When you think of the police force, it’s hard not to bring to your mind an image of hardened, tough, stern officers who have been moulded by each and every incident and crime they have had to deal with during their career.
For people that don’t know much about the Police and Crime Commissioner role, you’d expect to meet the typical police officer but who deals with policy.
This was not the person I met when I sat down with Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner Alison Hernandez. In the hour we had together, she came across as the most genuine, open and welcoming politician that we have met during these interviews.
I started off by asking her about the challenges she has faced so far in her role: “Well, I say this about every job I’ve had but it’s probably the best job in the world. It’s been enlightening, it’s been personally challenging, professionally challenging, politically challenging.
‘If you wanted personal development, this is the role to have. It’s a bit like an elected Mayor role but just for policing. You have decision making powers and a budget, that’s what makes it exciting, as opposed to a councillor in a committee. I can make things happen, speedy democracy, I quite like that.”
Alison was elected to the role of Police and Crime Commissioner in 2016, following on from Commodore Tony Hogg who was the inaugural post-holder.
“I went for the role 2 years ago also, but someone else beat me. I didn’t get selected this time technically. The person who actually won [the vote] was in the armed forces, he hadn’t obtained permission so I got pushed forward by default and then I managed to win the selection.
‘It’s been quite a journey to get to this position. Then to get elected by a very low turnout, which was really hard. There were only local elections in Plymouth and Exeter so getting the vote out and engaging people in what the priorities for police are – your mandate feels quite narrow. I was looking forward to [my election taking place during the] general election in 2020 but now that there’s been a snap election that won’t be happening.”
Any role in politics at the moment is going to be a difficult one. Especially at a time where budgets are stretched and difficult decisions have to be made in all areas of local services. However, when I asked Alison about her biggest challenge in the role so far, it was more of a personal one.
“I was under investigation for election spending, having been campaign manager for Kevin Foster. I was under investigation for a year over election fraud. The police and crime panel were calling for my resignation. I had just been elected, I was encouraged to enter through the back door at my swearing in ceremony because Channel 4 News wanted to get an interview about it all.
‘I said no, and I went in through the front door. I had worked really hard to get the position and I was instantly on the back foot. There I was, talking about policing and integrity, whilst being investigated for lacking integrity, that was the dichotomy that was going on. It was challenging. I got through it. It took a year to get cleared.
‘I knew I was innocent but after a whole year I thought, well, have I done something wrong? Why is it taking a year? Have I missed something? So I actually became more stressed as the length of the investigation went on and that’s what happens in our community, innocent until proven guilty. Innocent people can be under investigation for some time, which can be very stressful. So I’ve gained that understanding through it.”
It was clear in discussing her investigation that her mindset has been affected by it. She was visibly passionate about making sure the police uphold the right that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Undoubtedly though, the biggest political challenge has been the policing budget and numbers: “We’ve had a lot of budget demands, which hasn’t always been an issue for policing. But there’s been such a drive since 2010. We’ve lost over a thousand people, (500 of which were cops) from an organisation of five thousand. We were the last force in the country to reduce PCSOs. I thought aren’t we lucky!
‘One of the only ways you can guarantee an uplift in police officers on the front line, is to recruit new ones. Because they have to come in on the front line and they have a probation period. Then, they get promoted and are no longer there, you have to bring in fresh blood, all of the time.
‘It’s a real challenge and we’re still in that challenge at the moment: How we help the public with their expectations, understand our challenges, and yet still work in a way that helps the police and the public?”
What is obvious when discussing policy with Alison is how her role is dominated by finding new solutions to age-old problems. None more so than officer numbers.
“We’ve now recruited ten ‘tri-service’ officers in Cornwall. This is a whole new role, particularly for rural communities. We’re really excited about it. They’re not just getting a policing role but an emergency services role too. What you get is a hybrid of a police officer – paramedic – fire officer person. It sounds challenging as there’s a lot of training to keep up with to be all those things. So the abstraction for training is quite intense. We haven’t gotten over that yet. But when they’ve properly landed in the community, we’ll probably see what each community has the most demand for.”
One thing that has hit the county hard over the last few years is drugs. The Moorlander recently reported on the tragic deaths of Joshua Brock and Aaron Reilly after taking MDMA at a nightclub in Plymouth. County Lines has also been an issue that has deeply affected Devon. I asked her what Devon and Cornwall Police are doing to tackle this growing epidemic:
“I have a really strong stance on drugs. We don’t believe in the legalisation of cannabis or of cannabis clubs. I get really concerned about things like [festivals in] our little naïve community in Devon and Cornwall.
It’s all about messaging, and I’m really worried, especially with this County Lines stuff going on. Its ruining young people’s lives. They’re young. They’re victims.”
Alison would go on to discuss her absolute determination to tackle this problem and her annoyance at those that call for complete legalisation.
