Looking After the Thin Blue Line

There seems to be lots of talk in policing at the moment about something called ‘wellbeing’.

I’m no expert, but these are my ten thoughts on the subject.

(1) It’s People, Stupid

  • The fact that more of us are talking about the physical, emotional and psychological health of police officers and staff is a good thing. A very good thing.
  • But it must never become just another management soundbite – another thing to measure and another box to tick
  • This is about people – and it simply doesn’t get any more important than that.

(2) We need to understand policing better – operationally

  • Put quite simply, this is one heck of a job.
  • The things that become normal in this line of work would be entirely extraordinary in almost every other walk of life.
  • Do we recognise and understand the inevitable wear and tear officers and staff experience over the course of a policing lifetime – and the consequences this can have for their physical and mental health?
  • In particular, do we recognise and understand the cumulative consequences for them of the repeated exposure to extreme trauma?
  • In truth, there is no other job that offers so many (and such frequent) invitations into the darkness.
  • As a service (and as a society) we need to understand, to a far greater degree, the impact on our people of the things we ask and expect them to do.

(3) We need to understand policing better – culturally

  • Police officers and staff are endlessly imperfect. But they are extraordinary too.
  • They want to help – to make a difference. It’s the reason every good one of them joined.
  • They rarely say ‘no’. In response to any cry for help, they simply take a deep breath and go again.
  • Policing is sustained by that precious, old-fashioned thing called duty – and by the discretionary effort of its people.
  • This culture is so much of what makes policing remarkable – but it can come at a cost to the health of individual officers and staff.
  • None of us is invincible – we all have our breaking points.
  • But people can be reluctant to put up a hand and ask for help – fearing that it will be seen as a sign of weakness, or that it will have career-limiting consequences.

(4) We need to understand the impact of the current context for policing

  • This is the most challenging time for policing in Britain since the end of the Second World War:
  • Operationally: rising crime; rising demand; rising threat; rising vulnerability; rising complexity; diminishing resources.
  • Economically: the compound consequences of austerity (internally & externally, corporately and personally).
  • Politically: the persistence of a narrative about policing that has, at times, been extraordinarily hostile.
  • Media: a general imbalance in the coverage given to policing – with a recurring focus on the negative.
  • External scrutiny: both from those in positions of authority and those in possession of social media accounts and one-eyed opinions.
  • Reform: in the view of many, too much, too quickly and not always for the better.
  • Have we properly recognised and understood the impact on our people of the combination of these things?

(5) We need to understand Mental Health better

  • There is a continual need to challenge the stigma associated with mental ill health – and to continue doing so until it’s no longer even a thing.
  • We need to encourage and allow for open, honest & compassionate conversations.
  • How many officers and staff are working with undiagnosed (or unacknowledged) MH conditions?
  • We need to recognise that, actually, we don’t fully understand MH (“Depression is 90% mystery” – Matt Haig). And that’s ok.

(6) We need to understand Trauma better

  • Trauma is an inevitable consequence of the things police officers and staff see and do.
  • Primary: a consequence of the things we see and do ourselves.
  • Secondary: a consequence of the things seen and done by our colleagues (akin to passive smoking).
  • Ambient: a consequence of the things we observe in – and absorb from – the world around us (for example, via the news).
  • Trauma can be experienced both as a consequence of a single event and as the result of an accumulation of experiences over the course of time.
  • None of us is designed to absorb that trauma indefinitely. The natural, normal, healthy, human thing is to feel.
  • The Military allow for periods of ‘decompression’ following operational deployments. There is no routine equivalent in policing.

(7) We need to understand Stress better

  • Currently in policing, there are more good people operating under significantly more strain than at any point in living memory.
  • That pace and intensity is not sustainable – individually or collectively.
  • And I can’t help wondering whether we are actually busy with the right things – whether we are spending ourselves on the things that truly matter?
  • In relation to any new decision to be made in policing, there are 3 critical questions that need to be asked: (a) will it (the result of the decision) make the community safer? (b) will it improve the quality of service we offer to the public? (c) will it make it easier for frontline officers and staff to do their jobs? If we are unable to answer ‘yes’ to at least one of those questions, we need to stop and move on to something that actually matters.

(8) The need to learn from our experience of crisis

  • Though we still have a long way to go, we are getting better at the provision of care following high profile critical incidents.
  • What though of the routine care we offer – the day-to-day support we provide for our people?
  • Beyond that, we also need a prevention plan – one that recognises the inevitable impact policing has on people and provides them with the resources they need to deal with it before it ever becomes overwhelming.
  • We all have our stories and we all have our scars.

