So here we are then, at the beginning of 2017.
And the multitude of challenges facing the police service in Britain are, it seems to me, greater than at any point since the end of the Second World War.
There are the crime challenges:
- Serious Violence – including Homicide, Domestic Abuse & Knife Crime
- Sexual Offences – including Child Sexual Exploitation
- Human Trafficking
- Cyber Crime
- Drug & Alcohol related criminality
- Fraud (some of it on an industrial scale)
- And so the list goes on.
And it’s not just crime:
- Mental Health
- Missing Persons
- Roads Policing
- Anti-Social Behaviour
- And so the list goes on
Given the fact that everything can’t be a priority, there are any number of exceptionally difficult decisions to be made – not least in terms of the people, resources and money we invest in:
- crime vs. everything else
- short-term enforcement vs. long-term prevention
- emergency response policing vs. neighbourhood policing
- uniform policing vs. detective work
- the investigation of historical crimes vs. those being committed now
- police officer numbers vs. police staff numbers
- core policing priorities vs. the needs of partner agencies
- support and care provided for victims vs. the pursuit of offenders
- And so the list goes on
We want to do it all. But the fact is that we’re not going to be able to. Which means that there are some very tough questions to be asked.
What are we going to do differently?
What are we going to do less of?
What are we going to have to stop doing altogether?
The easiest thing in the world is to recline in the comfort of an armchair and point out what policing is doing wrong – and what policing should be doing more of. But dealing with the reality and endless complexity of those challenges is a different proposition altogether.
For example we cannot, simultaneously, put more time, effort and resources into every emerging priority. There will have to be some give and take. If we want more of something, there will have to be less of something else. And we need to understand that, when it comes to making those decisions, there will be inevitable differences of opinion about what those ‘somethings’ should be.
It’s a whole lot easier to talk about policing than it is to be a police officer.
The organisational challenges facing the service as a whole at the start of 2017 are eye-watering:
- Economics: In an article published on January 4th, the Guardian reported that the Met, for example, still to needs to find c.£400M in savings. On top of those already made. The continuing financial challenge remains on a scale that is entirely without precedent.
- Reform: Whilst change is a constant in policing, the current relentless pace of it – and the demands associated with it – are greater than at any other point in our history. Without denying the very evident need for reform in the service, it is not unusual to hear officers and staff expressing the view that too much is happening, too quickly – and that not all of it is for the better.
- Governance: Policing has an accountability framework arguably more complex than any other. Chief Constables are answerable to – amongst others – Number 10, the Home Office, The Home Affairs Select Committee, the College of Policing, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, Police & Crime Commissioners and the local communities they serve. That’s a lot of important people to please.
- Legacy: We continue to be confronted with the deeply unsettling sins of our past – both distant and uncomfortably recent. No one to blame but ourselves of course – but they remain a heavy burden in the present.
- Morale: The most recent survey conducted by the Police Federation (in the summer of 2016) provides a clear indication of the people challenges currently facing local forces. 45,000 officers took part, with 68% of them suggesting that they did not feel valued and 56% stating that their own morale was low. More than 90% of officers stated that morale in the service as a whole was low.
In addition to the issue of morale, individual officers and staff face a number of personal challenges:
- Physical: The Police Federation estimates that there are 23,000 assaults on officers in England & Wales every single year. That’s a heck of a number – and is accompanied by the stark realisation that each of them is an explicit terrorist target.
- Health & Wellbeing: The recent report published by the Police Dependents Trust revealed that 81% of officers (almost 11,000 were surveyed) have suffered physical injury or mental ill health as a consequence of their work. I have my own scars – seen and unseen – and I know more good coppers working under more strain that any previous point in my career.
- Financial: Every frontline police officer is feeling the pinch of austerity. Of course, they’re far from being unique in that respect – but it remains an immensely significant issue for them.
- Global events, local impact: Police officers are called upon to respond to the consequences of events happening far beyond their immediate force boundaries: Brexit & the reported rise of hate crime, Syria & the consequences for radicalisation and terrorist activity to name but two.
- Scrutiny: As I have suggested before, the current story being told about policing in this country is an insistently hostile and negative one. There is an urgent need for policing to be held to account – but there is an equally pressing need for balance in the narrative.
- Public Sector Strain: Policing is, increasingly, being called upon to support partners under pressure – in the ambulance service, in mental health and adult social care services, even in prisons.
- Public protest: When people take to the streets to exercise their democratic right to protest, it is the police who are diverted from other places to keep the peace.
Where from here?
Having joined the Met in 1992, I’ve been a proud police officer for almost a quarter of a century – and I believe that this is as challenging as I have ever known it.
But I also believe in the people I work alongside. I believe in:
- their courage
- their decency
- their compassion
- their humanity
- their terrible sense of humour
- their willingness to work all the hours to get the job done
- their belief in that precious, old fashioned thing called duty
These are the things that haven’t changed. And these are the people who remain the everyday heroes and heroines who police our streets.
It’s people who answer emergency calls. It’s people who step into the middle of violent confrontations. It’s people who stand in the driving rain at the scenes of serious car crashes. It’s people who place an arm round the shoulder of someone in unimaginable pain. It’s people who search for missing children. It’s people who chase armed criminals. It’s people who deliver the news no one else wants to hear. It’s people who roll up their sleeves and get on with it. It’s people who pick themselves up, dust themselves down and go again.
More so now than ever before, we need to make damn sure that we’re not taking them for granted.
I don’t have all the answers to the challenges of this new year, but I know that any response has to begin with the care and regard we display for the men and women who stand on the thin blue line.