British Policing: The Engineer of It’s Own Demise?

Policing a Protest Rally

I read an interesting Guest Blog by John Clifford at No Offence, the award-winning cross sector criminal justice community. Whilst examining a recent report by Lord Stevens, Clifford raised some interesting and pertinent issues, ones that are having a significant impact upon policing in the UK

Although I partly agree with Stevens I have to say I also tend to agree with some of Clifford’s observations. But many of the points raised by both gentlemen although valid, only partially hit the proverbial nail on the head when trying to understand these issues. There are many varied and undoubtably problematical factors having a negative impact upon our police service today, officer moral is merely symptomatic of the remainder of the issues.

Both observers agree that police morale is low (for differing reasons) and I (like many others) am also convinced that assumption is actually a resounding fact, but also for some differing reasons.

Let me start by saying that, contrary to popular political (and media) lead belief, the vast majority of police officers are not resistant to organisational or process change. It’s one of the aspects of the job that attracts many recruits in the first instance and that constant change was evident throughout my thirty years of service. That said, many of the causes for poor morale currently revolve around the constant state of flux that officers find themselves trying to work within.

Much of that ‘flux’ is down to poor management skills at various levels within the service; management and direction delivered by individuals trying to sell themselves (or ‘their’ service), as opposed to the political and/or financial influence from external sources that many police managers try to suggest.

Even with the current personal impacts of changes to their conditions of service and remuneration, most police officers are still stoic about the situation and continuing to deliver service to the best of their ability, whilst enduring all the mostly politically driven service reform. “I’m not happy but, unlike many, I still have a job” as one serving officer pointed out to me the other day when I asked him how things were going.

Getting back to the blog penned as a response to the recent report by Lord Stevens, Clifford’s opinion is that Stevens was inferring that; the low morale of the police is entirely a result of the failure of politicians to offer them unqualified support. Lord Stevens expresses his viewpoint based upon statistical data from a workforce survey.

The statistic comes from a survey of 14,000 serving officers, from constables to chief superintendents. The research was led by a Professor Jennifer Brown of the London School of Economics…(telegraph.co.uk)

The survey data tends to suggest a large proportion of police officers would no longer vote for the Conservative Party (as many have traditionally done in the past). More worryingly, “fifty-six per cent of those surveyed had recently contemplated leaving the police” and “Ninety-five per cent of serving officers do not feel the Government supports the police,” says Lord Stevens.

We have a national crisis of morale which threatens to undermine the work our officers are doing… (Lord Stevens)

Whether or not the data is anything more than indicative remains to be seen. As I’ve observed on numerous previous occasions; statistics (especially those commissioned by the government or agencies of that government) are often manipulated and/or presented in such a manner that tends to ”prove’ the particular point being raised. But Clifford is also correct when he says:

It is my experience that people who are aware that they are providing a bad product or service in their work do indeed suffer from poor morale, and I do not believe police officers to be immune from that…(John Clifford)

Now I’m not suggesting that this research, led by Professor Jennifer Brown of the London School of Economics, is anything less than factual and accurate but I would ask; is a survey of 14,000 out of a possible 134,101 officers a sufficient slice from which to inform the assumptions being made?

Police officer numbers in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest level in nine years, the Home Office says…(bbc.co.uk)

The full-time equivalent (FTE) officers in the 43 forces of England & Wales is in decline, it stood at 134,101 at the end of March – a fall of 5,009 officers (3.6%) compared to a year earlier (see here) and that decline appears to be continuing. Who knows, perhaps the continued decline will prove the statistics to be even more valid in the future?

There are two main paragraphs in Clifford’s piece which (in my opinion) sum-up where his viewpoint is coming from. The content suggest there is not only a government ‘hatred’ of police but also a public one.

I think that the best response to the [Stevens] article is that, if he is correct in the inference that the government hates the police, for once they are in accord with the general public…(John Clifford)

I agree with Clfford in the first of those two paragraphs when he says; “there are several reasons for this” but, like so many other commentators, he appears to skirt over the significant negative impacts generated by the methodologies of our media machine. A press where even the so-called broadsheet types tend to operate with tabloid mentality when it comes to talking about our police service.

