Of course I care about keeping Suffolk safe and protecting all citizens of Suffolk from crime. These words will inevitably trip off the tongue of many candidates, simply replacing ‘Suffolk’ with their own county. But how do my experiences and values make me as capable a candidate as others and – dare I say it – even better than some?
During the freezing months earlier this year, I was privileged to work as a volunteer providing a warm and safe place for those of ‘no fixed abode’. Last year 12 people who had no home died prematurely in Ipswich. Two of these were the victims of a brutal murder. Statistically if you are homeless you are far more likely to die in your 40’s. That’s a life expectancy that takes us back to Victorian times and one that, in a modern developed nation like ours, I find unacceptable.
Whilst volunteering I met a man who was 42 (let’s call him Aleksandrs) but who looked twice that age. He came to us unable to speak initially. I understood this was due to a mix of having been waiting in the freezing weather for our shelter to open and having drunk excessive amounts of alcohol.
He cried with pain and desperation as he removed one of his shoes to show a badly infected foot. The action of removing his shoe was made virtually impossible by his hands that were red and black with cold and gnarled with what appeared to be arthritis.
He held my hand and repeated the words ‘dirty, dirty, dirty’ - gesturing to his shabby clothes. His English was broken and I gave up with the ‘risk assessment’ I had been trained and instructed to undertake, going back to it later. Instead we made him coffee and gave him some time to defrost a little.
I started a shaky conversation with him and gradually he gave me a small plastic bag with a bundle of papers in it. Here there were two seperate discharge documents from Norwich Prison. Here too was what looked like a passport. On closer inspection it was a fisherman’s licence from Latvia that allowed him to travel from port to port. The face that beamed out from the tattered document I shall remember always.Looking directly at me was a handsome and certain young man. His head of hair was full and shiny black. His shirt was white and it contrasted sharply with his crisp suit, jacket and tie. This image was a lifetime away from the man in front of me with his gnarled hands, scuffed shoes and dirty clothes.
I felt a connection with this man. The connection was through the sea. My late father had been in the Navy and we scattered his ashes from the bailey bridge at Southwold. I looked again at the date of birth on the fishermans licence and thought then he could have been my brother or my cousin. I thought that of course he was certainly someone’s son.
I wondered, what had led him to this? Why he was now in Britain a lifelong alcoholic with no home? I reflected on who he had perhaps been and what was his personality? Of his journey within a system that, for some people, creates a cycle that they cannot escape. Living rough; perhaps being drunk & disorderly on the street; getting arrested and imprisoned. On release the cycle begins again: a waste of his life first and, of course, our services second.
This tells you a little about me.
As Commissioner I will face some real challenges. Commissioners will be the local ‘fall guys’ for spending cuts. These include cuts to services like the police, but also to drug and alcohol services, to prisons, to mental health care providers, probation & to charities providing support for people like Aleksandrs.
What’s important though, is that the people of Suffolk should know that at the centre of my decision making will be consideration and empathy for those who live a life a million miles away from my own; a million miles away perhaps from most of us in Suffolk.
My decisions will not be taken in isolation and they will never condone criminal & unsocial behaviour and its impact on people. I will consider and challenge how partnerships and services currently work. How effectively partnerships include agencies such as health and housing services. Vital to this is the grass roots voluntary, community & social enterprise sector.
This sector is often best placed to be there for lost souls like Aleksandrs, passing no moral or social judgement on the reasons for him being where he is today. There with their advice; with a warm space; with donated food & clothes. There with a desire to help people turn their lives around to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour through their sense of humanity.
That’s the sort of Commissioner I want. One whose strategic vision never loses touch with the realities of the lived lives of all people; the causes of crime & the importance of preventing reoffending.
What sort do you want?