Updated: Mar 23
On Friday 29th March 2019 at 5 pm, I took my work mobile phone out of my pocket and switched it off before walking out of police headquarters for the last time as a serving police officer. I had completed my contracted 30 years of service, and very soon, the organisation would class me as a police 'pensioner.'
In thirty years, I had been a uniform constable, a detective constable on counter-terrorism investigations, a photographer on a counter-terrorism surveillance team, a uniformed sergeant, a detective sergeant in the criminal investigation department, a uniform inspector, a detective inspector in child abuse investigations, a detective inspector in counter-terrorism, a detective chief inspector in the Intelligence department, an operational superintendent and a superintendent running a national data analytics project. Phew!
I started my career typing reports in triplicate using carbon paper and old typewriters. I ended it running a predictive analytics project that used supercomputers and Cloud storage to analyse 500 million lines of data relating to millions of individuals in seconds.
I decided to write this book because I want to try and explain what it's really like to be in the police service. Not the telly police, with completely improbable storylines involving detectives who single-handedly sort everything out in 45 minutes or, for that matter, the fly on the wall TV where traffic officers self-consciously ham it up for the benefit of the cameras.
I also wanted to write about what it's been like to be in the police for the last thirty years. How has it changed? When and why did those changes happen? What was it like to live through this tumultuous period in the history of British policing?
Writing this has been incredibly cathartic in terms of making sense of a long police career, but perhaps more than anything else, I wanted to try and understand how the British police service that I joined thirty years ago and that I love so much, came to be so horribly damaged within what feels like quite a short period of time. Neighbourhood policing is now mostly non-existent, and detection rates for crime solved by police are at an all-time low. The prosecution rate for recorded crime in England and Wales sat at a relatively stable and respectable rate of around 16% in the years leading up to 2013. This figure has steadily fallen year on year to a rather dismal and embarrassing rate of 7% in 2019-2020. The statistics for fraud are even worse. Between 2018 and 2019, there were 227,667 victims of fraud living in the three largest force areas in England: London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester. Only 2164 of these, (or 0.95%) resulted in any sort of prosecution. This means that today, members of the Great British public have very little expectation of the police catching or charging anyone if they're unfortunate enough to become a victim, and for criminals there has never been a better time to commit crime in the UK.
Ten or fifteen years ago a victim of burglary would have received a fairly rapid response from uniformed officers, who would have conducted an initial investigation, taken statements and preserved forensic evidence. This would have been followed up that day by a visit from a scenes of crime officer who would have retrieved forensic evidence and there would then be a more comprehensive investigation by a detective. In those days we solved and prosecuted about 13% of domestic burglaries. Today it is common for a serious offence like burglary to be recorded over the phone, with no attendance by police and no proper investigation carried out.
Chief Constables and Home Office civil servants will argue that the volume of property crimes like burglary and car theft have fallen sharply in the last ten years and that technology has changed crime and offending in that time. That is true. However, what they won’t admit is that the police are now just as unlikely to solve ‘new’ crime-types as they are to solve the ‘old-fashioned’ crimes like burglary.
There has been a corresponding collapse in the criminal justice system generally, with a dramatic reduction in cases coming to court. This was bad before the Covid crisis, but now in 2021 with massive backlogs in cases, it is unlikely that even a fairly simple case will see the inside of a court for several years after a defendant is charged. This then reduces further the likelihood of a conviction, because victims get fed up waiting and withdraw their co-operation, witnesses forget what happened and suspects walk free.
The final straw for me, and what propelled me to write this book, was the shameful sight of police officers running away from protesters, many of whom were just kids, in Whitehall during the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 and allowing some of them to deface the Cenotaph, the most sacred monument in Britain. The police were lambasted by politicians and the media for failing to intervene. Fast forward to March 2021 and the shocking news that a serving Metropolitan Police officer had been charged with the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard. A peaceful vigil for Sarah was hijacked by a small activist group who were intent on whipping the crowd up and who refused to disperse in contravention of the Covid legislation. The police intervened against the ringleaders and detained a small number of women. They again got lambasted by politicians and the media, but this time it was for intervening.
How did we get to this unhappy situation?
When I joined the police thirty years earlier, we were confident that the organisation we worked for and wider society would support us. Also, the public trusted us to exercise considerable discretion in deciding how to respond to calls for service. We told timewasters to stop wasting our time, and we prioritised those who needed our help most. Crucially there were enough of us to confront and control lawlessness on the streets and provide a visible presence to reassure the public.
Thirty years later, I left a fearful, enfeebled service that had been decimated by a combination of government cuts and twenty years of political interference. The police are often too busy trying to sort out pathetic squabbles on Facebook to deal with serious criminality. Furthermore, officers now have almost no expectation of being supported by the courts, the media, government, or, for that matter, their own organisation if they make an honest mistake.
