10 February 2022
Lesson from Charing Cross
The shape of the police.
By John Watson
“Bullying and aggressive behaviour; ‘banter’ used to excuse oppressive and offensive behaviours; discrimination; toxic masculinity, misogyny and sexual harassment;” all were found by the Independent Office for Police Conduct in its enquiries centring on events at the Charing Cross Station three years ago. Even though the most dramatic allegations concerning sex at the police station were not proven, there was plenty for the political class to bite on and bite they surely did with Priti Patel sickened, Sadig Khan disgusted, the Met apologetic and the usual outrage from the usual quarters.
It is perfectly clear that the behaviour of officers fell well below public expectations and a lot of people are entitled to feel that they have been let down. Those include suspects who were mistreated or discriminated against, victims where investigations were prejudiced, the public who were not properly protected, the Queen who the police represent, and the politicians who… Ah no, let’s take the politicians off the list because their failure to deal properly with the cultural issues in the police is the reason why those issues are still with us.
There have been many complaints about the police over the years, perhaps the most important culminating in the Stephen Lawrence enquiry conducted by Mr Justice MacPherson in 1999. The finding of institutional racism led to a lot of changes, new training for officers, more measuring of progress and increasing recruitment from ethnic minorities. There has been plenty of all that over the years, recently for example the Met’s target of 40% recruitment from minorities, and the IOPC makes 15 more recommendations in the same vein. That is all very well but focusing on training and guidance, not to mention the ethnic composition of the force, and indeed the level of women recruits, is to miss the elephant in the room. How is it that a large body of people, driven more by public duty than society as a whole, finds its values so out of line with public expectations? The media have their answers to that: “Canteen culture”, “Testerone-driven attitudes” they say and they are probably right but that doesn’t answer the question of what to do about it. Naturally the politicians will talk about more training and altering the racial mix but that is because these are things which can done within the service by a leadership who can bear the brunt of the criticism when they fail to make an impact. The real answer is that organisations which view a career as lifelong are prone to cultural degeneration and the remedy to that is to increase the level of churn to let in light from outside. According to that great American judge Louis Brandeis “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants;” and here sunlight needs to be introduced by people joining and leaving the force bringing in fresh attitudes and creating links with the outside world as they leave.
That is not to suggest that the force should have some “up or out” culture of the sort found in professional firms or that those in lifetime careers should be a minority but it would clearly be healthy if a good proportion of police recruits regarded their service as only the first phase of their careers to be followed by a move back into the civilian work stream. That requires two things. The police would have to build their workforce accepting that a lot of them would move on and many recruits would need to enter the police with degrees or other qualifications which would be useful in civilian life. At the moment there is a mechanism for this in that a graduate with a non-police degree only has to train for two years rather than three before becoming a constable. Unfortunately it is hard to discover from the published statistics what proportion of recruits take this route but I do not imagine it is very many.
A regular interchange between the police and the rest of society would make a canteen culture more difficult to maintain. It would mean people joining from a wider range of backgrounds and a bigger middle class contingent. It would be more useful to see statistics on the social class of applicants rather than more and more on which ethnic groups they belong to. We often hear that the police should represent society but how many of them are privately educated?
A change of focus as fundamental as this would need to be considered carefully at the political as well as the operational level and if they were serious about the improvement of the force the politicians would cease to be “appalled and disgusted” and carry out a full review of how recruitment should be constructed and what it should deliver. They won’t of course because it is easier to sit whinging about the quality of the leadership and then seek points for being “uncompromising”. That is why my list of those let down at Charing Cross does not include the politicians.