West Midlands Police is embarking on a new era as it evolves to meet the financial and societal challenges of modern policing.
One officer who knows all about policing at a time of transition is new Birmingham North crime manager, Detective Chief Inspector Ian Bamber.
Ian served with the Royal Hong Kong Police Force from 1994 to 1998 − a Far East tour of duty that coincided with the territory’s ‘handover’ from the UK to China.
Back then he worked as part of a unit keeping order in one of the world’s vice capitals and most densely populated regions. Today he ensures law and order on the mean streets of Four Oaks…!
What took you to Hong Kong?
I have the Police Review magazine to thank. I was 26 at the time and had just passed my Sergeant’s exams with Cheshire Police and it struck me that it was now or never to experience policing abroad. I was lucky enough to be successful and, as it turned out, was one of the last expats to arrive before UK police officer recruitment stopped.
You stayed for more than three years so I guess you didn’t regret the decision?
Not at all… it was an incredible experience and Hong Kong officers and expats had lots of respect for colleagues arriving from the UK.
However, it felt much more regimented than in the UK. It was a culture borne out of some tough times with past corruption so there was a strong sense of internal monitoring rather than a system based on trust. The style of policing was very high visibility with lots of resources although it did feel we did policing to people rather than for them.
Ultimately, though, I was still part of an emergency response service helping people in times of need… that’s no different to policing in Birmingham or on the other side of the world.
What was your role with the Royal Hong Kong Police Force?
Over three years I worked with the response team answering emergency calls for help and the section that provides specialist support for police operations.
Most interestingly, though, my last posting was running a Vice Unit in Mong Kok… a place at the time reckoned to be the most densely populated area in the world! It was a real buzz. We were seizing illegal pornography in unprecedented quantities and disrupting organised crime gangs that operated in the district.
On just my third day in Hong Kong I remember playing football with children in a Vietnamese detention centre. It helped ease the tension… people there were terrified they were going to be deported with nowhere to go. Keeping order there was a fine balancing act and there was always a sense emotions could explode. One day it did and I was needed to help regain control during a mass riot!
The scariest moment had to be during one early morning patrol on the Hong Kong border with mainland China. It was 3am and pitch black when I tripped over something. I looked back and thought it was a large tree branch blocking the road so I tried kicking it aside. It didn’t move. I tried rolling it with my foot… nothing.
As I bent down to pick it up I realised it was an enormous python! And I mean enormous. I was with local officers and out-sprinted them for about 10 minutes when they eventually caught up with me… the laughter continued for hours at my expense!
What was the highlight of your time in Hong Kong?
It has to be policing the sovereignty handover. I was on duty the night before and the night after… it felt like we were at the centre of global events and for those two days we were. The departing Brits and arriving Chinese did their best to out-do each other with the most incredible fireworks displays over Victoria harbour. I was stood on top of a police carrier with the best view soaking it all in and then directing people safely away. The transition has been very gradual and well managed.
On a personal note being part of the last ever Royal Hong Kong Police Force rugby tour was incredible: we visited Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. The rugby was pretty good too! Oh… and I also got married at St John’s Cathedral with a Guard of Honour. That was very, very special.
What skills and knowledge did you take from there that’s helped you in the UK?
I worked with some truly inspiring senior officers and came away with an appreciation of leadership and management in an international context.
More importantly, though, I also learned that in order to police a culture you need to understand that culture. And I gained an appreciation of what it’s like being part of a minority community… in a diverse part of the world like the West Midlands that’s proved invaluable.
How did your transfer to West Midlands Police come about?
I was back at Cheshire Police in 2003 when the transfer opportunity arose. I passed my Inspector’s exam and was thrown straight into the Murder Investigation Unit as a Detective Inspector. It was a great role… I felt like I’d won the postings lottery!
Have you worked on any notable murder investigations?
I worked in some brilliant incident rooms with some brilliant detectives. My first job was the murder of a licensee in Bloxwich − a lengthy investigation ending with the conviction of his stepson and three friends − and I also helped convict the killer of a Sikh elder at a Gurdwara in Wolverhampton after we caught the offender trying to sell stolen items.
I was involved in some challenging gangs work but by far the most poignant and tragic investigation was the murder of Michelle Gunshon who was abducted and killed by Martin Stafford. He was caught in Ireland and after years of awaiting extradition back to the UK, found guilty and imprisoned. But as yet he’s maintained his silence over the whereabouts of Michelle’s body.
Since then I’ve worked in our Sensitive Intelligence team, gaining vital information on gang members, headed up our Economic Crime Unit tackling frauds and scams, and spent time with Walsall Police before taking a career break from 2011 to 2014.
What prompted the career break?
My wife was going through a very difficult pregnancy and early scans showed the baby wasn’t growing as expected. We were referred to Birmingham Women’s Hospital and then a leading Harley Street doctor. The prognosis wasn’t good and we were told to prepare for the worst… we were both distraught, we’d lost a child through miscarriage two years earlier, but were determined to hang on in there. We had weekly scans − the whole team at Birmingham Women’s were brilliant − and at about 36 weeks the consultant called it and advised a caesarean.
After a period in intensive care our daughter pulled through and we were able to take her home. She was beautiful and healthy… and still is! Given the complications we decided it made sense for me to take a career break. West Midlands Police have been very supportive and I’m grateful to be given a fantastic opportunity back with the force in Birmingham North.
We were lucky to get a happy ending. I remember some of the babies on the Intensive Care Unit who didn’t make it and I know of lots of women who miscarry… the pain is felt by both would-be parents but particularly the woman. Perhaps my story helps show that sometimes there can be a very precious result.
What’s it like coming back into policing after a prolonged break?
I think my time away has ‘de-institutionalised’ me so I’m looking at everything with a fresh pair of eyes and from the public’s perspective. I hope it doesn’t wear off!
Policing is all about the people − far more than policies and procedures − so getting to know all the officers and people at partner agencies is my first priority. A good relationship is everything.
What are your plans and priorities for Birmingham North?
Burglary rates have fallen considerably in recent years and are down by around 16 per cent compared to last year − that’s 162 fewer people in north Birmingham spared the heartache of a break-in. Robbery is also notably down… and my priority is to keep driving down the kinds of crimes that people fear most.
I love nothing better than arriving for work in the morning and learning of great arrests made by our officers overnight.
I’m also passionate about the force’s Operation Sentinel work protecting people from ‘hidden crimes’ like domestic violence, sexual exploitation, ‘honour’ based violence, forced marriage, and human trafficking. I’ll be doing all I can to support that work.