On the beat: How a retired police officer is cracking down on a "political neglect" of rural law and order

Burnt out after a decade spent patrolling the mean streets of the capital, police officer Mike Pannett returned to the country lanes of his childhood home of Yorkshire – and soon found the dales were every bit as dangerous as downtown London. The tragedy, he tells Lena Corner, is the shocking political neglect of law and order in rural communities – a neglect he is intent on exposing...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mike Pannett is easy to spot in the crowds at York train station. It could be because of his close-cropped hair and the way his trousers sit at just the right point above his thick-soled shoes. Or it could be the animated discussion the former police officer is having on his phone about news just in of a murder in a North Yorkshire village post office.

He might have retired from the force in 2007, but Pannett, 46, still lives and breathes police work. The caller on the phone turns out to be his wife, Ann, whom he met on the beat eight years ago and is still a serving policewoman. She is ringing with the shocking news that fortysomething local Diana Garbutt, who ran the post office in the sleepy Yorkshire village of Melsonby, has just been found bludgeoned to death in the room above her shop. Reports are coming in of a masked man brandishing a gun, running off with a holdall stuffed with cash. It is a story that will be all over the national press; particularly a fortnight later, when Garbutt's husband is charged with the murder. (He is now in custody awaiting trial.)

"It's a very, very rare occurrence," says Pannett. "It's highly ironical [sic] that I'm getting a phone call about a brutal murder as I meet you off the train. Things like that are unheard of in North Yorkshire. I can't imagine what effect it's going to have on the community." Yet Garbutt's murder is a horrifying illustration that this beautiful, remote part of Britain is not immune to major crime. And Pannett believes that law and order in rural areas all over the country are being chronically neglected as successive governments concentrate on the headline-grabbing issue of urban crime.

Pannett spent an illustrious 20-year career in policing. The first decade he spent in London's Met; the second, on the not-so-mean streets of North Yorkshire. He left the force to start work on a series of books about his life as a country bobby. His debut, Now Then Lad, was published in May 2008 and hit Amazon's autobiography number-one slot just three months later. His second, You're Coming With Me Lad, was Radio Four's book of the week and sold so well it has just been reissued. His third is due out in July.

It is a body of work that has turned Pannett into something of an expert spokesman on the modern-day country bobby. A few years ago he featured in BBC2's fly-on-the wall series Country Cops and has since regularly appeared on TV when rural crime hits the news. Last month, he published a manifesto in the Yorkshire Post detailing what he believes should be policing priorities in the run-up to the General Election. Rural forces, he said, are chronically understaffed, Asbos don't work, community support officers are ridiculous, punishment for carrying knives should be the same as guns... and the amount of time the police spend filling in forms is a joke. He is, if nothing else, a straight-talker. "We cannot afford to abandon our rural communities," he insists. "There may be less crime, but it still has a great impact."

Today, Pannett is taking me on a tour of his old beat – or as much of it as we can cover. It starts on the edge of York and stretches out across the Wolds to Scarborough and back across the moors all the way to Sutton Bank near Thirsk – "600 square miles of God's own country."

Pannett heads back towards his little grey Peugeot, sucking hard on a Regal King Size. Out on the A64, the "crime corridor" connecting York and Scarborough, he hits his stride. "I've had many a car chase down here," he says gleefully. We pass the Central Science Laboratory, the scene of various animal-rights protests. "Did I tell you," he asks, "about the time I hid out in a graveyard in the village of Bulmer at three in the morning to catch a local lad stealing diesel? Or the time I had to tell 3,000 ravers to turn their sound system off?" The stories come thick and fast, each rolling into the next until I have no idea where one ends and another begins. What is obvious, however, is that whether he was dealing with a woman trying to stab her husband with a 12-inch kitchen knife or someone simply trying to nick a fence-post, Pannett tackled each crook with the same enthusiasm as The Wire's Jimmy McNulty.

