When I was still at school, I decided that I wanted to be a police officer. I couldn’t tell you why exactly, but it had something to do with the adventure of it all. That, and the fact it seemed to be a line of work that mattered. Ask most Coppers why they joined and they will tell you, simply, that they wanted to make a difference.
It was a heart thing for me.
It still is.
Because, when you strip away all the noise and the nonsense, it remains about as remarkable – and important – as a job can be.
Yesterday was my first day back in the real world after two happy weeks away with my family. And I woke to news of two more fatal stabbings in London. They happened within 40 minutes of one other – in two completely different parts of the Capital. Then I opened my emails to news of two more of my former police colleagues breaking under the strain. Now off sick and in urgent need of assistance.
And it struck me that these things are not somehow remote or distant. They are here and now, close to home. These are the stories of the lives – and deaths – of real people: the men and women who are my neighbours; the men and women dressed in blue, who I stood alongside for more than twenty-five years.
Two months on from retirement, I find that I’m more troubled than ever by the way things seem to be.
Crime is rising; wider demand on policing is rising; risk is rising; threat is rising; investigative complexity is rising. At the same time, resources – not least numbers of police officers and staff – continue to fall. The police service is under pressure as never before – certainly in my lifetime.
So we need to talk about policing. About the way things are.
Which means that we’re also going to need to talk about politics.
Which means I need to take a deep breath.
Eight years ago, if you had asked me whether I thought there was a need for reform in policing, I would have said yes. I wouldn’t have hesitated. And I would say the same now. Because I’ve never met a good Copper who thinks policing is fine just as it is – that there is nothing we could improve on. I’m no blind apologist for the job I did (and loved) for so long. There are times when police officers get things terribly wrong. Individually and institutionally. Malice and honest mistakes. The sins of the past and the sorrows of the present. There are any number of things that could be done better.
But there is a significant danger that, in acknowledging fault and fallibility, we lose sight of a broader story: that of the vital importance of policing in society – and of the relentless humanity and heroism of the overwhelming majority of men and women who patrol and protect our communities.
Following the General Election in 2010, it soon became apparent that policing was high on the new Coalition Government’s agenda. All the talk was of reform. And this is where I feel an inevitable note of caution about what I want to say. As a serving officer, I was fiercely protective of my political independence. I still am – absolutely nothing has changed in retirement so far as politics is concerned. I belong to no party and this is not about red or blue; left or right.
Policing is far too important for that.
But there can be no escaping the responsibility of the government of the day – whoever they happen to be – for the way things are. And the last few years have been more difficult for policing than any I can remember.
Let me try to explain.
I. Ideology and Narrative
I want to begin by talking about feelings. Not what you might have expected. Not something you might normally associate with police officers – serving or retired. But hugely important all the same.
Because policing demands everything of those who take the oath. It is an affair of the heart and soul – at least as much art as it is science – and the way that officers feel about what they do has a very significant impact on their ability (and their capacity) to do it.
And, for the last eight years, I have felt increasingly troubled. During that time, the prevailing political ideology and narrative about policing has been characterised by an extraordinary degree of hostility – echoed and replayed with evident relish in certain sections of the print media.
The focus, particularly in the early years of the Coalition, was overwhelmingly on the negative. It appeared that the police were regarded by certain politicians as a problem in need of fixing – as the last unreformed public service. And, as I listened to what was being said about the job I love, it began to sound increasingly like a variation on that tired old football terrace chant: “You’re s**t and you know you are.”
That’s how it felt– as the recurring story became:
Well here’s the thing. Some of them are – and sometimes they can be. And there should never be any kind of hiding from their faults and failings.But the vast majority of my experience of this job – the vast majority of the time – is of something entirely different.
The stories I would tell you are of men and women who are brave and brilliant; capable and compassionate; fearless and funny; patient and professional; long-suffering and loyal; humble and humane. Men and women who understand that precious, old-fashioned thing called duty.
Men and women like PC Keith Palmer GM.
The everyday heroes and heroines who police our streets.
II. Rhetoric and Reality
Eight years ago, a new political ideology about policing prompted a new political rhetoric about policing. A rhetoric that struggled to keep step with reality.