Clifford is also right when he says “increasing incidence of police officers policing the policeable” are impacting upon public support for the police. He points out how “pursuing prosecutions of basically law-abiding people for minor offences” and “one-off offences by people defending their person or property” has alienated the public from the policing process.

He is again correct in his assumption that too often; “if one tries to report an escalating pattern of threat, the police are [often] powerless to take preventive action.” More worryingly he describes how the police are “disparaging and unhelpful toward those who report it, often turning on the person reporting the issue with threats about what will happen to them if they were to take action themselves.”

In the second of those two paragraphs Clifford outlines his next point about the lack of respect for police officers. Clifford says that Stevens (read police) wrongly believe that this lack of respect is “a product of societal and governmental reductions in standards.”

I don’t think it is wrong to believe it is a societal issue. There is a commonly held understanding that our police should (and mostly do) reflect the standards, ethics and morals of the society from which they are drawn. That fact alone also helps to endorse Clifford’s final observation of the paragraph in that; “…the actions of most MPs is certainly evidential of a considerable gap in morality between them and the general public too.” The ‘gap’ to which he refers, in a society of predominant self-interest and self-importance of the individual,  perhaps isn’t actually as wide as he would like to think it is.

Clifford continues by saying that; “erosion in the respect in which the police are held is [in his opinion], rooted in their steadfast refusal to address failures within their own ranks.” This may be “an attitude that began a very long time ago but, were the cases of “officers fabricating evidence against people whom they regarded as deserving of their comeuppance” really as prevalent as he suggests? I doubt it and again, it’s another factor that in many respects, is yet another reflection of predominant traits in our society.

Clifford does mitigate this claim by pointing out the fact that (in many cases), they were quite correct in their assessment of the individuals concerned but that is neither a defence nor relevant.  In order to maintain integrity in a free society with democratically defined legal system, one which is based upon ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and relies largely upon judicial precedent, we have to have the belief that it is better for ten guilty people go free rather than one innocent person being convicted.

Clifford rightly suggests there is a separate argument to be had as to whether our legal principles remain practical or appropriate today. In a society that is as dysfunctional as it now is, with as many ethical and moral standards as there is diversity of ethnic and social standing, can we still be confident in saying what is/is not ethically or morally correct, let alone criminal?

That said, we would also do well to consider the fact; many of those so-called ‘travesties of justice’ in the past have only latterly been succesful at appeal due to advances in forensic science, and/or the presentation of some new ‘evidence’ being presented, that wasn’t available during the original court cases.

Around 7.30pm last night I saw a police van drive up the High Street without any lights. The vehicle was driven up onto the footpath and pulled up outside a shop where the alarm was sounding. The officer got out of the vehicle and briefly looked into the shop window, tried the front door  then drove off along a pedestrian area before turning back onto the road, still without lights.

The above type of incident does just as much (if not more) to undermine public support for the police.  Although relatively insignificant, it unintentionally displays a “do as I say, not as I do” instruction. It suggests that there are rules for the public and a different set for police officers.

And each time a group of off-duty officers get together for a night out on the town, have fun and get loud and leery, they would do well to remember the eyes of the public are upon them. When interacting with members of the public officers should ask themself; “would I be happy with being spoken to in such a manner?” With or without the uniform every officer, on or off duty, are ambassadors of the service.

Society observes your every move when you become a police officer; you can’t be a diligent professional at work and then a total arse off duty. Or worse, be an arse on and off duty! 

It wasn’t (and still isn’t) the odd bent detective who accepted a regular bung from some drug-pusher, fence or dodgy car dealer who have scuppered support for the police. Thankfully that type of individual is so rare as to be insignificant in driving public opinion. No, all those officers who thought/think they can simply behave as they wish, on and off duty,  are the ones who have screwed public support for policing!

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