- Iain Donnelly
It’s not just the Met. Should the whole of UK policing now be in special measures?
Updated: Jul 2, 2022
The announcement from the policing Inspectorate (HMICFRS) yesterday that the Metropolitan Police Service would be moved into special measures feels shocking but not altogether surprising.
The Met is by far the largest force in the UK, and it holds a unique place in the landscape of policing globally. The Met was the best policing organisation in the world, a beacon of excellence and a reassuring bastion of courage, common sense and selfless public service in a world that often feels like it’s coming apart at the seams.
Sadly that is no longer the case, and the force has been rocked by scandal after scandal, with overall performance lagging far behind where it needs to be in terms of providing a professional service to victims of crime.
I started writing Tango Juliet Foxtrot (code for The Job’s Fucked) in 2019 when I retired from policing after thirty years. In the book and my podcast by the same name, I explain why policing in the UK is now in such a dreadful mess. But, it’s not just the Met; it's the whole of British policing that is arguably now in special measures.
When writing a piece like this, there’s always a risk that I default to defensiveness and blind loyalty to an organisation that I still love. I was a Met officer for half my career before transferring to the West Midlands Police, and I know with every bone in my body that the majority of people in British policing are good people who joined for the right reasons and who want to protect law-abiding members of the public from those who wish them harm.
An unpalatable truth
However, the litany of bad news stories gets longer and longer. Crime scene selfies, Sarah Everard, the disastrous Stephen Port serial-killer investigation, Charing Cross WhatsApp messages and the appalling way decent, innocent people were treated in the Operation Midland investigation.
I recently had conversations with an acquaintance whose husband joined the Met a few years ago and who works in a busy inner-city area of North London. I had several conversations with her over a period of time, and she described a truly depressing picture of her husband's experiences in the Met.
She described a toxic culture on his response team, where her husband is ostracised for wanting to work hard and do a good job. The team aspire to do as little as possible, ignore the radio and avoid confrontation with members of the public at all costs. Recreational drug-taking and heavy drinking are common. Many of the team are involved interchangeably in sexual relationships with one another, and frequently this happens whilst on duty. Many male officers are using steroids, and some female officers are more interested in pouting on Instagram than doing their job. The sergeants seem to fall into one of two camps. They are either as lazy and cynical as the PCs, or they are weak and ineffectual, shying away from confrontation or challenging bad behaviour or poor performance.
This is what happens when the morale on a team completely collapses. They feel unloved and they then become cynical and bitter and they stop caring about themselves or anyone else.
I genuinely don’t think that this scenario is anything close to ‘typical’ but it does demonstrate that there are significant pockets of bad practice and bad behaviour.
So I’m not naive about the challenges the Met are dealing with here. In my book, I explain in detail why I think this is happening. However, for this blog, I think it’s worth giving you the highlights. Or should it be low-lights? I often like to say that in life, everything happens for a reason, and thus everything can be explained.
Q. Why is British policing broken?
A. Everything happens for a reason
The inevitable legacy of David Cameron and Theresa May
David Cameron set out to break the British police service as soon as he became PM, and Theresa May, his Home Secretary, enthusiastically did his bidding. Between them, they decimated police funding resulting in the loss of 20,000 officers, 23,000 members of staff and the selling off of 50% of the police stations in the UK and 75% in London. They also destroyed the pay, conditions and pensions of police officers, virtually guaranteeing the exodus of talent from the profession and the pitiful statistic of 94% of crimes reported to the police now going unsolved in England and Wales.
If you want to dive into this in more detail, read my previous blog here (https://www.tjfbook.com/post/was-uk-policing-a-victim-of-one-man-s-malevolence-and-spite)
You can now write the script, which is as predictable as it is depressing.
STEP 1: Politicians completely screw up the police service and undermine everyone's safety - Complete
STEP 2: Politicians condemn the police service because it's failing -Complete
STEP 3: Politicians blame everyone but themselves and run away from the mess they made - Ongoing
2. Too many weak and self-serving senior ‘leaders’ in policing
The College of Policing, over many years, succeeded in creating a bizarre and dystopian framework for promotion at every rank that bore almost no relation to professional competence or experience. It frequently felt like something dreamt up as a drunken bet in the pub that then became a horrible reality for thousands of people.
This resulted in two types of people getting promoted.
i) Those who were respected, experienced and well-regarded by their staff and peers who 'played the game’ and knew that this was the only way to get up the promotion ladder. They jumped through the weird hoops and then re-joined the real world.
ii)Those who lacked experience and credibility but shamelessly learned to ‘talk the talk’ to get through promotion processes. They then jumped up rank after rank, seeking mentoring opportunities from equally clueless and cynical senior colleagues, and as a collective, they all believed their own bullshit.
Sadly those in the second group rapidly began to outnumber those in the first group, and they then found themselves in positions of significant influence in policing, to the detriment of everyone, particularly the public. Rather than standing together in opposition to the withdrawal of funding (with one or two notable exceptions), they all rolled over and let Cameron and May destroy the police service.
3. A Home Office more interested in statistics and gathering data than in public safety
The British police service would be a great case study to show what happens when politicians, civil servants and statisticians with absolutely no understanding of a profession gain too much power and control. I could write a book just about this (I won’t because it would be too depressing for you and me), but suffice to say, so many of the current ills have been caused by an over-zealous addiction to gathering more and more data on policing, all of which then drives behaviour, but usually drives it in the wrong direction.
4. A police service trying (and failing) to service non-policing demand from other (failing) public services.
Mental health services (particularly for young people)
Alcohol and drug treatment services
Youth diversion and support services
Crown Prosecution Service
Publicly funded legal professionals
These services have experienced cuts just as deep as policing under this government since 2010. Previously they all came together as a self-supporting eco-system to serve the public, but in the absence of proper funding, the entire system has collapsed in on itself.
To make matters worse, our so-called police ‘leaders’ were then quite happy to watch their staff sinking under all this false demand that took them away from dealing with public safety issues and would throw them under the bus when inevitably things went wrong.
So, there you have it. As I said, everything happens for a reason.
Who am I? Why am I here?
So we now have a deeply demoralised, anxious, badly led, poorly paid, frequently ill-disciplined organisation failing by every meaningful measurement (response times, crime clear-ups, levels of public satisfaction and confidence, skills retention, job satisfaction, wellbeing and the list goes on).
England and Wales also have the lowest number of police officers per 100,000 citizens out of all 32 European countries. The 32-country average is 357 per 100K. England and Wales have 228 officers per 100K. It would require 70,000 officers to be recruited over and above the 20,000 recruited under Operation Uplift just to bring us up to the European average
We also have an organisation that lacks a clear sense of mission. What are the police there for today? Crime fighters? Social workers? Mental health nurses? Collectors of data for the Home Office?
If they’re not sure what their job is (and they’re not, because they tell me), then don’t be too surprised if they’re not very good at it.