The challenges facing Wigan's new home-grown police chief

Cracking down on domestic violence and anti-social behaviour, helping people feel safe wherever they are in the borough and faster responses to crimes are just some of the goals of Wigan’s new police commander.

Friday, 26th November 2021, 2:59 pm
Updated Friday, 26th November 2021, 3:02 pm

And after only seven weeks in the hot seat, Chief Supt Emily Higham is already making things happen.

For years Wigan and many other divisions across Greater Manchester and the rest of the country have suffered from investigative backlogs which have seen victims of burglaries, for example, receiving visits from officers sometimes weeks after the crime has been committed.

But already that is changing locally. One of the new boss’s first actions was to put all hands on deck to clear that backlog, so that now, when a break-in is reported, the trail hasn’t gone cold by the time statements are taken.

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Chief Supt Emily Higham

Chief Supt Higham exudes enthusiasm and busy-ness and at the age of 50, the married mother of two has come full circle after years of breaking career ceilings within the Greater Manchester force.

She is a Wigan lass through and through, with her childhood, education, early work experience and adult family life all played out within a stone’s throw of the Robin Park Road headquarters where she is now based.

Born in Norley, she lived in Newtown with her parents and grandparents, and attended St Mark’s Primary School, Pemberton Middle School and the Deanery High.

From about the age of eight she says she knew she wanted to be a police officer but in those days you had to be 21 to join up and so, on leaving school, she went to work at the NatWest Bank on Standishgate where she spent five happy years.

Wigan Police HQ on Robin Park Road

But on the day of her 21st birthday she filled in and sent off the application form to join Greater Manchester Police. Accepted, she was first posted to Leigh and then moved to Wigan HQ (in those on Harrogate Street) where she was a response officer which meant she could be attending all manner of incidents, including some complex or confrontational ones - but she loved it.

Recollections include helping people just after they had been burgled and chasing and arresting a suspect down Standisgate after a bottle attack. Being part of a team was also important.

She was promoted to sergeant and moved to Salford and in the City of Manchester she was an inspector, between which she worked in specialist areas such as drugs and child protection.

To Bury next as a detective chief inspector and from then on she achieved several female firsts for GMP.

Former divisional commander Gordon Burton was Chief Supt Higham's first police boss back in the 1990s

No woman had ever headed the professional standards branch, been a DCI in serious and organised crime (she was posted to the gun and gang unit at Moss Side and work included diverting people away from crime and being exploited by gangs) and a detective superintendent in serious and organised crime, but Emily Higham changed all of those.

She then went on to be the first female head of the region’s organised crime unit and for all these firsts she travelled to Alaska two years ago to be presented with a leadership award by the International Association of Women Police.

Then the latest posting came up.

Chief Supt Higham said: “I did my probation at Wigan and I have been trying to get back here for a long time.

“I remember my first chief superintendent, Gordon Burton. He ran a tight ship. The hierarchy was very different in those days and I probably only saw him once a year. It was very disciplined and some of that needs to come back.

“We have the privilege of the power of arrest - in other words we lock bad asses up! And I want officers to look smart and have good manners when they are dealing with the public.”

These have not been easy times for GMP which was put into special measures after it was discovered that it was under-reporting offences and officers weren’t getting to their communities in a timely manner.

Latest figures also show that only 4.8 per cent of reported crimes in the force area are these days ending up with a court conviction.

But the new Chief Constable Stephen Watson has published a manifesto which includes pledges to respond to incidents and emergencies, investigate solve and prevent crime and build public trust and confidence.

These are tenets to which Chief Supt Higham says she had adhered all her career.

And with “Boris’s Bobbies” gradually coming through now to the point that Wigan will have an extra 100 officers by next year (following a seven-year recruitment freeze) plus a much more visible senior leadership team which Chief Supt Higham heads, she will be increasingly well placed to put these ideals and targets into action.

She said: “I want my officers to be visible and I want them to be where the community needs them.

“We need to know where the crime hotspots are, who the repeat offenders and who the vulnerable people are on our watch.

“Women and girls’ safety has been much in the news lately: well we want them to feel safe and everyone else as well.

“I don’t want there to be any no-go zones in Wigan or a perception of them even.”

One thing she wants to put a stop to is using neighbourhood teams as secondary response teams because that takes them away from their primary duties. Now that backlog of incidents has been cleared, this is far easier to achieve.

And with the extra recruits? “That will mean we can get to the public even faster, carry out even better quality investigations and it gives us the chance to do more pro-active policing,” she said.

“What plagues Wigan communities more than anything else is anti-social behaviour and drug-dealing and we need to target them.

“But for this to happen better is if the public contacts us. We have public meetings at which people say there has been drug dealing in a particular area but when we check back on our records we find that there is no intelligence on it. People need to tell us about crimes. If they aren’t comfortable about that they can contact Crimestoppers instead on 0800 555111.”

As far as anti-social behaviour and public order are concerned, there is a recognition that there are certain hotspots. Wigan has more than most because it has a lot of town centres but there are also to be found at the two main bus stations and several parks, although Chief Supt Higham is keen to stress that police aren’t going to be breaking up congregating youths if they are there for a game of football. But she wants to look into what attracts large congregations of trouble-making youngsters to particular places.

And then there is domestic violence - by far the biggest crime problem in Wigan, as it has been for years. Of the average 240 incidents reported on the division per day, 110 concern allegations of domestic abuse.

But the number of reports isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Chief Supt Higham said: “It is a large number by volume because a lot of people live here but it is also good that people have the trust and confidence to report incidents to us. Outside this office we have a multi-agency team to deal with it. We would always encourage victims of abuse to come forward.”

So there is plenty on the new divisional commander’s plate but she is raring to go.

Chief Supt Higham said: “Our job is to serve the community and make it safer. Things haven’t changed since I dreamt about being in the police as a child: I wanted to show people across the road and catch baddies.”

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