Farewell to the force
Barbara Young meets Lincolnshire Police Chief Constable Bill Skelly on the eve of his retirement.
With just a matter of weeks to go and the retirement clock slowly ticking down, Chief Constable Bill Skelly is at peace with his decision to close the page on the final chapter of his 31-year career after four eventful years with Lincolnshire Police.
Seemingly not a man prone to excessive displays of emotion, Bill admits he is likely to shed a tear as he bids his final farewell before Christmas. However, there’s no doubt he is looking forward to new adventures as he returns to Edinburgh with wife Jane, a relationship counsellor and mindfulness coach, to be reunited with his two daughters from a previous marriage – Rachel, 23, and Claire, 18.
He is understandably sad that due to Covid-19, there will be no big party with friends and colleagues. Instead the Chief Constable’s retirement speech will form part of his address at a virtual version of the annual police Christmas carol concert filmed at Lincoln Cathedral, rather than in front of a live congregation of 800.
“I’m content that the time is right – I’ve enjoyed a fantastic career, worked in seven different forces, including London, Scotland and Devon and Cornwall, meeting so many wonderful people who will remain good friends,” says 54-year-old Bill. “I’m lucky that I’m healthy and still relatively young so it feels like it’s the right time to reach out towards a new and exciting future.”
Having taken over leadership of Lincolnshire Police’s 2,000-strong workforce in 2017, Bill believes his initiatives have fulfilled his vow to “make a difference”.
“In the relatively short period of time, I think I’ve moved the force on and hope that I’m judged to have looked after the role of Chief Constable safely and respectfully.”
We sit chatting in his glass-fronted modern office in Lincolnshire Police HQ in Nettleham made personal by a distinctive wall-to-wall eclectic collection of artwork, which Bill brought with him on moving in.
There’s striking modern art by Russian artist Kandinsky, another by Kazimir Malevich and tucked in between, a view of Lincoln Castle by locally-based artist Edward Waite.
These are just a small sample of an extensive collection which began when Bill was in his late 20s and formed an appreciation for art, so it’s no surprise that as a guitar player himself Bill’s most iconic piece is an original by the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood depicting Mick Jagger on the band’s ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ tour which hangs in his home in Lincoln.
“As a young person I had a very literal understanding of art; anything other than standard landscapes I struggled with, but as you get older your tastes change and my understanding and appreciation grew,” he explains. “These are all pieces of memory too; when I look at my office wall each reminds me of special times, such as a watercolour of the Ponte Vecchio which I bought when Jane and I went to Florence.”
Born and brought up in a small rural village on the east coast of Scotland, Bill completed his schooling in Dundee before studying mathematics and physics at Edinburgh University, where he later completed an MBA.
At the age of 23, Bill joined Lothian and Borders Police, completed the command course at Bramshill in 2004 and the following year, a Diploma in Criminology at Cambridge.
“As a child I don’t pretend I was an angel and always on the side of good, I was just a typical young boy, but always had a strong sense of fairness. I didn’t like to see bullying; if someone was being picked on in school, I’d get involved and say ‘pick on me instead’ as I was fit and able to handle myself.
“That sense of wanting to make a difference stuck with me and when I decided to join the police, it was like a round peg fitting perfectly into a round hole and I knew I’d found my home.”
Through his policing career Bill has held many rewarding posts, including leading the Immigration Crime Team at New Scotland Yard and being appointed in 2008 by HM The Queen as her Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland.
He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Directors having passed with distinction their Certificate and Diploma programmes and been accepted as a Chartered Director, the only one in the police service at this level – and in November was named Public Service Director of the Year in the Midlands.
However, it has been Bill’s work in Lincolnshire around reassuring rural communities and his commitment to the wellbeing of his officers and staff that has made him most proud.
“I joined this force with the intention to look after my staff and to provide the public of Lincolnshire with the best possible service by making sure our resources were in the right place, at the right time,” he explains.
Tackling rural crime
He believes that Lincolnshire remains a safe county to live in because of its close-knit community.
“As a rural county, people tend to show a lot more respect for their area, as well as to each other so crimes such as thefts and damage to property are far less anonymous. If you’re known in the community and considering doing something wrong, you’re more likely to take into account the consequence of your actions because invariably people will know who you are, so doing something that harms your community is less likely.”
Bill points out that in many cases of rural crime, particularly hare coursing, which instigated the successful Operation Galileo initiative, offenders are frequently those travelling from outside the county.
“I remember going to a public meeting in Boston shortly after I arrived in 2017 and meeting people who were clearly very upset at the response to hare coursing from police. Of course, I completely understand where Lincolnshire had been before I arrived and the priorities they’d set and were trying to do, but what came across to me that day was that this wasn’t just one or two members of the community being upset, this was a whole area.
“I spoke to individuals in their 70s who had been farming for three generations and were in tears saying they were selling up because they just couldn’t take the intimidation, damage to their property and the fear of violence any more.
