Institutional Humanity & Heroism

It’s been a hell of a year for police officers in this country.

Twelve months ago, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, policing stood accused of institutional racism. And it wasn’t the first time that had happened.

Three months ago, in the aftermath of the murder of Sarah Everard, policing stood accused of institutional misogyny.

Yesterday, following the publication of an independent inquiry report into the murder of Daniel Morgan, policing stood accused of institutional corruption.

Yesterday, police officers up and down the country had their heads in their hands.

Because, while all of this has been happening, police officers have also been in the frontline of the response to:

  • a global pandemic – trying to make sense of rushed legislation, trying to implement imperfect guidance, trying to protect their own health and the health of their loved ones, all while trying to keep the rest of us safe;
  • a wave of public protests on the streets of London and Bristol and beyond – attacked from all sides, apparently damned whatever they do;
  • a nationwide surge in serious crime – violent crime in particular.

All this after a decade of crippling austerity. All this after the loss of 44,000 officers and staff in England & Wales alone. All of this after years of picking up the pieces that other, underfunded, public services have left behind. All this in the face of hostile and damaging politics. All this in the face of hostile and damaging media coverage.

And all of it is taking its toll. On women and men who are not what we seem to think they are; women and men who are not who we appear to believe them to be; women and men who are none of the things that policing stands accused of.

Before I go any further, I need to make one thing very clear. I am not here to offer a blind defence of policing. I am not here to offer mitigation for corruption or prejudice or any other form of individual or collective failing, past or present. I am not here to offer a single excuse for bad policing. As I’ve always said, society has every right to expect higher standards of police officers than it does of anyone else. Because of the promises they make; because of the powers they are given; because of the position they occupy in our communities. There should be no hiding place for policing when it all goes wrong. 

The Met has got some incredibly difficult questions to answer about the murder of Daniel Morgan. Just as it has about the murder of Sarah Everard. Just as it has about the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and about a number of other cases besides. And it must answer those questions. Because policing in this country is founded on the precious notion of consent – on the belief that the police are the public and the public are the police – and those foundations appear under greater pressure and strain now than at any other point in recent memory.

I’m not here to offer a blind defence of policing.

But I am here to offer an impassioned defence of good police officers. Of the tens of thousands of extraordinary women and men who are braver and kinder and more resourceful and more resilient than just about anyone else I know.

While you’re reading this, they’re out there, getting on with the things they joined the police to do: saving lives, finding the lost, binding up the broken-boned and broken-hearted, protecting the vulnerable, stepping into harm’s way in defence of complete strangers, sometimes risking it all. 

I love them with every fibre of my being. 

But I am afraid that we are failing them.

We are failing them by allowing a partial story to be told. We are failing them by our unwillingness to challenge the imbalances in the narrative. We are failing them by allowing the abject wrongdoings of some to become defining of them all. And all that is good about policing is in danger of being lost along the way.

I want you to keep speaking up about the things that are wrong with policing. But, in truth, that is the easy thing to do. I also want you to do something much harder. Something that is deeply unfashionable. I want you to speak up with equal passion and conviction about the things that are right about policing. Because, otherwise, you’re not telling the whole truth. You’re not even telling half the truth. Because, for every negative story about policing you might want to tell, I could tell you a thousand involving the kind of humanity and heroism that would likely take your breath away. And then I could tell you a thousand more.

I have worked alongside officers who have been shot.

I have worked alongside officers who have been stabbed.

I have worked alongside officers who have had their bones broken.

I have worked alongside officers who have been beaten unconscious.

I have worked alongside officers who have fought hand to hand with murderers.

I have worked alongside officers who have given everything they have.

I have wept for those who didn’t make it home.

And I am afraid that we are failing them.

Somehow, we need to find a way to tackle all that is wrong with policing – without doing irreversible damage to all that is right with it. Somehow, we need to find a way to deal with the sins of the past (and the present) – without doing untold harm to the thousands of blameless women and men who stand on the thin blue line.

