How an ‘anti-woke’ UK police chief turned around a failing force in just three years

Chief Constable Stephen Watson of Greater Manchester Police
Chief Constable Stephen Watson was appointed in 2021 and has taken a no-nonsense approach to policing - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

In three years, Stephen Watson, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police (GMP), has turned a failing force that was on its knees into the one rated most improved by the official police watchdog.

However, Watson, 55, is clear that he is not finished. In the two years he has left on his contract, he is aiming to transform GMP into the best force in the country. That means being rated by HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary as “good in all things and outstanding in some,” he says.

His back-to-basics approach has been hailed by the former Conservative home secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman – as well as James Cleverly, the present Home Secretary – as a model for restoring the public’s faith in policing even though he was appointed by Labour’s Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, who sacked his predecessor.

Watson’s strategy of getting bobbies back on the beat has seen him courted as much by the Tories as Labour, sparking speculation within police circles that he could, once his term in Manchester is complete, be in line to become Britain’s most senior officer: the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

In recent months, he has adroitly steered GMP through the tricky waters of an investigation into Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, and the fall-out from GMP’s wrongful conviction of Andrew Malkinson who served 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

We meet in Watson’s airy fourth floor office where a portrait of Elizabeth II hangs between two windows looking out towards the city centre skyline. The force’s crest is pinned to the wall between a Union Jack and GMP flag alongside sailing pictures that reflect his favourite way to relax off-duty.

Wearing his full police uniform, he has the bearing of a military man and would have followed his father and grandfather into the Navy had he not chosen policing. As he sits at his office’s pine conference table, he rattles off statistics to explain how his back-to-fundamentals, anti-woke approach has transformed the second biggest force in England and Wales.

Watson speaks to the former home secretary Suella Braverman in 2023
Watson with the former home secretary Suella Braverman in 2023 - Peter Byrne/PA Wire

When he arrived in the summer of 2021, GMP had been placed in “special measures” after failing to record 80,000 crimes – a fifth of that year’s total. Emergency 999 response times were the worst in the country, with serial warnings that it was failing domestic abuse and sexual assault victims.

Now, says Watson, every crime is investigated, emergency response times are among the best in England and Wales, arrests of domestic abuse perpetrators have doubled in a year and overall crime is down by 7.7 per cent. Since he took over, stop and searches have quadrupled to 46,029 in a year – a key reason, he believes, behind sharp falls in robberies, firearms offences and people presenting at hospitals with knife injuries. “It is about leadership and having an effective plan,” he says.

Reading from his notes, Watson reels off the force’s successes: “In 12 months, neighbourhood crime is down 15.4 per cent, burglary is down 24 points, vehicle crime is down 16.2 per cent, robbery is down 11.2 per cent, theft from the person is down 3.9 per cent,” he says.

His plan was to shift the entire force from being “reactive” to crime to “proactively” pursuing and preventing it. “We pick up the phone, we get to people quickly, we make accurate records, we investigate all reasonable lines of inquiry. We bring people to justice,” he says.

He is clear it is not about “going down all manner of contemporary rabbit holes,” responding to woke causes or being distracted by “the fluff and nonsense” of social media.

“Whether it be through adulterating the uniform with pins and badges and having all manner of florid social media accounts – these are all things that I don’t think have a place in policing,” he says.

He summed up this approach three years ago when, in reference to the controversy over the police kowtowing to Black Lives Matter, I asked him if he would ever take the knee in uniform. “No, I absolutely would not. I would probably kneel before the Queen, God and Mrs Watson, that’s it,” he replied.

Instead, he believes it is about investigating every crime no matter how minor and thinking about crime “through the prism of the victim’s experience rather than the prism of some sort of Home Office classification”.

It echoes the US-inspired “broken windows” philosophy on tackling crime. “I expect my officers to enforce moving traffic offences, litter and graffiti, right the way up through the spectrum. It’s as much about the small stuff as it is about the big stuff,” says Watson.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if you don’t tend to anti-social behaviour, which is symptomatic of crime, eventually things will deteriorate to the point where you get embedded endemic, deep-rooted crime and anti-social behaviour.”

He cites Manchester’s Cheetham Hill district as an example of this decline. Half a mile from the city centre, it earned a reputation as the counterfeit capital of the UK, where you could find fake Apple airpods sold for £20 rather than £250 and counterfeit Nike Air Max 95 trainers for £30, instead of £165.

Once home to a thriving rag trade, it had become a hub for organised crime and illegal migrant workers, and an “enormous” generator of illicit money, largely because of police turning a blind eye. “Cheetham Hill literally was allowed to decline over a period of 30 years,” says Watson.

“The GMP has turned that around in eight months. It seems to me to be a great example of the power of what can be done.”

Through multiple raids and putting officers back on the beat, 218 premises selling illegal goods have been shut; nearly 240 suspected criminals arrested; and officers have seized over 1,000 tonnes of counterfeit goods, £560,000 in cash and over 100 vehicles. “It was the counterfeit capital of Europe, it now just no longer exists,” he says.

Watson and his deputy chief constable Terry Woods have just completed their annual round of face-to-face strategy briefings with more than 5,000 of their staff to set out their vision for the next year.

When they launched these briefings three years ago, they called them “giants”, a nod to the fact that GMP was a “sleeping giant”. This year they have dropped the “sleeping” part because, says Woods, “we have woken them up.”

Part of the reason for their success in driving through reforms is that they have brought the workforce with them. Woods says the staff know they have not forgotten what it is like to be on the front line dealing with a violent incident. “They get a sense that we are still connected to what happens at three o’clock in the morning,” he says.