“I was really affected by this and wanted to make it very clear that hare coursing is a serious, organised crime, with large scale betting and huge sums of money involved, so we needed to tackle it head on.
“What was also clear and has been born out is that these criminals, who often also break traffic laws, are involved in other activities such as theft; it’s not unusual that in the days that follow incidents of hare coursing, machinery, diesel and other commodities, including high value GPS systems, are also stolen.”
Bill explains that an investment in drones and suitable off-road vehicles used by the Operation Galileo team has proved successful, both as a deterrent and in securing convictions.
“We’ve seen a reduction in hare coursing at 30% in the first year, 40% in the second and now it’s come down 60%, so together with increased penalties and working closely with our neighbouring forces, Lincolnshire is sending out a strong message, making it very clear that we are a hostile environment for those people.”
Bill has also navigated his team through the challenges of Covid-19 in what he describes as an “extraordinary, roller-coaster year”.
“When the pandemic started and people began to appreciate that this was serious, I sat down with our executive team and discussed two concerns: what would this mean for the people of Lincolnshire and what would it mean for us as a police service?
“Our main concern at this point was that we might see large amounts of our workforce off sick, or having to quarantine or self-isolate and if so, how would we deliver a service.
“Also, in asking people to comply with certain government directives, what would happen if they didn’t comply and what would our approach to policing be?
“What transpired on the internal front was that we took precautions such as splitting our control room in two and after the first few months found that sickness actually improved, which we put down to the fact that everyone was generally more hygienic, so tummy bugs, coughs, colds and short-term sickness reduced and we’re still in a good place today.”
Bill also pays tribute to residents in Lincolnshire for their co-operation in tackling coronavirus.
“Largely speaking, everyone has been very compliant and responded fantastically well. In comparison to other parts of the country, we haven’t seen issues over ignoring the large scale restrictions.
“We saw the community doing what we hoped they would, recognising that this was a problem, knuckling down and trying to work through it, which has been really great.”
At a local level the force took the approach of using an ascending scale of “three E’s: Engage, Explain, Encourage”.
“Only a tiny percentage of people chose not to comply on several occasions and we were forced to escalate this to arrests and fixed penalties, but overwhelmingly people positively engaged, which was what we’d expected.”
Bill says he will miss his walks with Jane, whom he fondly describes as his “rock”, in the Lincolnshire countryside where the couple often cover up to 10 miles, but there are plans to return to the county for visits next year.
“When we first moved here, we found many similarities to other rural communities we’d lived in, so it felt very comfortable. People have been warm, welcoming and interested, as well as interesting.”
One of Bill’s most significant achievements for the force has been a focus on mental health support with “family days” and “wellbeing days” which allow staff to enjoy quality time.
“In order to balance the books corporately, one of the arguments I put forward was that if people working in a high pressured job on a daily basis look after themselves better, they’re less likely to take sick leave. Officers and staff are encouraged to look after both their physical and mental health as routine, and the feedback has been positive and made a difference.”
Another initiative Bill is justifiably proud of is securing Lincoln Cathedral as the venue for the annual national police memorial service, which remembers those who have fallen while in the service, which should have taken place for the first time in Lincoln in September 2020, but is now rescheduled for 2021.
During discussions, he also raised the question of dedicating a chapel to the emergency services, the first one of its kind in the country and this too has been achieved with the consecration scheduled for May 2021, with plans to also raise funds for a new stained glass window.
Another reason for Bill to return to the county is to commemorate Arthur Troop, a sergeant from Skegness who founded the International Police Association in 1950, which now has 300,000 members in 65 countries. On its 70th anniversary in June 2021, a blue plaque will be unveiled on the former magistrates court building adjoining the police station in Skegness, which has been refurbished as a training suite named after the association’s founder.
And as a final lasting legacy Bill also commissioned and registered a special Lincolnshire Police Tartan, based on the Forbes Ancient Tartan sett, the clan associated with his family.
Looking back over the past four years, Bill says he feels honoured to have been part of such a well respected force.
“Our police are a big presence in the county which is something that doesn’t sit lightly with us and we take that with the responsibility that you would hope for, in spite of all the trials and tribulation of finances and operational issues.
“We continue to have a fantastic relationship with communities in the county, so it’s not a ‘them and us’ situation, we’re in this together. We police with the consent of those communities and do our level best to protect them from harm. I’m particularly proud of how we’ve addressed rural issues and, despite the issues and pressures of numbers and finances, I’ve been able to do a lot for the workforce and hope to have made a difference at an individual level.”
Bill says he would like to be remembered as “a friend to the force” and show that “I cared about people as a friend would do and was there to help rather than be dictating or controlling”.
“I’ve worked hard at earning trust and hope that the friendships I created and enjoyed during my time with Lincolnshire Police will endure with my memory.
“Were the sacrifices I’ve made during my career in terms of not spending enough quality time with my own family worth it? Would I do it all again? The answer has to be a resounding yes!”