I am a passionate opponent of bad policing. And I am a passionate supporter of good policing. It is vitally important for all of us to be both of those things. Because, if you truly want better policing in this country, you cannot be one without also being the other. I don’t want anyone to back away from asking difficult, uncomfortable, bloody awkward questions of police officers. But I need everyone to understand – and celebrate the fact – that, most of the time, most of them are just about as extraordinary as people can ever be.

9 thoughts on “Institutional Humanity & Heroism

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  1. In truth most cops and ex cops are totally enraged when colleagues of their or another Force let the side down.
    I get enraged when terms such as “institutional” are banded about in relation to any of these subjects, as it in effect asserts that the particular ill is endemic, i.e. is the norm.
    The particular ills all exist, are all abhorrent, all need ruthless challenge but often the actual ill is the one of incompetence, ignorance, a failure to recognise, a failure to listen to those (often subordinates) who have recognised the problem(s).
    Underfunding has been and is a problem but the issue of Police reform is far too important to be left to politicians and journalist – both of which groups favour the “magic wand” approach but needs to be led from within the Police community itself by releasing those with actual expertise in various types of policing to set and enforce the standards of delivery needed.
    This requires humility and courage by individuals who may have rank but not experience, being willing to listen and allow themselves to be persuaded rather than feeling threatened – then having the guts to act.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree. There is also an institutional corruption within so many organisations where, in any risk assessment of a project, the highest placed risk is one of reputational damage. It seems that the organisation has become the most important aspect of life at work, rather than the successful outcomes of the service that the organisation, in this case the police service, is there to deliver.

    One may speculate whether the failures in the investigations were caused by incompetence or corruption. I have not readthe report and doubt that I will find the time to read a 1200 page document. The media are identifying the Commissioner as culpable for witholding files from the inquiry, but the public need to see prosecutions of officers and retired officers, if there is evidence of corruption.

    Officers must be held responsible for their own actions as we are seeing with the prosecution in the recent Kent homicide. The service should not be held accountable for individuals failings.


  3. An amazing piece of writing. I used to tell my officers “ despite what others might tell you and despite what others might say, the public support you” I don’t know if that’s true anymore and I don’t understand why .The last year has seen Policing in this country take several hammer blows. Not all of the blows have been caused by Policing in this country. Policing has to find a way to restore public confidence. Unfortunately I don’t have the answer, I still work in law enforcement and tomorrow like many others I will get up go to work and do my best to serve the public. We need more like John Sutherland to stand up for us.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Aside from the comments of past and current MPS senior officers, where is the voice of those who call themselves the leaders? Yes, the NPCC first and foremost – silence – and nowt on their webpage since the 11th June 2021. Not affected by its head Martin Hewitt, being ex-MPS surely?

    Then the College of Policing whose rationale includes: We give a voice to professional policing on standards, skills and capabilities. (from their website). So there is a statement: Just whether it is fit for this event is a moot point.

    So to the Police Federation website, nowt since 11th June 2021. The same on the Superintendents Association website.

    Not long ago a senior police officer as I recall stated officers (and staff) require moral courage, absent from the ‘leaders’ today.


  5. If only the powers that be, within the police service would listen to ‘their’ own. Besides that of whichever voice of media or popularity can shout and command the loudest, individually or collectively. The answers to good policing lies within the community- both within the police own community and outside of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It is not enough, unfortunately, to be exemplary yourself. You must also call out u professional behaviour in others. Too many blind eyes are still turned. “Snitches get stitches” seems to be a phrase that exists on both sides. So long as “complaints department” (as it was) of these days the “Department for Professional Standards” are seen as the enemy, to be feared, then the accusations will continue, not entirely without merit. The thing I am most ashamed of in my short police career is not calling out poor behaviour in colleagues. Had I done so I have no doubt my career would have been even shorter! Having said that I’ve seen the same thing in all my subsequent jobs. Closing ranks is self-defence as whistleblowing seldom leads to a good outcome for the whistleblower!


  7. I totally agree. When I am in trouble, that is who I hope is by my side – a police officer. They are my heroes.


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