These are the most challenging times for policing in this country since the end of the Second World War.
I said as much at the start of 2020. And then the virus came. And then George Floyd was killed. And then the streets filled with protestors. And then the second wave of the virus hit. And then Sarah Everard was killed. And then the streets filled with protestors. And then the Government proposed new (and singularly ill-judged) legislation for the policing of protests. And then the streets filled with protestors.
At each point along the way, police officers have been caught in the middle of it all, seemingly damned whatever they do. ‘All Coppers Are Bastards’, remains the refrain. And yet, in an increasingly divided society, as we face an increasingly uncertain future, the need for good policing has never been greater.
This then is my blueprint for policing: eleven brief thoughts about where we go from here.
I. We need to talk
We need to have a proper, old-fashioned, grown up conversation about policing: about what it is and what we want it do do.
I’m not talking about a Royal Commission – which would take far too long and cost far too much – but I am talking about the need for a collective pause and a chance to draw breath.
Because, at the moment, we all just seem to be shouting at one another.
As a society, we need to ask what we actually want the police to be. Because the job of a police officer is about so much more than just crime. We need to decide whether we want their role to be defined primarily in terms of ‘criminal justice’ outcomes (arrests, convictions and every other measure of enforcement activity), or whether we recognise and value their vital contribution to the much broader notion of ‘community safety’.
If we can reach a point of consensus about who they are supposed to be, we then need to consider what we want the police to do. And it will not be sufficient to say that we want them to keep on doing everything – to continue plugging the gaps apparent across the public sector as the inevitable consequence of austerity. We need to determine where the role of policing begins and ends, and where other agencies – health, education, social care and the rest – need to step forwards and take up the strain.
In doing so we need to reaffirm the simple truth that if everything is a priority, nothing is.
II. We need to re-fund the police
There has been much talk in the last 12 months of ‘defunding the police’. But the government of the last eleven years has already done exactly that – and the consequences have been catastrophic:
- Crime is up.
- Harm is up.
- Risk is up.
- Vulnerability is up.
- Assaults on police officers are up.
- Charge and conviction rates are down.
- Public confidence in policing is down.
- Police morale is down.
All of this is the result of conscious, deliberate political decision-making (more on politics in a moment). And all of it was completely avoidable. We need urgently to re-fund frontline policing in general, and community policing in particular.
When the Government cut 44,000 officers and staff from policing in England & Wales, they didn’t just cut absolute police numbers.
They also cut police experience – hard-won frontline operational know-how that will take years to replace. And they cut local ties between police officers and the people they serve – relationships of trust developed over long periods of time that may well take a generation to repair.
III. We need to re-invest in police training
Police training ought be the best training available anywhere in the world. Some of it is – firearms and hostage negotiation for example – but far too much of it has suffered dreadfully as a consequence of austerity.
Police training should be regarded as an investment, not a cost. And, alongside the necessities of law and procedure, it needs to teach a much broader range of skills, including the following:
- Trauma-informed practice
Policing is the best job in the world, but it is also one of the most demanding. The women and men who stand on the thin blue line need and deserve the very best in personal and professional development.
IV. We need to recognise the limits of what policing can achieve
Policing deals with symptoms, not causes.
Crime itself is a symptom of things that lie much, much deeper: the realities of poverty, inequality and injustice for example.
This means that there is a limit to what policing, on its own, is able to achieve. Blaming police officers for the existence of crime makes about as much sense as blaming doctors for the existence of disease.
If we want to demand more of policing, we are going to have to demand more of all of us.
V. We need to get politics out of policing
In recent times, politics has done immeasurable harm to policing – damaging both the capability of entire forces and the confidence of individual officers to perform their duties without fear or favour.
Politics should have no place in policing.
Policing urgently needs to reassert its operational independence from undue political interference and any form of political control.
VI. We need to abolish Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs)
With some very honourable individual exceptions (not least among those elected as independent candidates), the introduction of PCCs has been a failed experiment.
They have done little to improve frontline performance or community confidence in policing, but have done a great deal to compromise the operational independence and effectiveness of local forces.
VII. We need to abolish the Independent Office for Police Complaints
In order to be effective, an independent police complaints body needs to have the confidence of both the community and the police service.
The IOPC has neither.
It needs to be replaced by a new organisation that is:
- Independent, not just of policing, but of politics too
- Professionally competent
- Organisationally transparent
- Capable of carrying out robust investigations in a timely manner
VIII. We need to reform the College of Policing
The College is another legacy of the failed Government reform programme of the last decade. I recognise that it does much good – and it employs some excellent people – but, almost a decade on from its foundation, it still lacks the confidence of a significant number of officers and staff.
Appointing a former Policing Minister – an man who shares no small amount of responsibility for the recent reform debacle – to the position of Chair seems to me to be the very last thing the College needs if it is to build relationships of trust with the women and men out on the frontline.
IX. We need to address the cost of policing for police officers
It would be impossible to do the job of a police officer for any length of time and to remain unaffected by the things you see and do.
Take trauma for example.
It is estimated that most people, during the course of their lives, are likely to encounter extreme trauma on no more than 3 or 4 occasions. In contrast, police officers, during the course of their working lives, are likely to encounter extreme trauma on 400-600 occasions.
As a society, we need to recognise the inevitable personal costs for officers of all that we ask and expect of them. And then we need to make sure that we look after them.
X. We need to change the narrative
As I have said countless times before, we need to change the story we are telling about policing. We must never shy away from what is difficult and uncomfortable for policing (quite the opposite), but we need to work much harder to ensure balance in the narrative.
Robert Rinder (@RobbieRinder) put it like this in a recent tweet, posted not long after he had been mugged:
“We rarely celebrate the police’s triumphs – we only ever see them in the news when something goes wrong.
But for every failure, there are thousands more successes.
Imagine the effect on morale knowing that the only time anyone will pay attention to you is when a mistake is made.”
All Coppers Aren’t Bastards.
XI. Policing needs to address the ‘trust deficit’
There can be no doubting the existence of a significant ‘trust deficit’ between police officers and some of those in the communities they serve. It is perhaps most obvious in – but certainly not limited to – the relationship between the police and the black community.
While there are always two parties to every relationship, the primary responsibility for addressing the trust deficit lies with the police. They are the paid professionals. They are the ones who have promised to serve. They are the ones given powers over their fellow citizens. They are the ones occupying positions of authority in society.
And it will not be enough for the police to say that they are listening to the concerns being raised by the community. They need to go much further than that. They need to demonstrate that they have actually heard and understood what is being said. Then they need to get on and do something about it.
Enough talk. People want change.
These are the most challenging times for policing in this country since the end of the Second World War. But, in an increasingly divided society, as we face an increasingly uncertain future, the need for good policing has never been greater.
But it is not down to policing alone to make that happen. It’s down to all of us.
After all, we are them and they are us.