More money needs to be ploughed into tackling inequality as a way to cut crime, Merseyside police’s first female chief constable has said, arguing that “policing is a larger partner [in society] than just locking up the bad people”.

Serena Kennedy, who took over the role last month, said she agreed with her predecessor, who said that if he was given £5bn to reduce crime, he would put £1bn into law enforcement and £4bn into tackling poverty.

Andy Cooke made the unusually frank comments about the relationship between deprivation and offending as he stepped down after 36 years with the force, the last 11 under a Conservative government that has been accused of widening inequality.

In her first few weeks in the role, Kennedy endorsed his comments, stating that she wanted to prioritise crime prevention, working with partners to “start looking at the root causes of crime and start tackling those”.

“I’m in agreement with Andy. There’s massive inequalities in Merseyside, in terms of where our communities are in terms of kind of the poverty gap.”.

She pointed to academic research that shows that post-Covid, inequality in north-west England is likely to worsen.

“For me, what that inequality means is that people’s aspirations, their expectations and also their life chances are impacted, and therefore we absolutely should be working with our partners to look at those root causes”, Kennedy added.

Comparing government health papers that show investing in prevention would mean spending less in the long run on, for example, illness caused by obesity, Kennedy said the same applied from a policing perspective in terms of the cost of putting someone through the criminal justice process. “It’s cheaper, but that’s not the reason for doing it, it is because you’re giving that person a better life chance.”

Quoting Robert Peel’s first principle of policing that ranks prevention as the first priority, Kennedy also said that policing was integral to making communities feel safe. “One of my priorities is that relentless pursuit of those criminals who blight the lives of our communities and target the vulnerable. Absolutely, that’s our role, but we have got a role to play with our partners in the earlier intervention and changing those inequalities that are only going to worsen.”

Some might interpret Kennedy and Cooke’s comments as chiming with a central demand of Black Lives Matters protesters, who made calls to “defund the police” by transferring funds from the criminal justice system to health, social and education systems. In response, Kennedy said “it wasn’t just about taking money away from policing, it would take a fundamental change in how you resource in area”.

Again citing a preventive approach, she used the example of allocating every child at a school a place at a breakfast club, instead of only certain children, in order to improve retention and attainment. “What that takes is needing to recognise the long-term benefits across the whole of the public sector. So education, policing, social care, housing … It’s not a political statement, it’s just flipping on its head how we fund our services,” she said.

Kennedy began her career at Greater Manchester police in 1993 and joined Merseyside four years ago as assistant chief constable. She climbed the ranks to deputy and is among the 29.4% of female chief constables in England and Wales. Amid renewed debate about institutional sexism in policing, she said that in her 28 years of service, she had never experienced what she would class as misogyny, but conceded that some of her colleagues had had a different experience.

With a strong reputation for tackling organised crime, one of the force’s high-profile ongoing operations is the investigation into fraud, bribery, corruption and misconduct in public office that has led to the arrests of 12 people, including the former mayor. He has not been charged and denies all wrongdoing. Does it require bravery to pursue an operation that has resulted in some very high-profile arrests and threw Liverpool into political turmoil? Kennedy will only say that when there are allegations of criminality, the force “will always investigate them”.

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