COLCHESTER’S top police officer is quick to talk up the borough.

Chief Inspector Rob Huddleston, who had served 15 years with Essex Police before arriving as Colchester’s district commander in 2019, admits he previously knew little about the area.

“I love Colchester, before I came here to become district commander I’d been here for two jobs and that was it,” he said.

“I came up here knowing nothing about Colchester,” he said.

“But now, I would not want to be district commander anywhere else.”

He lists the town’s proud link to the Armed Forces, as well as the strong link his officers have forged with the community.

He said: “It’s a traditional place, but it’s modern. It’s the fastest growing town in Essex, but we’ve still got that original town centre.

“We’ve got massive business investment and a booming economy around our businesses. We’ve got rural and farming communities, we’ve got the coastline around Mersea. We have universities, Colchester Institute and we attract a huge amount of international students.”

He added: “How proud is this town of their services? I see the thousands who turn out for remembrance parades.

“I’ve got a really strong community safety partnership, we’ve got a direct rail to London, we have extensive history.”

But if there is one attribute Mr Huddleston is keen to emphasise, it is safety.

Police in Colchester have put dispersal orders in place covering the town centre across five weekends since the start of August.

Mr Huddleston says the order is a “useful tool” to halt trouble before it even starts, with the town centre nightlife back to busy levels after a year of lockdown restrictions.

The orders followed several violent incidents in the town centre.

Just last weekend, a 22-year-old man was left with a fractured eye-socket, jaw and nose following a disturbance in Colchester High Street.

Mr Huddleston said most law-abiding people on a night out have “little to worry about”, as violence is usually targeted.

He said: “When I look at our rankings, of the 12 districts across Essex, we are number six at 87.2 crimes per 1,000 population.

“This is taking into account those above us are places like Rochford, which has a tenth of our population.

“So it’s not done on size, it is purely done on crimes per head.

“When you look at the number of people who come through Colchester in terms of students, people coming to work, people coming to visit, the fact we’ve got a really active night-time economy, actually Colchester is a really safe place to be.

“I think we need to push that message, people don’t go on social media crime groups and say ‘Do you know what, I had a really good week, nothing bad happened’.

“It’s right we take action when there is an incident, but we need to temper that fear of crime for people.”

He accepts most people feel reassured by visible policing, the idea of the bobby on the beat, but is keen to emphasise the shifting landscape of policing.

He says since he took up the role as district commander, “he has never had more resources” at his fingertips.

“My shifts have grown over the last three years thanks to investment in new police officers,” he said.

“But our crime types have changed. There is a big bulk of residents in Colchester who want to see a police officer stood at the end of their street all day long, it would make them feel safe to know the neighbourhood bobby’s name and to be able to see them when they walk down to Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

“We would all love to be able to do that. But actually, we have to invest a certain amount now in protecting the vulnerable, and there are more ways to commit crime now.”

He points to online fraud, the use of the internet to groom children, the online sharing of indecent images, modern slavery and human trafficking.

He said: “We talk about modern slavery and human trafficking, that to most people doesn’t exist – they don’t know what it is.

“But to most victims we’re finding that’s a huge issue, as Caroline Haughey QC said: ‘Modern slavery is akin to murder, the only thing you don’t do is the bloodletting’.

“Because you take away that person’s control of their own life, and the only control they’ve got left is to breathe in and out.

“Over the last number of years we’ve seen a rise in online child abuse, online image sharing, we’re consistently putting out messaging about fraud and we saw it even during Covid.

“We saw those news articles about people ringing up and charging you £50 to post you a Covid vaccine.

“Having bobbies stood on the corner in a hi-vis jacket doesn’t protect you from that.”

Likewise the huge issue of domestic abuse, which Mr Huddleston says is combated by dedicated teams within the force and through partnership work with charities.

He said: “We have domestic abuse problem solving teams now, who work with repeat victims and repeat offenders to safeguard victims and to look at options for behaviour change programs to prevent reoffending.“Our community policing team and Next Chapter run coffee mornings to encourage people to come into an environment where they feel safe enough to speak and to report.

“We look to attend every domestic abuse incident on the day it’s reported, that’s our goal.

“We profile our calls, on average I’m probably getting between eight and 12 domestic abuse calls a day.”

That’s not to say there isn’t still room for maintaining close ties with residents.

Mr Huddleston lists a plethora of ways his officers keep their eye on the issues that matter most to the communities within Colchester.

Colchester is set to see ‘hot spot policing’, which Essex Police said cut violent crime by nearly 74 per cent when trialled in Southend.

The initiative sees 15-minute patrols deployed in targeted areas at “sporadic times”, with the aim of reducing crime through deterrence.

Mr Huddleston also liaises with an independent advisory group made up of Colchester residents, which helps officers to lend a helping hand where the need is greatest.

“We recently did some work with resettled families coming to the UK,” he said.

“We’ve had some Afghan families resettle here and my officers engaged with them, found an English language school and convinced them to give free English lessons to the families.

“Refugee Action have got on board and are providing the mini-bus to take them. This is the sort of stuff in policing that communities never really hear about.”

Officers engage through regular ‘coffee with cops’ events, through primary school and university visits.

Mr Huddleston smiles as he adds: “By the time they get to Year 6, it’s slightly more advanced and they actually get to run their own missing person investigation.

“They love it, we give them a little paper feed, they get a little video clip and CCTV and they have to take the initiative.

“We talk about staying safe, peer pressure and safer relationships.”