Greater Manchester Police chief admits force ‘were borderline incompetent over Rochdale grooming gangs’

The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police has admitted the force were “borderline incompetent” in their handling of the Rochdale grooming gangs.

Stephen Watson also said that officers working for the police force at the time “parked an element of professional curiosity” in the way it dealt with the issue. He said it was something he had been assured is now “radically different.”

It comes after GMP agreed to pay substantial damages to three victims. All were children when they were repeatedly raped and sexually abused by gangs of men in Rochdale.

READ MORE: Rochdale grooming gang victims failed by GMP receive apology and ‘substantial’ payout

Mr Watson also offered the women an in-person apology for the police failings in their cases – namely mistakes in not investigating the abusers, and often treating the girls as perpetrators and not victims.

The Chief Constable today (19 April) acknowledged that his predecessors had “failed” children in the past, and said that under his leadership, cases are dealt with very differently.

Speaking on BBC Radio Manchester, Mr Watson said: “The bottom line is we’ve failed children in the past, we simply did, there’s no beating around the bush. I don’t think people did it out of a sense of badness, I don’t think people did it because they were incompetent. But I think organizationally we were borderline incompetent in the sense that we just didn’t do things then that we absolutely do now.”

Mr Watson said when he was a young police officer if a missing child was found with an adult, the focus was on recovering the child, whereas now the adult would “as night follows day” be arrested. He also said child sexual exploitation sometimes results in “very unfortunate behaviours” from victims.

He added: “And once of a day people didn’t see past the behaviour, as opposed to questioning, ‘Why on earth is this youngster finding themselves in this position, in this situation?’ And that’s what I mean by a professional curiosity.”

Mr Watson became the head of GMP in 2021. Police failings, which were highlighted in previous reviews of grooming gangs operating in Greater Manchester happened under the likes of previous chief constables including Sir Peter Fahy.

The women, backed by lawyers from the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) charity, brought a legal claim against GMP that said, according to legal documents, that from the early 2000s there was growing evidence from multiple allegations that gangs of predominantly Asian men were grooming, trafficking and sexually abusing predominantly white working-class girls in Rochdale.

Lawyers for the three successfully argued their human rights were breached by GMP failing to protect them by putting a stop to the abuse. This included failing to record crimes, investigate offenders, collect intelligence, or charge and prosecute abusers.

Former detective Maggie Oliver (2nd left left) with lawyers Harriet Wistrich (left) and Kate Ellis (centre) outside Greater Manchester Police Force HQ

Instead of child victims of sexual abuse, the three were viewed by police as “bad” or “unreliable” witnesses and were sometimes arrested themselves while reporting abuse, the women said. Though the abuse was happening “in plain sight”, a police operation to tackle the gangs was closed down abruptly in 2004, despite police and social services having the names of the men involved and their victims.

Eight years later, following a second major police investigation, Operation Span, nine men were convicted for sexual exploitation of children in Rochdale. A new police unit to investigate child sex grooming gangs in Greater Manchester has already identified more than 800 offenders and is running three major investigations into historic abuse of young girls.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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