According to the 2011 Census, more than 52,000 people from Poland now live in the West Midlands – and hidden away in that statistical set is West Midlands Police Sergeant Alex Sobolewski.
Alex arrived in the UK back in the early 80s – long before the 2004 expansion of the EU saw thousands of his compatriots head west – in a move prompted by his mother when Poland’s Communist government imposed martial law.
He’s been with the force for 14 years and currently oversees neighbourhood policing in Brierley Hill, home to a significant Polish community.
In addition to being an important bridge between that community and local policing, Alex helps out as a translator during live enquiries, and works on a human trafficking operation that’s seen multiple slave labour arrests.
He’s also established a popular community street patrol initiative and is credited with overseeing an arrest that led to detectives cracking a 10-year murder enquiry – and a grisly find in a Dutch campsite.
In his spare time, he’s a fitness fanatic and sports coach…and has competed in duathlon for Team GB!
Tell us about your 14 years so far with West Midlands Police…
Most of my career has been on response units – responding to emergency calls for help – but for the last two years I have led the neighbourhood police team covering the Brierley Hill area, including the Merry Hill Centre.
Is there a large Polish community on your local policing patch?
There are a lot of Poles nationals living in Dudley, although most demand for my translating work is in West Bromwich where there’s a bigger Polish community.
I get a very positive reaction from the Polish community. Language is a huge barrier to people coming forward with information, wanting to pass on concerns to police, or to report crime so for people not confident speaking English I act as a go-between
There is also a cultural mistrust of the police from Poland to be overcome.
What do you mean by ‘mistrust’ Alex?
There is a general mistrust of the police in Poland and they certainly don’t have the level of engagement you see in the UK…officers are more standoff-ish and can appear quite intimidating. I was on holiday a few years ago in Poland and asked an officer to pose for a picture with my daughter. He declined in no uncertain terms! Community engagement is a really important part of policing in the West Midlands – as illustrated by our local Street Watch initiative – but in Poland it’s more about simply keeping law and order than keeping people on-side.
The police in Poland have a very different relationship with the public: in the past bribery and corruption were commonplace and you have to remember Poland only emerged from communism in the 80s when the police performed a very different role.
How does your Street Watch scheme work?
It’s a police and community partnership that gets local people out and about in their communities offering visible reassurance, being our eyes and ears, and acting as a link between us and local people.
I have about 50 members in five schemes now up and running in Dudley borough with the hope of establishing 10 schemes by the end of the year. The members range in age from 18 to 71 and come from all walks of life. They patrol in pairs, chat with people they encounter, and their presence helps s deter low level anti-social behaviour.
Members pledge to patrol for a minimum of two hours a month and wear high visibility tabards. They are briefed of current issues and any crime trends so they can pass on crime prevention advice.
Two schemes of note are the Stourbridge College and soon to be Dudley College schemes where Public Services HND students patrol the town centres. These patrols are incorporated into their college day.
How long have you been living in the UK Alex?
I have lived in the UK since the age of six; when martial law was imposed in Poland in 1981 my mother felt it was a good time to leave the country with me. I lived in a city called Lublin near the Russian border. Most of my family remain in Poland.
I can remember the hardship my family endured when we first came to England…it probably makes me more sensitive and sympathetic to the plight of many of the Polish victims I encounter.
How important it is for UK police forces to have officers who represent their eastern European communities?
I believe it is crucial for us to have a representative workforce to build trust and confidence with the European communities. It would also make life much easier for officers dealing with the diverse range of communities we serve to have foreign language speaking officers to assist them.
It helps build bridges between the new arrivals and the communities that are well established in British society. This may also play a small part in helping new communities integrate better.
Interestingly, I delivered a presentation to students in Dudley recently who are studying public services qualifications. Of the 11 students I spoke to three were Polish…so the next generation of police officers are likely to be more representative.
How many Polish speaking officers are there in West Midlands Police?
Looking at the latest staff surveys there are five Polish speaking police officers in the force, alongside one officer from a Serb-Croat background, and four who can speak Russian to a certain degree.
And outside of your neighbourhood policing role you’re sometimes called upon to translate?
I tend to do some form of translating on a daily basis, either locally or for CID teams, and have also worked with negotiators in the past.
I suppose the main advantage I have over an interpreter is that as a police officer I’m trained in what questions to ask, to detect when someone is lying and if I need to challenge their account, or to recognise victims who may in need of support.
Also, as part of my work on Operation Fort, I’m often talking to potential human trafficking victims who are providing information we would want to keep confidential and within an investigation. I generally only translate in live time operations where it may be inappropriate to use an interpreter.
I’ve been on some jobs where Polish suspects refuse to co-operate by claiming they speak no English…but when I arrive they know the game is up! Some may then try to claim they are from a different eastern European country but it’s simple enough for me to tell by the accent or dialect whether they are being honest.
Tell us about Operation Fort and your role…
It’s an on-going investigation into a group of Polish nationals suspected of being part of an organised trafficking gang bringing people from their home country to the West Midlands with false promises of well-paid work.
So far the operation has netted 12 men and two women. They are on bail while detectives investigate claims made by around 57 people that they were worked as slaves and threatened with violence – but it’s suspected they may have exploited up to 100 people over the last two years.
Any standout jobs or incidents spring to mind in your police career?
There are many incidents that stick in my mind – too many to recount them all – and my language skills have helped homicide teams with a number of murder enquires.
Perhaps the job that stands out most is a domestic incident involving a Polish couple. My colleague and I were first on the scene; initially it was a dispute over the couple’s children until the woman made a disclosure about a murder she witnessed 12 years earlier.
After making some frantic enquires at the scene, her partner was arrested on suspicion of murder. Her disclosure led detectives and Dutch Police to search a campsite in Amsterdam – and find the remains of a woman who had been buried under a tent and missing for 12 years.
The couple were extradited to Holland to face murder charges; we both received Commander’s awards for our actions.
What does your CV look like; where have you worked before WMP?
Before joining the police I worked as a fitness instructor, a translator for British Aerospace, and an analyst for a bank. I love sport, have a BSc in sport science and am currently midway through an MSc in coaching. I’m also a triathlon coach.
I represented Team GB Duathlon (running and cycling) at my age group in the European Championships three years ago. I still race at a reasonable level but more for fun now; instead I concentrate on developing my coaching where I help a number of very talented triathletes as well as a fantastic children’s triathlon club.