From time to time, an action or a series of actions can be so grievous that only the language of theology, the idea of 'sin', can adequately describe them.
I read an article yesterday written by Tom Symonds, the BBC Home Affairs correspondent, and I realised that this is now one of those times. The article's title was 'Why is it so hard to fix the Met's toxic culture'.
It has become increasingly clear to me that British police officers have been the victims of a series of grievous sins. Sins consciously committed by people in positions of power over the last twelve years.
My heart sank when I read Tom's article, at the end of yet another terrible week for British policing that saw the resignation of the much-loved Cressida Dick, forced out of office by the slippery Sadiq Khan. Khan, you will remember, also threw Dany Cotton, the first female leader of the London Fire Brigade, under the bus for her role in the Grenfell Tower tragedy. So, he has form for moral cowardice and refusal to take any personal responsibility for wider failings in the institutions he is responsible for.
In his article, Tom has fallen into the same trap as so many journalists by lazily stereotyping police officers as racist, misogynistic, homophobic and corrupt based on the bad behaviour of a small number of people. This lie has now become an unquestioned ‘truth’ in the minds of many people. The actual truth however is that these issues have always existed in policing, or for that matter, in any large, complex organisation dealing with the frequently chaotic lives of the general public.
Doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, soldiers, sailors, social workers, journalists and MPs will see their fair share of criminality, incompetence or destructive behaviour that lets everyone down. Yet, for reasons that none of us in the police family understand, policing now seems to get exceptional treatment. How differently the police service gets treated compared to the media fetishisation of the armed forces and the military veteran community.
The title of Tom's article instantly makes a sweeping judgement that the Met's culture, from top to bottom, is toxic, when those who work in the Met, or any large police force for that matter, know that this is not the case.
The article then goes on to cherry-pick 'evidence' based on the testimonies of disgruntled current or ex-officers with an axe to grind. Many of the people the media select to inform articles like this were neither liked nor respected by their colleagues. None of that was because of the colour of their skin, gender or sexuality, but usually, because they were either not very good at their jobs or because they sought conflict and division from day one. Many of them then set out to deflect attention away from their professional shortcomings by making disingenuous allegations that they continued to rehearse after they left.
Is it possible that some of them experienced unfairness in policing? Yes, it is. Did I (and most of the people I worked with) occasionally experience injustice at the hands of toxic colleagues or bosses in policing? Yes, I did, but I chose to see that for what it was; unfairness that you will find in any large organisation composed of fallible, flawed and sometimes malevolent human beings. Does it mean that the entire organisation is corrupt and needs root and branch reform? No, it doesn't.
Just to be clear, I am not charging Tom with knowingly committing a grievous sin. More likely, I suspect that he (and so many people like him) have simply become so blinkered by a one-sided narrative about policing in the UK that they have lost the ability to see the bigger picture.
Some will read that and start huffing and puffing indignantly about high profile policing failures which include but are not limited to;
• Stephen Port serial killer failures
• Crime scene selfies
• Wayne Couzens
• Charing Cross WhatsApp idiots
• Undercover policing sexual liaisons
All of those things are horrible, and everyone inside the policing family shares the same outrage and disappointment that those outside policing are feeling. But here's my point.
These things do not represent the work of the overwhelming majority of British police officers as they try and do what is rapidly becoming an impossible job. Moreover, it's monumentally stupid and naive to think that policing, by definition, will ever escape these issues because of the nature of doing a frequently chaotic and messy job.
The media and political narrative at the moment is this;
‘The British police service is bad. It needs fixing and if only that happened, then all will be well.’
However, every single person in policing (barring those who have just joined) knows that this is untrue.
So, getting back to my original point, the grievous sins that have been and continue to be committed against the British police service. What are they, and who is guilty in the eyes of most experienced police officers?
In descending order of culpability;
1. David Cameron. Cameron is 'ground zero' for the demise of British policing. He should be remembered for his mean-spirited determination to punish the police service for standing up to his old bosses Ken Clarke and Michael Howard when they sought to change police terms and conditions of employment back in 1992 when Cameron was a Home Office advisor. He'd had a massive bee in his bonnet about policing for many years, insisting in 2006 that he would be 'Tough on crime, tough on police reform' when he was in opposition. So in 2010, it was payback time.
