PETER WALSH, Crime correspondent
Friday, August 10, 2012
With just days left until his retirement from Norfolk Constabulary Kevin Wilkins found himself back in familiar territory as he prepared for a final foot patrol around Swaffham.
It was almost 36 years to the day since Mr Wilkins, now assistant chief constable, started his first proper shift as a fully-fledged policeman from Swaffham Police Station after being posted there after completing his training at Eynsham Hall in Oxfordshire.
“It’s almost full circle,” said Mr Wilkins, who retires on August 16, the day before his 55th birthday.
“What I’ve done over the past year is I’ve gone to all 17 policing areas and spent some time with PCs on patrol in each of these areas and thought it would be great to finish here and really go full circle.
“I joined in May 1976 and my first posting was here in August 1976. It was a little bit unusual because normally recruits wouldn’t go to a rural station, they would go to King’s Lynn. But in many ways what it taught me was how to work with the community and how to engage with the community. In urban settings things happen a lot more quickly, there’s a lot more officers and a lot more to do but rural areas there’s more time to do it.”
The former Norwich School pupil, who was born in Norwich in a property at the top of Gas Hill and lived in Thorpe St Andrew when he moved to Swaffham, said the hands-on experience he got in the town proved crucial in his own career.
“It’s great to have that real grounding in working with the community and because you were with a lot of senior officers they were quite happy for me to get in and do things because I was the new boy.
”You got a case, whether it be an accident or collision and saw the whole thing through and handled it from start to finish.”
Mr Wilkins, who recalls his first arrest as being that of a shoplifter, said one of the beat officer’s Saturday duties, prior to the bypass being built, was to direct traffic through the town. But just months into his first posting and Mr Wilkins, then just 19, found himself called into help in the Heidi Redding murder inquiry.
“She was found in a ditch outside Downham Market and because she was a teenager and me being a young officer I was brought onto the inquiry and had only been there about six months. That was probably the most intense case at Swaffham – it’s almost unheard of for a young officer to be on a murder inquiry.”
It was not long before Mr Wilkins was identified as an officer who might go quite far and by 1978 he was moved to Norwich as a beat PC where his patches included Thorpe Hamlet, Mile Cross and Heartsease.
“In Norwich it was a different type of policing, probably faster paced than I was used to in Swaffham, but I had a great deal of confidence and grounding and dealt with a whole range of things here,” he said
It was while working in Norwich that he regularly started policing matches at Carrow Road, a role he would go on to be responsible for by the time the Canaries embarked on their memorable 1993 Uefa Cup run.
“Football in the late 1970s was difficult in terms of the crowd and football violence. You had segregation of fans and there was a Manchester United game when people got on the roof and one lad fell through,” he said. “They were pretty difficult times in terms of policing football matches. I was there with 300 officers for a big game.”
Mr Wilkins said one of the highlights of his career was overseeing the three Uefa Cup matches against Vitesse Arnhem, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan while a chief inspector in Norwich.
“That was a really good time in terms of football policing,” he said. “People say what was your best job? – that was one of my best jobs.”
Looking back on his time as an officer in Norwich, Mr Wilkins said he is still struck by the camaraderie.
“There was a great team spirit there because in Norwich we worked on a relief, he said. “There were about 12 officers who would come on duty together at Bethel Street. It was a very close team, all looking after each other and backing each other up. There was a lot of team work.”
Moves to Thetford and Great Yarmouth followed for Mr Wilkins, who policed the visit of Pope John Paul II to Coventry in 1982.
He also spent 16 weeks away as a sergeant on a police support unit in Nottingham, Yorkshire and Derbyshire to help try to keep order during the miners’ strike of 1984/85.
Mr Wilkins was promoted through the ranks, reaching the level of superintendent in 1995 when he took charge of the community relations department before being appointed as the southern divisional commander based at Thetford.
In 1999, he was appointed to lead a fundamental review of Norfolk Constabulary, which resulted in a new policing structure and refocused policing style from April 2000.
“We ended up with 16 sectors across the county all run by an inspector responsible for local communities and local parishes and these built up into three areas – east, west and central, which had a chief superintendent running them,” he said. “They had staff and budgets devolved to them so they were accountable for their local areas. It was safer neighbourhood teams before safer neighbourhood teams.”
In 2000 he was promoted to chief superintendent and took command of the newly-formed Eastern Area covering Great Yarmouth, North Norfolk and Broadland.
In October 2005 he was appointed assistant chief constable with respon-sibility for local policing, criminal justice and royalty/VIP protection.
“Norfolk police have a responsibility for policing at Sandringham – it’s very unusual,” he said. “At Balmoral the Metropolitan Police do it, but Norfolk has an arrangement going back 75 years that the constabulary would police Sandringham and officers continue to do so. It’s done very discreetly but very effectively.”
After taking some time out after his retirement Mr Wilkins is to take up a new role as head of criminal justice for Norfolk and Suffolk at the end of September. But looking back on his career in policing the father-of-two, who lives with wife Jan in Brundall, said he was very proud to have been able to serve Norfolk for so long.
“I’ve had the privilege of being able to police in Norfolk for the whole of my career,” he said. “It’s just the way job opportunities came up. I was born in Norwich, went to school in Norwich I’ve enjoyed policing the whole county – being able to work with people across the county for the benefit of the county.”
He said he was proud of the way the constabulary has developed and has been able to “deliver a high quality of service to the people of Norfolk” and reduce crime to the extent that Norfolk is the safest county in the country.
“It’s not a bad legacy to move on from,” said Mr Wilkins, who insisted Norfolk, through its collaboration with Suffolk, was in a good position to continue delivering the very best service despite the threat of cuts.
“It’s tough and it will get even tougher through the next stage of comprehensive spending review. It’s not all over yet, but we’re doing everything we can to try and address that. We’re in a better place than many forces.”