George Weah, water cannon and high-level corruption - Northants cop ends unique international police mission

Police Commissioner Blatchly awarding UN Peacekeeping medals to the Chinese FPU in January 2018. NNL-180806-165456005
Police Commissioner Blatchly awarding UN Peacekeeping medals to the Chinese FPU in January 2018. NNL-180806-165456005

He’s done some of international policing’s most difficult peacekeeping jobs in Iraq and Liberia - but Chief Superintendent Simon Blatchly says his years as a police constable in Northamptonshire laid the foundations for everything that has followed.

One of the county’s most senior police officers, and this week awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours, Chf Supt Blatchly started his policing career 29 years ago at Corby Police Station on Rota 1.

Simon Blatchly with Farid Zarif, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMIL, with George Weah, the president of the Republic of Liberia  at UNMIL headquarters in Monrovia during the ceremony to honour and farewell the police and military personnel who served with the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

Simon Blatchly with Farid Zarif, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMIL, with George Weah, the president of the Republic of Liberia at UNMIL headquarters in Monrovia during the ceremony to honour and farewell the police and military personnel who served with the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

He went on to work in Kettering, Wellingborough and Northampton and had top roles in homicide, covert intelligence, road policing, firearms and public order.

Chf Supt Blatchly has overseen public order at key Poppies and Cobblers games and also played a key part in the undercover operation to smash the notorious Burger Bar Boys crime gang that had set up shop in Northampton.

He’s now returned to the Northants force after a four-year secondment with the United Nations which took him to Iraq, New York and Liberia. By the end of his secondment, he was the last remaining UK police officer serving with the international peacekeeping and humanitarian organisation.

Chf Supt Blatchly first applied for a secondment to Iraq in 2014, and within weeks he was sent to Baghdad’s green zone to act as UN security advisor in the Iraqi presidential elections.

Simon Blatchly with his Iraqi interpreter Mazen NNL-180806-170322005

Simon Blatchly with his Iraqi interpreter Mazen NNL-180806-170322005

He said: “It was nowhere near as dangerous as previous years. We had some incoming fire but it was aimed at the American embassy.

“If you went out into the red zone you had to go with close protection and support vehicles.

“In the time I was there Isis did move down the country and got within 20 miles of Baghdad.”

After his mission in Iraq finished, Chf Supt Blatchly was asked to go to New York to work as Chief of Mission Management.

Cheif Superintendent Blatchly in the UN Security Council chamber NNL-180806-170640005

Cheif Superintendent Blatchly in the UN Security Council chamber NNL-180806-170640005

He said: “One of the difficulties I was facing in Iraq was that I felt that I was getting limited support from UN HQ in New York.

“There are 13,000 police officers within 15 different UN peacekeeping missions. Trying to get 193 nations to agree on anything is difficult.”

In October 2016, Chf Supt Blatchly took another secondment in Liberia as UN Police Commissioner with the remit of ensuring the presidential elections were secure and well-policed. While there, he used Northamptonshire’s successful community policing model that he helped set up in Corby during the 2000s.

Chf Supt Blatchly said: “That first seven years as a PC was the foundation of a solid policing career because it gave me that broad level experience.

Farid Zarif, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMIL, presents the UN flag to Police Commissioner Simon Blatchly

Farid Zarif, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMIL, presents the UN flag to Police Commissioner Simon Blatchly

“When I arrived there it had been Ebola-free for about six to 12 months.

“I had seven to eight hundred police officers from 31 different countries.

Chf Supt Blatchly arranged training for the Liberian police in crime investigation and operational standards.

He said that a major problem is that many Liberian police officers earn only £100-£120 per month so they often have no choice but to top up their wages with bribes.

“It’s not enough to live off,” he said.

“You see checkpoints where they’re after money. You have to give them petrol money to investigate crimes. That low level corruption is everywhere.

Zwedru Airport following a visit close to Guinea border NNL-180806-171518005

Zwedru Airport following a visit close to Guinea border NNL-180806-171518005

“You’d have these period where the government didn’t pay them because the government was broke.

“Another issue is that there are very few good quality roads in Monrovia. In the countryside, 90 per cent of the roads are dirt tracks so trying to deploy people is hard because there’s nowhere there for them to live.”

Chf Supt Blatchly drew on his experience from the UK to set up the gold, silver and bronze command system to deal with major events in Liberia.

He said: “We introduced that command structure and the other big piece of work we did there was community oriented policing.

“It’s everything I learned in Corby and we built on that and that’s what we introduced.

“The elections went well. We were all there, ready to go and prepared. The first round did go well and there were no allegations of human rights breaches.”

There was then a hiatus until the second round of elections in January of this year during which time the economy was effectively on hold. But Liberian police managed to keep the peace and the final round ended in a win for former Chelsea footballer and Ballon d’Or winner George Weah.

With a new government in place, the UN police force had to leave on their agreed date of March 31.

Chf Supt Blatchly said: “We had to get bodies off the ground by the end of March but we didn’t have time to support the new regime.

“The UN were liked and respected in Liberia. The people didn’t want them to go.

“They have given them peace and they didn’t want to go back to civil war.

“The corruption is at a high level. It’s jobs for the boys.

“George Weah came in on a promise of not being corrupt but the head of police, appointed by the president, is a family friend.

“This is the whole culture. If the kids go to school, if you want a decent education you pay for it and then you have to pay the teacher to mark the papers. It’s about changing the whole culture. It’s hard to pin down what you’re spending.

“While I was there, two water cannon appeared in Liberia. They don’t even have enough money to put fuel in the cars and then they go and buy two water cannon which are not needed.

“I said, ‘this is what I’m saying, you’ve spent months trying to get this community engaged and what message is that sending?’

“That was one of my frustrations.”

Wherever he’s lain his head in the world, Chf Supt Blatchly believes that good community policing is key. He said: “It doesn’t matter where the community is, the Peelian Principles that define ethical policing can be applied to any police force.”

Now he’s back in the county, Chf Supt Blatchly is hoping to resume his job overseeing public order at large events including football games and the Grand Prix. Post-Hillsborough, the job is considered to be one of the most difficult in the force. He said: “It’s a massive responsibility. The training for it now is very good.

“I’ve been away for four years so they’ve asked me to requalify. This is part of the learning from Hillsborough.

“It’s so important to understand about crowd dynamics, I’ve been in public order in every role and I know what it’s like to stand there with a riot shield.”

Chf Supt Blatchly said his adult children - 26-year-old twins and a 23-year-old daughter - are pleased to have him back.

“It’s strange being back but it’s absolutely brilliant. Over the years I’ve been away, the longest I’ve been home was two weeks.

“The girls in particular weren’t too impressed when I took the job in Liberia. Strangely enough, none of them have shown any interest whatsoever in being in the police!”

Simon Blatchly chatting to villagers during the Lofa by-election in February 2017 NNL-180806-171507005

Simon Blatchly chatting to villagers during the Lofa by-election in February 2017 NNL-180806-171507005