2. Theresa May for her appalling treatment of policing as both Home Secretary and Prime Minister. Her advisors and her hatchet man Tom Winsor share the blame here.
3. Politicians like Sadiq Khan, Diane Abbott, and others indulge in political grandstanding to massage their egos rather than thinking about what is best for the public or victims of crime. In my book Tango Juliet Foxtrot I also lay some of the blame at the door of New Labour, who funded the police generously, but then undid all that by tying everyone up in hundreds of pointless performance indicators.
4. Journalists from across the political divide gleefully report only the 5% of bad news and hardly any of the good work and incredible bravery that goes on day and night. If they can't find bad news, they distort the facts to suit their agenda. The Clapham Vigil debacle was an excellent example of this. Many police officers believe that the incessant police bashing by the media is payback because of the dozens of journalists arrested by the Met during the Leveson enquiry into phone hacking.
5. It is also arguable that far too many Chief Constables committed 'sins of omission' by failing to challenge all of this, preferring to keep their heads below the parapet. However, to be fair, Cameron's creation of frequently pointless and expensive PCCs sitting above Chief Constables made that very difficult.
So what has the result of all this been in real terms?
The result is that we have seen a complete collapse in police morale, a public safety disaster in the UK and a situation where 94% of crime reported to the police now goes unsolved.
Crime outcomes for victims are dismally poor, and members of the public now have very little expectation that anyone will be held to account in the courts for what they did. Young men continue to die in huge numbers on our streets at the hands of other young men, and police officers frequently turn a blind eye to this for fear of being accused of racism. Half the police stations in England and Wales and 75% of the police stations in London have been shut or sold off to save money. The public now rarely sees police officers and local officers building trusted relationships with local people are now a thing of the past.
The service is experiencing a tsunami of mental health issues amongst officers and staff and a suicide rate double that of the general population. Officers in England and Wales are owed over half a million rest days which were cancelled due to staffing shortages, and police social media sites are filled with the voices of officers who have had enough and intend to resign.
Resignations have never been higher, and those with skills in serious crime investigation roles or technical skills are leaving to the private sector in their droves. Many new Operation Uplift officers make it very clear that they have little intention of staying for more than a few years, guaranteeing an ongoing staffing crisis and wasting millions of pounds in recruitment and training. Recruits also appear to be woefully unprepared for the rigours of frontline policing after overly intellectualised training regimes dreamt up by blue-sky thinkers in the College of Policing.
All of this has cost many lives that have been cut short far too early; lives that would not have been lost if we still had visible, engaged and proactive neighbourhood teams to spot things early and fix them before it was too late.
Most of what we are now seeing is a direct or an indirect consequence of the sins committed against policing. Cuts that went too deep for too long and a relentlessly hostile media narrative. I fear that the resignation of the much-loved Cressida Dick marks a new low point from where it will be very difficult to recover. Even if things were to improve for policing instantly, it would take a generation to undo the damage of the last twelve years of Conservative malice and stupidity.
Priti Patel can look wherever she likes to find a replacement for Cressida. At home or abroad. Inside or outside the service. But the fact remains that policing is broken. That person (God help them) can only do so much and will quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the brokenness of UK policing and the broader criminal justice system.
Dante proposed that the worst sin that a human being can commit is betrayal and that those who committed it would be banished to the ninth and deepest ring of hell. Dante described the ninth ring as "the bottom of the universe" containing "a horde of sinners beyond all others ill-begot".
Without any shadow of a doubt, tens of thousands of decent, honest, brave and trustworthy police officers in the UK who make up the vast majority of the service have been completely betrayed by this government and also by journalists who seem to delight in rubbing salt into wounds that are already very raw.
In my book, in my blogs and on my podcast, I have avoided the language of faith or theology. As a hospice chaplain, I know that many people do not have religious beliefs. Broader society now tends to reject theological language often used in a clumsy or judgemental way. I'm not remotely bothered by what people individually believe or don't believe when I work as a chaplain. It's my job to talk to them, listen to them, and help them and their families make sense of what is happening if I can.
However, I tend to believe that no one ever truly gets away with anything in life. Sins committed today may not be paid for immediately. Still, my strong sense and my experience is that eventually, there will always be some sort of physical, psychological or spiritual reckoning for even the most unrepentant sinner.
It’s just a tragedy that so many people will continue to pay the price for the sins committed against the British police service and many will pay with their lives.