“The word ‘consequence’ is absent from children’s vocabulary these days. They don’t seem to know what the consequences of drugs are. Kids can die, get caught, arrested and go to jail. It’s hard, I mean I don’t speak to my kids about it so much.
‘When I first got elected I took part in a debate for Exeter University; the house was arguing for legalising all drugs, I was against it. I lost. Only four people voted against the legalisation of all drugs, these are educated people in our community, who seem so oblivious of the consequences of all these drugs. That to me is a level of ignorance and complacency. Think about people on the roads with legal drugs.”
The end of this particular conversation probably ended with the most apt line from my editor: “Drugs are a bigger risk than terrorism to us here.” I am sure the families of all those who have lost children to drugs in Devon and Cornwall would agree.
It is undoubted that Alison is facing increasing challenges and pressures, whether it be through budgets, police numbers or drugs. However, this has not stopped Devon and Cornwall Police achieving.
“There’s a new scheme called Pathfinder which targets first time offenders or non-violent offences – we work with them for 4 months instead of a caution. It’s often linked to mental health, drugs and alcohol. We work with them for four months and if they complete the course they don’t receive a caution. We just won a national award from Howard League for Penal reform.
‘It’s a £1.5million scheme and we’re turning people’s lives around, often through sad circumstances we’re preventing them even entering the legal system. They’re not necessarily bad people.”
One area of crime that is almost always looked over is rural crime. Farmers are having animals and machinery stolen all over the country. I asked Alison what more she is doing to tackle this blight on our Moor.
“Most of the demand we have is based in the cities and the towns and most of our police are based in the cities and the towns. We have just recruited a rural crime team, so we will be getting a lot more information on that. We’ve got a Rural Crime Officer for Devon called PC Martin Beck. I think we will get a much better picture of rural crime with these officers. This team will put in some real proactive work with the farming communities and we are really quite excited about it!”
The election for Police and Crime Commissioner is not due again for another few years. I asked Alison what her goals were moving forward: “I want to deliver on my police and crime plan, so I can go and say in four years time at the next election ‘this is what I have done’. We have already delivered a shed load from the plan, as we review it every year, and I think this really shows the value of the office of the Police and Crime Commissioner.
‘The other one would be: I would love to get hold of volunteering a lot more. I’d like it to be run out of my office but it’s not. But I think citizens in policing is a really key area that I think Police and Crime Commissioners have a chance to really make a difference in. Community Speedwatch, police support officers and, we could even create you a role! We need to be as dynamic as that.”
This was Alison the Police and Crime Commissioner. But as with every politician, it is easy to forget about the person behind the job. You only need to spend half an hour on Twitter to understand some of the disdain that our elected officials now face. So to finish off our interview, I asked Alison about her personal life.
“I grew-up in Lichfield Avenue in Hele Village, probably one of the most deprived areas in the whole of the South West. My grandparents were one of the ones that were waiting in a portacabin at the end of the Second World War for their house in Lichfield Avenue. I then grew up in the Shippey area from around the age of four.
‘I went to Torquay Girls Grammar School and I hated every minute of it! I wasn’t even going to do my A-Levels but my teacher was like “All my girls go to university and you shall.” I managed to get into university through a panic in last minute clearing!”
Alison would go on to study at the University of Kingston, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology. From my guess, if you told Alison at the age of 16 would she would have achieved by 2018, she wouldn’t have believed you.
“Because I did sociology and I did psychology, and I did quite a lot about people and institutions, it has stood me in good stead for a lot of my public service work that I have done since then.”
After leaving university, she would find herself as a market trader selling doughnuts with her dad.
At this point she did emphasise her love of doughnuts!
She would go on to outline her extensive experience of public service, and even owning her own business, before becoming elected.
“I decided to get elected and become a politician and remove the excuses that my colleagues used to give me in local government as to why they couldn’t do something. So I thought I would come in and remove the excuse.”
In more recent times, Alison has been the victim of stalking from an ex-partner – having her world turned upside-down and becoming like many of the victims she sets out to help every day.
“I have actually started my own personal counsellor sessions on it. I thought I was fine but I can tell that it has affected me. It does affect how you think about yourself. What has been really interesting about that is how can someone in my position go and report vulnerability to the police? I have to be vulnerable before the police but I am supposed to be the person that directs that. My work was my saviour.”
Alison then said something that I think would be echoed in many people’s minds that have suffered at the hands of stalking.
“I did just want someone to come and save me. I hate to admit that as a woman. But I just wanted someone to come and save me. But no one was going to come and save me unless I told them that I had a problem.
‘Sharing that problem with the police really saved me. All I wanted was for him to stop. It’s not a bad thing to want a police intervention but I thought it was. But the police are there for a reason. They are there to keep you safe.”
Whether it be her elation at being elected, her determination to tackle crime or the vulnerability she experienced at the hand of a stalker, Alison demonstrated that we are all human – even politicians!