Three specific examples:
(i) “(The job of the police) is to cut crime. No more and no less.”
This remark is taken from a speech that Theresa May – having been appointed as Home Secretary – delivered to the ACPO & APA national conference on 29thJune 2010.
The speech began promisingly, with an acknowledgement of ‘the dedication and sense of duty’ with which police officers and staff serve their local communities. It made clear the desire of the new government to cut bureaucracy and limit the number of targets that police services had to meet. It also carried the first warnings of the cuts that were to come.
And it was suggested that the sole job of the police was to cut crime. No more and no less.
But whilst that might have appealed as a headline, it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of policing in this country.
Frontline police officers would agree with Robert Peel that their ‘basic mission’ is to prevent crime and disorder. But they would quickly go on to explain that their day-to-day work is about so much more than just crime. They would tell you in fact, that a massive proportion of what they are called upon to deal with has little, if anything, to do with crime (though there may well be connections with a wider notion of ‘public safety’). Take the following for instance:
And so the list of responsibilities goes on.
Effective reform of policing requires a deep understanding of policing.
(ii) Crime is down
This was the first half of a political mantra that has been repeated with overwhelming regularity in the last eight years. It was certainly repeated on every occasion that the government’s approach to policing was questioned or challenged.
You hear it less often these days.
From the outset, there were a number of significant problems with the statement:
Then there is the unavoidable fact that crime now appears to be rising – certainly crime of the most serious kinds (a conclusion reinforced by evidence from a number of sources, including hospital data). Recent news reports tell of a higher murder rate in London than in New York.
Crime doesn’t appear to be down.
It is also worth remembering that, beyond the immediate numbers and trends, crime has significant implications for so many other areas of public life. Rising violence, for example, has a direct impact on:
(iii) Police Reform is working
The second part of the mantra.
The greatest difficulty I have had with this particular statement is the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the notion of ‘police reform’ has never been fully defined by the politicians responsible for it. In that first June 2010 speech, there was mention of value for money and public accountability and getting officers back on the beat. But I can’t recall seeing or hearing a coherent description of the promised land that policing was being pushed towards.
What we faced instead were a series of individual and frequently isolated changes – the hugely unpopular reforms to police pay and pensions, the controversial introduction of PCCs, the provocative appointment of a first civilian HMIC, the establishment of the College of Policing, the reform of police bail etc. – without clear reference to their place in a bigger plan.
We had puzzle pieces, but no picture on the box to describe how they were supposed to fit together. As a result, it remains impossible to say with any degree of credibility or certainty whether police reform is actually working or not.
If it’s not clear where you’re going, how do you know if you’ve arrived?
And then there’s the cost of austerity.
The police service – in common with the rest of the public sector – has been subject to cuts on an entirely unprecedented scale, not least in terms of huge reductions in officer and staff numbers.
Those who remain are operating under greater pressure and strain that at any point since the end of the Second World War.
And cuts have inevitable consequences.
IV. The Operational Consequences of Austerity
Some would have us believe that there is no connection between falling police numbers and alarming recent rises violent crime. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, said as much last week when launching the government’s latest Violent Crime Strategy.
But it’s a suggestion that defies both common sense and professional experience. Last week, a leaked Home Office report suggested that there was, in fact, a probable link between officer numbers and violent crime – and the decision of the Met to re-deploy hundreds of officers to deal specifically with the knife threat rather reinforced the point.
The BBC’s Danny Shaw, reporting on the new violence initiative, suggested that the failure to acknowledge the significance of police numbers ‘undermines the credibility of the rest of the strategy’.
V. The Human Consequences of Austerity
You can point to the consequences of austerity in a series of headline numbers. But far more significant is the actual human cost.
First for the communities we serve:
You cannot keep demanding more for less indefinitely. There has to be a breaking point. And it seems to me that the cost of Austerity is greatest for those least able to bear it.
What of the human costs in policing itself?