It’s definitely now more likely for members of the public to film a police officer struggling with someone in the street and upload it to YouTube, rather than do the courageous and decent thing of trying to help them.
There is also something of a despairing chasm between front-line police officers and many of their senior leaders. There are lots of examples of really fantastic senior police officers, but generally speaking, front-line officers don't trust their leaders. They despise many of them as 'weak and woke', vying to outdo one another with virtue-signalling Twitter posts promoting their latest gimmicky initiative, and putting their own career prospects before the best interests of the public, the organisation or their people. Uniform officers and investigators now often roll their eyes behind the backs of many senior managers, who talk in riddles about 'customer journeys', 'future visioning', the latest ‘statement of strategic intent' or 'multi-stakeholder partnership engagement'. The police officers under their command would rather hear about how we're going to catch and convict more violent criminals and drug dealers.
When I joined the Metropolitan police in London in 1989, I soon became familiar with the often-repeated refrain from officers that "The Job's F*cked". That expression, always shortened in conversation simply to 'TJF', has been in constant usage since I joined, often stated by British police officers in a similar way to FUBAR, a military expression (F*cked Up Beyond All Repair) or SNAFU (Situation Normal All F*cked Up).
'TJF' would generally be said contemptuously by an officer ordered to do something pointless that didn't make any sense. Alternatively, someone might say it in response to some new policy announcement that would tie everyone's hands up even further in red tape. A policy in all likelihood dreamt up by some bright spark at HQ who wants to make a name for themselves and get promoted, or perhaps someone from the army of statisticians at the Home Office.
Many years ago, early in my service, I met a very elderly gent who, to my delight, told me some fascinating stories about how he had served thirty years in the police in London and had retired in the 1950s, serving throughout the London Blitz. Quick as a flash, he asked me, 'Is the job still fucked?' I laughingly confirmed that yes, it was.
The point here is that British police officers have been using the expression 'TJF' for a very, very long time. Therefore, it's tempting, particularly for certain disreputable politicians or media types with an agenda, to argue that everything's fine. However, only the most deluded, disingenuous, or wilfully blind commentator could try and claim that the British police service is in a good place. It's not. It's in a terrible mess after over twenty years of political meddling from both sides of the political divide.
I will describe what it was like to work through the years when police officers were able to use a lot of discretion to protect the public and focus on fighting crime, albeit in a way that was arguably lacking in accountability and transparency. Then I will talk about the cash-rich years of policing under New Labour, when policing did well financially, but became tied up with all sorts of Home Office performance measurements that resulted in a culture of trying to hit all sorts of bizarre targets that had almost nothing to do with keeping the public safe.
I will finally describe the painful and horrible years under Theresa May as Home Secretary and then Prime Minister, and the impact of losing 20,000 officers and 23,000 support staff on the police's ability to protect the public. I will consider whether the British police service has now gone beyond a tipping point from where they may now find it difficult or impossible to recover. There is now a definite sense that the British public no longer knows what to expect from their police, and the police themselves no longer understand what anyone expects of them.
Society has changed beyond recognition in the last thirty years, and attitudes to all sorts of things have changed for the better. It would therefore be silly to suppose that the police could or should be exempt from any of those changes. The UK's police service is an infinitely more professional, inclusive, tolerant, and enlightened organisation today than it was in 1989 when I joined. Still, clearly, something has gone badly wrong. So, in this book, I will consider whether The Job is actually F*cked, and if it is, how and why did that happen?
I need to make it very clear that the views that I express in this book are mine alone, however, I know that these views are shared privately by pretty much everyone I know well in policing, past and present. Those who have left policing are generally very relieved indeed to have left the organisation, and those who still serve feel unable to speak out and powerless to change anything. I accept that this book will make for uncomfortable reading, particularly for some ex-Chief Constables, who conspired in all this, caved into political pressure and then presided over an increasingly dysfunctional service.
I am not a political person and I have no affiliation whatsoever to any political party. Growing up in the madness of Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s was quite enough to put me off politics for life. I have tried to be as even-handed as possible in this regard. Both Labour and the Conservatives created this mess, and on that basis, this book will make the argument for keeping politicians and clueless Home Office civil servants well away from policing and public protection. I will also make the argument that we need to start listening to what the majority of the public want the police to do. Not a tiny, vociferous subset of the public i.e. self-appointed ‘community leaders’, left-wing activists and the chattering classes in North London dinner parties. I mean the actual British public.
Some will accuse me of looking back at a bygone era of policing through rose-tinted spectacles. Certainly I am nostalgic for those days, but there were many things that badly needed to change when I first joined. However, in those days, unlike today, at least British police officers knew what they were expected to do.