It is a job he clearly revelled in, and given that local pride runs fierce in these parts, one that was probably best done by a Yorkshireman. Pannett himself hails from Crayke, ' a small village in the heart of his former beat. "It had one pub, one shop, 40 houses and views of the whole of the Vale of York." He spent much of his childhood knee-deep in rivers fly-fishing; he attended the local Joseph Rowntree School, but left without qualifications and got a job selling vacuum cleaners. "I got to the age of 24 and realised I needed a career. So I sat the police entrance exam. Luckily, it was multiple-choice, so I managed to pass."

Back then the rules were a little more draconian than now, and Pannett's myopia disqualified him from joining the North Yorkshire force. So one summer's day in 1987, he found himself on the train to London to join the Met. Pannett went, quite literally, from fly-fishing to the front line.

"I was stationed in Battersea right next to Clapham Junction. It was when crack cocaine was just starting to raise its head and the whole of south London was plagued. It was a tough beginning to my career." Pannett launched what sounds like quite a personal crusade against the dealers. "I hated them with a vengeance. I saw what they were doing – 300 muggings and street robberies a month – and saw it as a challenge to tackle them. I remember putting a door through on the Winstanley estate and finding myself face to face with a man, high as a kite on crack, pointing a sawn-off shotgun at my head."

Pannett received a police commendation for the number of arrests he made, but after 10 years the pressure got to him. "I lived and breathed that job. I was so wrapped up in it, my marriage broke down and my batteries burnt out. I woke up one morning and realised I hadn't been fly-fishing for a decade. I needed to get back home."

Home, when he first returned to Yorkshire, was with Walter, an elderly bachelor who had lived alone for as long as anyone could remember. He is one of an array of colourful characters who crop up regularly in Pannett's books. We drop in for a cup of tea. Walter's is a higgledy-piggledy stone cottage with low ceilings, muddy carpets and air thick with the scent of dog. "Meat sandwich?" offers Walter as he moves to the Aga and pulls out an enormous leg that's clearly been roasting for hours. It could be venison, it could be lamb, or it could be roadkill – whatever, Walter cuts it thickly and hands it to us with a slice of bread and a tub of margarine. As we stand there chewing, Pannett and Walter launch into a slightly-too-grisly discussion about the time they had to catch a distressed calving cow in a nearby field.

Pannett might have returned to Yorkshire in search of a quieter life, but things were not to be sleepy. Shortly after his return, the foot-and-mouth crisis struck, and the community was faced with the horror of a spate of farmers killing themselves. "It was a horrific time. I had to deal with several farmers who hung themselves from trees; it's the most eerie thing creeping through the woods trying to find their bodies. I had another case where a farmer's wife called me and said she'd found a suicide note from her husband. I found him in the greenhouse. He'd put his shotgun in his mouth and blown the back of his head off. That's an image you don't forget."

Because his patch was so remote, it was a lure for those with something to hide. Pannett tells me how he once got a tip-off from someone who had spotted a suspicious-looking van with blacked-out windows driving off-road somewhere near Rillington. When he went to investigate, he stumbled across an enormous cannabis factory. "It turned out to be the biggest cannabis grower in Yorkshire. It was yielding a crop worth nearly £100,000 a year. I've got nerves of steel, but when I realised what it was, that was one adrenaline rush."

What was so unnerving about life on the rural beat was that often he found himself operating alone and isolated. And it's getting worse. There are two stations serving North Yorkshire – one in Pickering and one in Malton. During his time, the station in Pickering had 16 officers, a sergeant and one inspector; now, it has just four or five officers, and no inspector. "And that's for an area of roughly 200 to 300 square miles. They're pulling resources out of the rural community and putting them into Scarborough and York." Much of the time it was just Pannett and nothing but his trusty can of CS gas for support; back-up could be as much as 45 minutes away. "In some ways it's as dangerous as policing in London, as help can be so far away. You have to use common sense and not go wading in." Equally worrying was how well-armed his local community was. "There are more registered shotgun-holders in North Yorkshire than in any other county in the UK."

Because of the scale of his beat, Pannett realised he had to find a different approach to tackling crime to the one he had used in London. He set about enlisting help, building a "Country Watch", a network of 50 to 60 locals – from farmers to gamekeepers and even the local lord of the manor – whom he could call on when he needed a little manpower.