(9) Bad Management vs Good Leadership

  • There is a difference between bad management and good leadership. All the difference in the world in fact.
  • The people in charge can help or they can hinder. They can lift a burden or add to it. They can make life easier, or they can make a difficult job even harder to do.
  • What are the real values of those in charge?
  • How do they behave?
  • What are the priorities they pursue?
  • What do they actually spend their time doing?
  • Everything can’t be a priority – so leaders in policing need to be absolutely clear (and consistent) about the things that matter more. And they need to address the ‘conspiracy of the unimportant’ – the time spent dealing with stuff that really isn’t important.

(10) Unintended Consequences

  • What are the unintended people consequences of a combination of the changes and cuts that have built up in recent years?
  • Reduced officer & staff numbers
  • Single Crewing
  • Remote/Self Briefing
  • The closure of police Canteens
  • The lack of affordable housing in some parts of the country (meaning that people live further away from the station and are less likely to socialise after work).
  • Is it possible (likely even) that we have, unintentionally, dismantled many of the informal networks and wellbeing support structures that enabled our people to cope better with the endless and unique demands of the job?

Now. more than ever before, we need to look after the extraordinary men and women who stand on the thin blue line.

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13 thoughts on “Looking After the Thin Blue Line

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  1. Inevitably you miss the point…”It’s people stupid.”…but you never speak about the public, it’s the public stupid….again and again and again, being let down by you…whether it’s Pc Adam Cox posing as a 17 year old girl to solicit indecent images, or PC’s Samuel Dexter and Hannah Mayo joking to the victim’s mother about anal rape of their child, the Poppi Worthington enquiry where the investigating DI with 20 years service didn’t know to secure the scene and lost vital evidence and the police watchdog stated that Cumbria Police’s enquiry was “unstructured and disorganised” or PC Richard Musgrave from Cambridgeshire lying about his work….the consistent theme is if police officers failing to serve the public and of police leaders/managers (like you) looking the other way…always looking the other way…go on blog about “a few bad apples” I dare you….

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  2. With you guv!
    “Is it possible (likely even) that we have, unintentionally, dismantled many of the informal networks and wellbeing support structures that enabled our people to cope better with the endless and unique demands of the job?”
    YES !!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’re right Paul, the Police aren’t learning about this, in the Poppi Worthington case Detective Inspector Sadler did not secure the scene, losing all the prosecutorial evidence, meaning that the primary suspect is not just free but is subject to expensive protection from the Police. John never blogs about this…if we don’t talk about this, how can we learn?

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  4. Thank you!
    My post service ‘hobby’ is working for that horrible inspectorate !
    We are currently developing ‘force management statements’ to help forces “self assess”. One of the key areas is, as you would expect, wellbeing.
    We are, together with the service and many others, developing FMS. We have had some great feedback already on this critical area, especially from MIND. With your permission, I’d like to take your excellent thoughts and summary here to increase the chances that forces ask themselves the right questions, be honest about the answers and identify what can be done to improve. What I have experienced already in my 3 years so far is a recognition that improvements need to be made and more importantly a genuine desire to do so.
    We can never expect those who ‘deliver’ policing to care about the people they serve until they themselves experience being cared for !

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  5. Hi John, thanks so much for your work as a police officer. I have no experience of policing, but am concerned that awareness of trauma and stress management is not being prioritised for police officers, which common sense says it needs to be. Peter Levine has written work of preventing PTSD directly after an incident, and being fully aware of body reactions and sensations, some symptoms of PTSD can be almost having a fear of your body and becoming disconnected from it, to quote him “trauma is hell on earth, trauma resolved is a gift from the gods”. He recommends exercise disciplines such as yoga too. Dr Tim Cantopher has two books (I think) on depression, one is called “Depressive illness; a curse of the strong”, he also has one on toxic people and work environments. Amy Morin in her book “13 things strong people don’t do”, talks about her recovery from trauma. And also, when I studied at university, some of our research was on shifts and how that can negatively impact on mental health. There are lots more links being made between gut (our second brain) and mental health too, and it can be harder to have nutritious meals when working long and stressful hours. I guess someone some where needs to be given the power to make it a priority for police officers, with no shame attached?

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    1. Good to hear from you… Lots of the things you mention ar enow beginning to happen. Still earky days – but there is a growing (and very positive) realisation within policing that we need to look after our people. And Tim Cantopher is wonderful…

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