator. (Which goes neatly back to my first point: that listening to people is key.) Doesn’t matter if it’s a terrorist, or a farmer desperate over the latest outbreak of mad-cow disease, who’s barricaded themselves in. They’re all people, at the end of the day.
Same when he travelled out to Somalia. Different backdrop; still humans behaving as humans do under pressure.
“I went [in 2011] with a military general and team, just a few weeks after the terrorist organisation al-Shabab were removed from most of the districts in Mogadishu city. Police stations were in ruins; officers hadn’t been paid for many months. Corruption was rife. Terrorists were beheading 14-year-old boys in the street. But there were green shoots – children splashing in the sea for the first time in years.”
Rod talked the city’s police chief through establishing a neighbourhood policing model to begin to get some flow of community intelligence through. He’s a big believer in the role of the community.
“Everything starts and ends in a neighbourhood. Policing is too important to be left to the police,” he says, with deliberate irony, “Different tactics have to be based on good understanding of a neighbourhood; and that primary understanding comes from the public.”
Fascinating that he’s seen people facing such extremes. Which means, I suggest, that he must see common factors driving ordinary people to commit extraordinary acts; that ‘evil’ is too simple a word, perhaps, for the outcome of bad upbringings and harsh environments.
“Yes, and my personal view is that all life is precious; and I try to look for the good in people. What is the intention behind their actions? Most people wouldn’t deliberately put themselves in a stressful position: where they’re faced with armed police officers; where they’ve just killed or injured somebody; where they’re self-harming. I don’t think that’s a preferred state for human beings to be in.
“And many have had a far less privileged life than I have, right back to breaking into the local village hall to make themselves toast before school because mum and dad can’t do it for them – or won’t. That’s not something they would wish on themselves.”
Quite. So while there might not be room for sentimentality in policing, there’s plenty of space for compassion.
And Rod Hansen’s policing encompasses everyone, including the victim at a crime scene; the relatives trying to support them; the witness. “Seeing [a crime] through to court and maybe seeing an offender receive a significant sentence could, in a professional sense, be a total victory. But if the journey for that sentence has put a victim, a relative, a witness, on a rollercoaster of emotion because we’ve done our work in a less-than-compassionate way, that’s not a fully satisfactory result for us. So how we do things is arguably as important as what we do.”
He’s done a lot overseas; he’s done plenty in this country, too. Amongst other national roles, he has the lead for mounted policing. The four police horses that were being trialled in the county have just been given their permanent stripes. They’re an asset that doesn’t run out of petrol; that can cover terrain better than any 4x4; that doesn’t mind a bit of bad weather. Helicopters can’t search for vulnerable missing people in the fog but mounted officers can. “There’s also good academic research showing horses have a very therapeutic quality; they can calm a crowd and change people’s physiological state, even when they are tired, hungry and anxious to get home – a gift when trying to avoid flare-ups or even panic.”
Rod’s also in the process of taking on 70 new two-legged recruits to keep numbers up. (The force consists of a fair constant of around 1,060 officers; 650 police staff; 120 specials; 60 volunteers and 116 police community support officers.) Those recruits – chosen from thousands - have gone through a months-long process more rigorous than ever: IQ, literacy, role-play, fitness, ethics and professional-standards testing. Today’s officers have a rough, tough job on their hands, dealing with everything from finger-print-taking to money-laundering and cyber-crime.
“We don’t give these jobs away, I can assure you,” their boss says.
Demands have never been greater (or more complex); money has never been more scarce. It’s a combination that can interfere with his sleep-patterns, he admits; but he’s a decision-maker, who makes decisions off the back of knowledge and experience.
So when I ask what he does to relax, it’s a simple question. Not meant to pull the whole interview together. But that’s the job it ends up doing.
“I’ve practised a form of martial arts for more than 20 years,” he says, unexpectedly. “I teach it each week as well”. He’s a 4th dan black belt but not at all interested in the grading; “I’m much more interested in the ‘art’ of martial arts.”
Most people focus on the ‘martial’, he explains. For him, it’s about the art: how to transcend the physical in order to avoid fighting.
Prevention, by any other name.
“Don’t start me on this,” he laughs – but seriously so. “That’s why there’s a strong link to horse-riding. If you look at a dressage-rider, they appear to be doing nothing.
“Nothing is not nothing. Nothing is years of experience, working day-in, day-out, with an animal which, by the way, is a ton of muscle and bone; a flight animal, more powerful than the rider on its back, who it can’t even see. So it’s all about trust.”
Trust. And soft power.
You can be brutal and whip a horse into submission. Or you can encourage it to want to do things contrary to its nature. You can make it jump in the air; move its legs on a diagonal six times in a row because it wants to please you rather than because it’s afraid of you.
Now how’s that for a metaphor?
Rod Hansen nods. “You can boss people around (by dint of rank and role) and demand and be transactional. Or you can create a permissive environment, where people warm to it, want to come to work and then go the extra mile, however complex or dangerous the circumstances. And that’s the secret to diversity within our ranks too I’m sure. Less about difference and more about common purpose; recognising the value we each bring – wisdom of the crowd.”
When I’ve finished at the police station, I walk back through Cirencester to my car. Cirencester; a market-town of grace and tranquillity. And, as I walk, I pass a distressed woman, who clearly has mental health issues. And a pharmacy with a notice in the window saying, ‘Sunglasses are not kept on these premises overnight.’
Quiet, Cotswold Cirencester.
I don’t envy Chief Constable Rod Hansen his job. But I’m glad he’s got it.
For more information on Gloucestershire Constabulary, visit the Gloucestershire Police website here.