Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Matt Baggott: the smiling career officer unafraid of confrontation

Matt Baggott is sitting on a sofa in his spacious new office at PSNI headquarters in east Belfast.

Less than two minutes into our interview he jumps up, obviously distracted, and straightens a not-noticeably crooked picture on the wall.

“Sorry, it wasn’t straight, I had to fix it. Hope you don’t mind.”

Our new Chief Constable comes across as a perfectionist with a strong sense of attention to detail. These are just some of the skills he is going to bring to the biggest job of his life — transforming the policing landscape of Northern Ireland.

The former Chief Constable of Leicestershire and senior Met officer could be leading the easy life now with a comfortable police pension having been eligible for retirement two years ago.

Instead he has left the comfortable policing pastures of central England and charged straight into a political row over the scrapping of the full-time reserve and witnessed dissident republicans bringing their murderous campaign directly to the homes of his officers as well as Policing Board headquarters. So does he regret coming to Northern Ireland?

“Not at all — it is the most fantastic job and a huge privilege. In my professional career I have never come to a place with so much energy for making a difference. It is astounding how interested and concerned people are in having policing in a way that really does make it personal and deliver something special.”

If he is daunted by the enormity of the task he has inherited he does not show it, describing his personal philosophy as “smile in the morning, smile in the evening”.

However, Mr Baggott is clearly not afraid of confrontation and making difficult decisions, as he proved with the full-time reserve. He is determined to prove he is more than just the placid, safe pair of hands that he was portrayed as when he first got the top PSNI job. “I can be accused of being a bit spikey, of challenging the status quo. I have been asked to be a little bit anarchic. No-one can say I haven’t done that here,” he said.

“Anarchic” is a strange term to describe a man who has risen to the top in a profession bound by strict rules and organisation.

After all, this is the man who gave himself penalty points for speeding in Leicestershire.

However, it hints at the culture change that he believes is needed in policing here. The first step of this will be the freeing up of 600 desk-bound police officers onto our streets.

While less prone to making instinctive, emotional reactions to events than his predecessor Sir Hugh Orde, you do sense that Mr Baggott has been surprised by some of the political and media scrutiny that comes with every word he says.

“The immediacy of people’s reactions sometimes, I find that a bit difficult. I want less bureaucracy, less regulation, less political fighting and more to sign up to things that we are doing that really matter, so when it gets messy I don’t have to go on the Nolan Show every day.

“There is a lot of talk but when I say to people ‘well, what is the answer?’, they say that the Chief Constable is operationally responsible. That is a great ‘get out of jail card’, isn’t it? If I had a pound for every time I have heard ‘the Chief Constable is operationally responsible’, rather than saying ‘actually, this is what we think you might do’, I would be a very wealthy man.”

Mr Baggott is very keen to hear my impressions of the public reaction to his model of neighbourhood policing. This goes to the heart of his view on the way forward for the PSNI — a Chief Constable who wants to listen as much as talk. Matt Baggott has come here to be a progressive, modernising influence on our police force. However, questions remain over whether this is too much change too quickly. The answers to these questions will determine the success or failure of his tenure as our Chief Constable.

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