As 2016 begins to unfold, policing remains in a relentlessly challenging place – both operationally and organisationally. And, amongst the endless conversations going back and forth about this truly extraordinary job, talk keeps coming back round to the question of reform.
But it seems to me that, in so much of the debate, ‘reform’ has actually become a dirty word. It has become something either to be imposed at will or to be resisted at all costs – depending on your point of view.
And that, it seems to me, is not a good thing.
The level of concern that exists has come about for any number of reasons:
• the balance of the prevailing public narrative about policing – perceived by many as imbalanced and hostile; the suggestion that the police are a problem in need of fixing.
• the compound effect of successive reforms over the last decade and more – and a significant degree of ‘change fatigue’.
• the realisation – borne of experience – that not all reform is good reform.
• the broader economic context and the consequent impact on officers’ pay and pensions.
It’s not difficult to see why a significant number of police officers – particularly on the front line – are feeling undervalued and underappreciated at this particular moment in time.
But, surely, reform can be good too – necessary even. Reform of police leadership perhaps? Or training. Or of the approaches that we take to investigating misconduct.
Over the last two decades and more, I have worked with some truly exceptional people – and I don’t think any of them would venture to suggest that policing is fine just as it is. I know they would say that there are all sorts of things that we could – must – do better.
I know they would say that it has to be about the people we serve – and those we serve alongside.
But, as wagons circle and lines are drawn, there is a danger that good ideas will get lost in the noise and rhetoric of the debate. For as long as proposals are presented – or, perhaps more importantly, perceived – as an attack on policing, the very real risk is that key audiences are lost before the conversation has even begun.
If that’s the case, we need to do something about it.
In the first instance, there has to be an understanding that the context for policing remains more challenging than it has been for generations:
• the enduring economics of austerity – and all that means for the public sector.
• demographic and technological change on a scale – and at a pace – entirely without precedent.
• changing patterns of crime and surging demand for protection and assistance.
• global events that have enduring local impacts – and a terrorist threat shape-shifting beyond all recognition.
Policing cannot possibly stand still – and the necessity for change becomes as undeniable as the realities of the world we’re operating in.
So the question becomes not ‘if’ – but ‘what’? and ‘how’?
There is an opportunity here for people who love policing to lead the way – and that needs to begin with the story that we tell.
Every conversation about police reform has to start with a celebration of all that is extraordinary about policing – and of the need to safeguard and nurture those things at all costs. These things can’t be an afterthought – they have to be the first thought. We need to be talking about things like duty and courage and public service – the things that you cannot put a price on (or measure) but that we cannot afford to be without.
The worst possible thing that policing could do at this moment in time would be to set aside all of the ‘best of the old’ in a misguided rush to modernise.
Having spoken out about all that is right and good in the Job, we have to be able to describe the ways in which any reform being suggested is for the benefit – for the good – of policing:
• How will what’s being proposed allow us to demonstrate the value and worth we attribute to our own people;
• How will it allow us to make it easier, not harder, for those people to do their jobs;
• Fundamentally, how will any proposed change impact on crime – and improve the quality of the service we provide for the people of this country.
It’s all about people. It always has been.
Take the current debate about degrees in policing by way of an example. It seems to me that there are actually two very different proposals on the table:
(1) Degree-level entry standards for policing
(2) Recognition/Accreditation of the skills that police officers develop during the course of their careers.
I have very mixed feelings about the first one (more of which in a moment) – but I think the second one is absolutely spot on. The narrative here ought to look something like this:
• We think that most police officers are extraordinary people;
• Over the course of their professional lives, they do any number of extraordinary things – and they develop an extraordinary set of skills;
• That said, as things stand at the moment, they receive no formal recognition or accreditation for the experience they gain – and nothing they can take with them into the rest of life;
• That can’t be right – and we want to do something about it. We think that police officers (and staff) should receive the credit and acknowledgement they deserve.
To me, that’s a winning way to open a conversation.
The challenge then is to bring in a set of reforms that are non-bureaucratic and actually supportive of the people they’re designed to help. The point must be to acknowledge the things they already do – rather than to create a whole new series of hoops for them to jump through. The College of Policing deserve our support in making that happen.
On the separate subject of degree-level entry, a selection of purely personal thoughts:
• I don’t think all police officers should have degrees
• I don’t think all police officers need degrees
• Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with have had a minimal number of qualifications. Equally, some of the less capable have had all sorts of letters after their names.
• I think that the most important qualities for a police officer are:
– Common Sense
– (you should probably add a good sense of humour to that list)
• How do we demonstrate that these are things we value – the things that matter more? You cannot teach courage – nor can you measure it. But you can nurture and inspire it. There is a danger here that – as we have done with crime performance – we will end up reducing the debate to the things we can measure.
• I think we should have exceptionally high recruitment standards in policing – higher than we have now – but that that should extend to attracting the very best graduates AND the very best non-graduates. The priority must surely be to recruit the right people – rather than the people with the right qualifications
• A specific thought here about Professional Development (a key element of College proposals). Put simply, it matters. We have allowed Training to become one of the ‘Cinderella’ bits of policing – under-valued and under-resourced. If it is true that our people are our most important resource (and they are – by far) then that has to be reflected in our investment decisions. In all our thinking about the future, how do we value and develop the people we have now?
• I also think we need to think through the ways in which we bridge the gap between academia and practice. It is one thing to possess knowledge; it is quite another to apply it.
• One incidental consideration – but an important one. If we only recruit graduates, the likelihood is that we will be recruiting a significant number of people with high levels of personal debt. And we know from very painful experience that there is a direct correlation between debt and susceptibility to corruption.
So what might all of this mean for the question of reform?
It means that we need to be committed to grown up, honest and constructive conversations: about crime; about demand; about the unavoidable need to save money; about what we do and how we do it.
It means that we have to be prepared to listen – particularly to people who are in the thick of it – and we need to have the maturity to allow for professional disagreement.
It means, fundamentally, that we need to understand what the prize is.
And, surely, that has to be all about building a Police Service that is fit to face the challenges of the next fifty years – built on its people; built on the very best of all that has gone before and sustained by the very best of the new.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The things that we’re here to do haven’t changed in the best part 200 years.
The Job is to save lives;
To find the lost;
To protect the vulnerable;
To confront the violent;
To pursue the dangerous;
To comfort the mourning;
To seek justice on behalf of those no longer able to seek it for themselves;
To step into harm’s way;
Sometimes to risk it all.
It’s a job that matters more than ever before.