We drop in on the 18th-century Place Newton mansion near Wintringham, where we meet Hugh Cholmley. He is the 13th generation of the Cholmley family to be running the estate, with its vast 7,000 acreage and fabulous shooting, but he's not proud, and has spent many hours patrolling the area, gathering intelligence and reporting back to Pannett. You get the feeling that Cholmley and the other foot soldiers of Country Watch may have relished their task a little more than was necessary. As well as regular get-togethers in the Dawnay Arms in West Heslerton, the group used to meet at the dead of night in the gun-rooms on the Place Newton estate. "Here," says Cholmley conspiratorially, leading me to a long wooden table, "was where we would spread out our maps, share our information and plan our operations."

The most successful Country Watch sting came in 2005, when a "crime wave" descended on the village of Wintringham. "There hadn't been a crime here for 10 years, then suddenly nine burglaries took place in the space of a few weeks," says Pannett. After a tip-off from West Yorkshire police, he put a call out to his Country Watch faithful. "It was one in the morning and I managed to get eight double-manned crews out." He positioned them at specific vantage points in the labyrinthine country roads that he knew like the back of his hand. "Hugh was parked behind that hedge over there, watching them load up stolen goods. I was 20 miles away when I got the call and managed to intercept them and give chase all the way to York. It turns out it was the Pontefract crew, a well-known gang who were working all over the county. It's the chance of a lifetime to catch a team of burglars actually in the act of committing the burglary, especially in a rural area. It was a real coup for us."

In 2004, Pannett became the force's wildlife officer and it was in this role that he found a new nemesis: poachers. "I look upon poachers in the same way I look upon crack dealers," he says. "In monetary values, wildlife crime comes second only to drugs." Pannett spent much of his time trying to capture people who came from as far afield as Liverpool, Newcastle and the Midlands to commit horrific acts against animals. "They would come at night with their dogs – lurchers often bred with Staffs, so they were fast with great big heads – and they would set them on hares, deers and badgers."

One of his books features "the Badger Lady", a local woman who takes in injured animals and cures them before setting them back into the wild again. One day, he tells me, she came across a badger by the edge of the road near Westow, sitting strangely upright just like a dog. When she went closer she realised it was blind and had deep dog bites all around its neck. "Someone had hit it so hard on the back of its head they had knocked its eyes out. This they do for sport."

We drive on into Malton, where Pannett points out the house where an inebriated man, who was having a domestic, came out and tried to attack him with a sword. We pass the Green Man pub in the Market Place where a group of thieves brazenly walked in, ripped out the till and ran off with it, then inadvertently kidnapped a local pensioner who happened to be sitting in the getaway car.

Finally, we make our way back to York station and as we pull up, Pannett tells me how he was recently invited to become a patron of Yorkshire, joining such illustrious company as William Hague and the former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan. He opens the boot of his car to reveal a box stuffed full of local booty – Yorkshire Tea, Yorkshire souvenir cups and aprons. Someone like Pannett is a godsend for the tourist board and clearly they are backing him all the way. He is pitching himself as part of the rich lineage of Yorkshire authors that includes the much-loved James Herriot, whose tales of a local veterinary surgery attract visitors to the county in their droves. Coincidentally, Pannett's wife's cousin is Peter Walker, who, under the pseudonym Nicholas Rhea, wrote the books about the Yorkshire bobby that were turned into the TV series Heartbeat. "Those stories were dated from 40 years ago," says Pannett. "What I'm doing is bringing is all up to date."

Ironically, he tells me that if he were to apply for a job with North Yorkshire police now, he probably wouldn't get it. The force recently advertised to recruit 40 police officers – and received 300,000 replies. "It's not all a bed of roses, but it's a beautiful place to work," he says. "Sometimes London felt like a losing battle, but here I could really make a difference. I had the time to really see jobs through. "It was," he concludes, "all about good old-fashioned police work."

'You're Coming with Me Lad' (Hodder, £7.99) is out now. 'Not on My Patch Lad' (Hodder, £12.99) is released in July