Nothing symbolises that connection better than one of Watson’s first acts: replacing officers’ “scruffy”, “cheap” kit from which they had even removed the force insignia to save money. He invested in a new uniform with the GMP logo and introduced a strict dress code.

“If you turn up to work, if you’re a female officer, you tie your hair up, if you’re a man you’ve had a shave, you press your clothing, you polish your boots, you look smart, and you look professional. We’re very uncompromising on that,” says Watson.

“When you see the Grenadier Guards outside Buckingham Palace, there’s never a problem with smartness or with uniform standards. I think we can take a leaf out of that book.”

Watson being sworn in as Chief Constable by Mayor Andy Burnham in 2021
Watson being sworn in as Chief Constable by Mayor Andy Burnham in 2021 - Greater Manchester Police

Watson says he would have followed family tradition and joined the Royal Navy had it not been for a chance meeting in a Manchester street with two “cheery” GMP officers when he was considering his career options.

“They just put it into my head that it might be good, it might be fun. I thought it was an honourable calling. I joined almost by accident. I enjoyed it and I was reasonably good at it. And I’m very proud to be a police officer,” he says.

Warrington-born Watson grew up in Rhodesia where his father was a naval officer before he and other British families had to leave in 1981 when Robert Mugabe came to power. He completed his education in South Africa before returning to Britain at the age of 18 with a view to pursuing a career in the Navy.

Instead, in 1988, he joined Lancashire Constabulary as a probationer, telling his cousin at the time that his ambition was to be GMP’s Chief Constable. His determination served him well, as he rose through the ranks to become staff officer to Pauline Clare, then Lancashire’s chief constable and the first woman in Britain to hold such a senior post.

This key job at the heart of the force gave Watson an insight into how to run a constabulary, from ensuring Clare was fully briefed for every meeting, to liaising with senior officers and writing speeches. “He was very good as a staff officer because of his work ethic,” recalls Woods, then a sergeant working alongside Watson. “We’d be in at 5am in the morning and we’d be there until 11pm at night.”

What he learned from Watson has remained with him through his 25 years of policing, he says. Now reunited as chief and deputy at GMP, Woods recalls: “His sense of vocation and values resonated with me for the rest of my career. It is the idea that policing is bigger than a job. It’s public first, but Stephen’s duty is to the Crown.”

The pair are very different. Watson is well-spoken, middle-class and privately educated; Woods, in his own words a “broad Boltoner”. But, he says: “The sense of why we were put on earth is the same. Everything is about keeping people safe and if you don’t think that, don’t be in policing.”

Stephen Watson of Greater Manchester Police 2021
Early beginnings: Watson, pictured in 2021, said from the beginning of his career that his goal was to be GMP's Chief Constable - Heathcliff O'Malley

In 2006, Watson left Lancashire after being appointed the chief superintendent of Merseyside police, in charge of one of the toughest areas of the city. Five years later, he moved to a similar job as a commander in the Met Police.

A qualified firearms and public order commander, he worked on high-profile operations including the Vauxhall helicopter crash in which two people died after an aircraft clipped a construction crane. He had a key role also in restoring public confidence after the 2011 riots. A year later, he was awarded a Commissioner’s Commendation for his role in the successful delivery of a peaceful London Olympics.

He was then promoted to deputy chief constable in Durham Police, rated the best performing force in England and Wales, before taking over as chief constable for the then “failing” South Yorkshire force.

Here he applied the same principles that he has at GMP: prioritising neighbourhood policing, pursuing every lead and enforcing a smart dress code with no visible tattoos. “I have nothing against tattoos, but I’m absolutely sure the public are not ready for a police officer to have a tattoo on their face or neck,” he says.

Where there were police failings, he was honest about admitting them. On his arrival at South Yorkshire in 2016, he had to deal with the fall-out of the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal, which happened before he took on the role. He said at the time that the failure of the police to help victims was “totally inexplicable and unforgivable”.

Yet, by the time he left South Yorkshire, it had been rated the most improved police force three years in a row. His success made him an obvious fit when he applied in 2021 to work for GMP, then a force in crisis after the removal of its chief constable over a failure to get a grip on crime.

An avowed family man, with an adult son and daughter, Watson has always kept a base in neighbouring Lancashire where he met his wife, Jane, a former traffic officer in the county who now runs her family’s firm which provides equipment and supplies for ships.

Despite his “posh” background, colleagues say he has no pretensions. “He doesn’t try to be something he’s not,” says Woods.

To those officers, he is seen as a faithful boss. “He’s very loyal and by that I don’t mean blindly loyal,” says one senior officer. “Policing can be choppy waters. We’ve all made big calls. If I do the right thing, even if it creates a storm, he will back me. And if I do the wrong thing and I’m honest, he won’t cast me out.”

When he took over the force, Watson admits GMP was propping up the bottom of the league table at 43rd out of 43 forces in England and Wales, with all their performance ratings from independent watchdogs set at “inadequate” or “requiring improvement” – the bottom two grades used by HM inspectors.

Today GMP has among the fastest response times for 999 calls, down from 25 seconds when Watson arrived to just four seconds now. The number of burglaries solved has doubled after he became a “beacon” force for the country by guaranteeing to send an officer to the scene of every break-in.

“We are midway through a journey. We aspire to be outstandingly good at serious and organised crime, neighbourhood policing and child protection,” says Watson.

“And we want to be outstandingly efficient, because money is likely to tighten up and, given the macro economic situation, we have to drive inefficiencies out of our organisation to sustain our momentum.

“Ultimately, we want to see ourselves as the most improved force in the country for the third year running.”