Issue 296: 2021 10 07: Reforming the Police

7 October 2021

Reforming the Police

Letting in some light.

By John Watson

It is quite understandable that the appalling circumstances of Sarah Everard’s death have shaken everyone and one would have thought the less of the British public had they not.  Still, the time has come to move from sorrow to learning lessons and the media is full of suggestions as to what those lessons should be.

Some of the commentary has been foolish and unhelpful.  The fact that the police harboured a monster in their ranks does not mean that the other 130,000 or so are monsters too.  The vast majority are decent dedicated men and women doing a difficult and sometimes dangerous job in the public service.  Nor is it helpful for Channel 4 to parade, presumably in the hope that he will be taken as authoritative, a retired officer who says “leaving Cressida Dick in charge of the Met is like leaving Dracula in charge of a blood bank”.  Goodness knows what frustrations lie behind that sort of meaningless bile but a national television station should be ashamed of having given it air.

Still, it isn’t enough to regard this murder as just a one-off act by a monster.  There is more to it than that.  There is the fact that the Metropolitan Police continued to employ a man whose behaviour was so odd that he was known as “the rapist”.  There is the fact that other officers shared unacceptable pornography.  Clearly there are problems within the service, things living in dark corners which need to be exposed and extirpated.

And in the end light and dark are at the centre of this.  In 1913 the great American judge Louis Brandeis wrote in Harper’s Weekly that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” building on a previous idea that “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects”.  Unfortunately the canteen culture of the police with its emphasis on the protection of fellow officers means that that light is all too often shut out.

To a point the commentators have understood this, with suggestions that a police officer should have an obligation to report on his colleagues in various circumstances.  On the face of it that may seem a good idea but if it went much beyond the reporting of criminal offences it could prove counter-productive.  A service in which everyone is looking over their shoulder to see whether another officer is out to trip them up is unlikely to be an efficient one.  The alternative is to let the light come in in another way.

If you look at the Home Office statistics, the number of full-time equivalent officers in England and Wales was 129,110 at the end of March 2020; a year earlier it was 123,189.  During that year, the number of officers who left the force was 7,141 or 5.8% of the total.  Of these 2,363 left voluntarily for reasons other than normal retirement.  That is 1.9% of the number at the start of the year.  This is a low figure and paints a picture of a service where those who join do so for life, something corroborated by the emphasis on degrees in policing or allied disciplines in recruitment.  An organisation built on these lines is bound to be introverted.  To let in the light one needs to introduce far more fluidity into the workforce so that rather than always being a lifetime commitment, a spell in the police becomes in some cases a normal incident in a career, like a short-term commission in the military or time working for chartered accountants.

Of course there would be costs. Training is not cheap and elements of it might go to waste but those who left the force would take their experience with them and would form a bridge between the police service and those it serves.  More importantly it would broaden the range of those joining the service so that instead of all being career coppers there would be a considerable cohort of those who expected to move on.  They would inevitably come from different backgrounds, bring different ideas and their education would tend to be broader because it would have been set with a view to work after policing.  No doubt they would all be rather a nuisance but they would bring with them the attitudes of the wider community and that would let in light.

Imagine, if you will, an average, mildly aspirational, middle-class British home where the eldest son or daughter has told the parents that he or she is taking a short-term commission in the military.  Perhaps they are not military inclined but nonetheless they will console themselves with the thought that such a career teaches discipline, is character forming and gives a good platform for a return to civvy street.  Certainly there will be no difficulty in explaining the decision to their friends.  A spell as a young officer is a respected career move.  Now suppose that the decision is to join the police.  That would be far more surprising and eyebrows would probably be raised.  Yet there is little sense to this.  A job as a police constable, even in its early stages, is every bit as interesting as that of a junior officer in the military, probably more so in times of peace.  It carries responsibility and demands perception and the development of nerve.  The reason why joining the military is regarded as more acceptable than joining the police is because there is a tradition of middle-class recruits boosted by the way in which the career is marketed.

If the government is really anxious to flush out the things which flourish in the dark corners of British policing they should bring in a much broader spectrum of recruits; that means accepting that many of them will leave and marketing the career accordingly.

tile photo:  king’s church international on Unsplash


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