The fact is that I know more good police officers and staff operating under substantially more strain than at any previous point in the last quarter of a century. There is an ever-widening gulf between what they want to deliver and what they are actually able to deliver – and they are struggling under the load. You can see it in the sickness data. You can see it in the assault data. You can see it in the staff survey data. You can see it in the retirement data. You can see it in the anonymous online conversations. You can see it in their faces.
People are breaking.
And every mention of ‘additional officers’ deployed in response to the latest cause of alarm is misleading at best. As so many of my former colleagues continue to point out, they aren’t additional at all. They are the same people – working longer hours and having their days off cancelled.
Last week, we heard remarks from former US police chief Bill Bratton that might well be applied on this side of the pond:
“Too few, for too long, have been asked to do too much with too little.”
Only yesterday, Amber Rudd was compelled to apologise for the government’s jaw-dropping treatment of the Windrush generation. Her remarks included a suggestion that the Home Office had become preoccupied with policy and strategy at the expense of real people.
In policing, real people are breaking. In local communities, real people are dying.
Where From Here?
Things simply cannot continue as they are. So here are five suggestions about where we might go from here:
(1) A new National Debate about Policing
To be clear, I am not calling for a Royal Commission. Too time-consuming. Too bureaucratic. Too expensive.
But we do need a proper, old-fashioned, grown up, honest conversation about policing:
It’s a very long time since we had that kind of informed national debate.
And, in having it now, we need to make sure that we listen to the voices of experience – to those people who really know and understand what they’re talking about; people driven not by the desire for profit or power, but by a passionate ambition to see neighbourhoods safer and communities prospering.
(2) Re-establishment of Operational Independence from Political Control
I have no issue whatsoever with transparency and accountability. I’m for more of both, not less. But I do have an issue with operational decision-making driven by political expediency. Let politicians get on with politics – including the setting of budgets and broad strategies – but then let police officers get on with operational policing. Without fear or favour.
(As an aside, if you are an opposition politician, you don’t have my permission to use this article as a stick to beat the government with. You need to do better than that. We all do.)
(3) Introduction of Long Term Crime Plans
Politically and culturally, we have become trapped in a cycle of crippling short-termism.
The relentless demand for quick fixes – coupled with the headlong rush to apportion blame whenever anything goes wrong – drives entirely the wrong approach to deep lying social challenges.
You don’t treat heart disease with soundbites and sticking plasters. And we won’t begin to address the recurring horrors of knife crime by relying on well-intentioned words and more enforcement. We need proper, long-term crime plans (I’m talking 20 years here) – safeguarded from the unpredictability of electoral cycles and the unreliability of funding that disappears at the end of every March.
If we are serious about dealing with violence, we need to address it first as a public health issue; we need to recognise the devastating impact of childhood and adolescent trauma; we need to reaffirm the importance of the family and the home; we need to be willing to confront uncomfortable truths about poverty.
We need to understand why the hell a teenage boy would pick up a knife in the first place.
Domestic Violence. Child Sexual Exploitation. Human Trafficking. Terrorist Radicalisation. None of these things is simple or remotely straightforward. And none of them is going to be solved by next Friday.
(4) Changing the Narrative about Policing
Policing should never shy away from the things it gets wrong. The rest of society should never shy away from holding policing to account. But we need urgently to change the balance in the narrative – in the story being told about the men and women who stand on the thin blue line.
A little while back, a prominent national journalist asked me a private question:
‘Who is standing up for policing in this country?’
It was clear that he didn’t think anyone was. And so the front pages of certain papers get filled with confected rage about PCs taking tea breaks and armed officers buying lunch. It would be laughable – if the consequences weren’t so damaging.
Throughout my policing career, I worked with heroes: women and men who understood service and sacrifice; women and men who ventured repeatedly into the hurting places; women and men prepared to risk everything; women and men who, every now and then, gave it all.
And theirs are the stories that demand to be told.
(5) Change from Within
There is still plenty for policing to do to get its own house in order. Take the following for example:
And so it goes on. Policing must always look first to itself, before it looks to anyone else.
I write about policing because policing is what I know.
But, of course its not just about policing. It’s about so many other walks of life too: prisons and probation; health and education; immigration and social care. It’s about the real lives of real people.
And I’m bothered by the way things are.