- Iain Donnelly
My Top 10 suggestions to get British policing back on track
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
Three days ago, I put a post on LinkedIn in which I shared the Top 10 things that I would do to get British policing back on track.
I’ve been active on LinkedIn for the last few years, and I have many followers who seem to find what I have to say quite interesting. Some of what I write is linked to my book, Tango Juliet Foxtrot, but latterly, most of it relates to new episodes of my podcast by the same name.
I decided to adopt a slightly different approach on this occasion. Everyone loves a Top 10, don’t they? There’s something weirdly appealing but simultaneously stressful about forcing yourself to choose ten things and then putting those things before the court of public opinion. I seem to have a reputation for plain speaking when it comes to policing issues, not because I’m outspoken by nature, but because I loved being a police officer and became utterly frustrated by what policing had turned into by the time I retired in 2019. However, I am not made of stone, and when I put this stuff out there, I usually feel dread after I press the ‘post’ button or the ‘send’ key. However, I typically have nothing to worry about because the feedback (so far) has been 95% positive from police officers, ex-police officers and members of the public.
The feedback regarding my Top 10 list has been phenomenal. Hundreds of people have been incredibly supportive on LinkedIn. The post has re-appeared on other social media sites and has been reshared over 1000 times in the last 24 hours with many thousands of positive reactions and comments.
But here’s the thing; if I put all the reactions and comments into an online ‘word cloud’ generator, the words that would dominate all others would be ‘common sense’. Hundreds and hundreds of people are saying words to the effect of ‘So refreshing to read something containing so much common sense.’ So, my question is this;
‘Why does common sense in policing now appear to be so uncommon?’
So, let's get into the list of ten things, but before I do, one or two caveats. Firstly, there are several hugely damaging issues that I have deliberately not included, such as pay and broader police funding. These issues need to be addressed urgently, but they can’t be fixed by policing alone. Secondly, I do not underestimate the complexity of many of the issues that police officers currently manage. Magic wands are for fairy tales, not the real world. For example, the tsunami of mental health-related issues that policing now deals with (40% of their time) will not be easy to solve. However, I think most of these things could be fixed relatively quickly if the will was there to do so.
1. End the ridiculous and unnecessary expectation that all police officers have or obtain a degree.
I do not believe that being a graduate makes you a better police officer. I was one, and I think it hindered me for the first few years of my service because I over-thought things that were common sense to my non-graduate colleagues. It’s putting people off joining who want to be police officers but who don’t want to study for a degree. It’s also creating major staffing issues for police teams, left floundering when the new officers are absent whilst studying. This was a plan dreamt up by academics because they believed that what was good for them would be good for everyone. It’s not. By all means, support officers to obtain a degree if they wish to do that, but the job must come first. 2. Actively recruit robust individuals with life experience from other sectors, including the military.
This is closely linked to point 1. Give me someone with some life experience, drive and common sense every day of the week in policing before someone who turns into a blue-sky thinker. We’ve had enough of them in policing latterly to last the next 100 years. 3. Reintroduce training schools with high standards of discipline to weed out those who have applied for the wrong job.
Training schools were not perfect, but they allowed staff to look very closely at recruits daily and decide whether they were up to the job. They also engendered a strong sense of discipline, a shared mission, teamwork and selflessness, things that appear to be in short supply at the moment. 4. Reform police regulations to get rid of lazy, dishonest, wilfully unfit or incompetent officers quickly.
This point needs to be addressed urgently. It’s almost impossible for supervisors to performance manage lazy or incompetent officers out of the service. They are given far too many chances to improve, and the opportunities to play the system are so numerous that most supervisors give up in complete frustration. It’s damaging to team morale and to the organisation to carry hopeless people who are not up to the job. 5. Reform promotion processes to ensure that only the very best, most highly respected officers get promoted.
This is a massive issue for policing. The service has been blighted by a particular type of cynical individual who shamelessly treats passing promotion processes as more important than their job. They are barely interested in the public or their colleagues. Many good candidates get through, but that is usually despite rather than because of weird and dystopian internal promotion processes. These cynical individuals are despised by their colleagues and then further despised by their staff when they become managers. It needs to stop. Promotion should be based on experience, professional competency, and clearly evidenced leadership abilities alone. 6. Reintroduce smart (but practical) uniforms that command respect and confidence from the public.
British police officers' uniforms are now a bit of an embarrassment. Every semblance of smartness has been sacrificed for ‘practicality’ and replaced by baggy, ‘one size fits no-one’ garb that makes them look like scruffy security guards. Even worse, when officers wear bloody baseball caps, that make them look even worse. Also, why are British police officers now required to wear these horrible hi-vis jackets everywhere? Traffic officers definitely, but not everyone! Today there is an abundance of modern materials that are light, strong, quick drying, comfortable, and can also be tailored to look good. Take a look at New Zealand police officers. It can’t be that difficult.
7. Bring back police canteens to allow officers to relax, de-compress and eat in safety and comfort.
Scrapping police canteens was a terrible mistake. Officers ate hot, healthy (ish) home-cooked food and spent time together alongside colleagues from other departments. Now they stand queuing for burgers and cheap fast food with the public berating them for ‘eating on duty’. In truth, it's rare that they even get a proper break because of the next two points. 8. Streamline Home Office rules around crime recording and incident resolution to prioritise the issues of greatest concern to the law-abiding public.
Satisfying Home Office Crime recording standards and incident resolution codes arguably results in more wasted police time, effort and energy than any other single factor. Police officers now spend more time and effort recording information simply to satisfy Home Office bean counters than they do preventing and detecting crime. It’s a monumental waste of effort, particularly when the Office for National Statistics describe the Crime Survey of England and Wales as ‘the most important source of information about trends in crime’, pretty much ignoring the Home Office statistics. The CSEW has almost no transparency, and interviewees can say what they feel like without any cross-checking.
Equally, National Standards for Incident Recording create a great deal of wasted effort because officers cannot get rid of trivial rubbish in the command-and-control system until it can be allocated a code that satisfies the Home Office. It is the statistical tail wagging the public safety dog.
9. Reform Home Office data quality rules to allow the police to disengage quickly from time wasters.
This is closely linked to point 8. The outcome of all this Home Office box ticking is that uncooperative time wasters (and there are a lot of them!) can now have the police running around after them for days or even weeks when previously those people would have been suitably ‘advised’ allowing the police to get on with supporting those who genuinely needed their help. 10. Put police officers back in every community where they belong.
Community policing was the gold standard. A team of officers in every neighbourhood who were a hugely flexible resource to tackle local problems and offenders and work with other local agencies to keep the public safe. Community policing was decimated by cuts to police funding, and it has never recovered.
So, there you go. My Top 10 proposals, agreed by almost everyone who reads them that they’re all complete common sense and would make a massive difference to police efficiency, public safety and the morale of officers. I know that some will accuse me of courting populism. However, I would reject that accusation. We have all seen recently how populist agendas seduce people with overly simplistic solutions to unbelievably complex problems. None of the items on my list are particularly complex. All of them could be resolved quite easily.
This then brings me back to the original question above. If it’s all such common sense to so many experienced police officers and members of the public and to me, why are police leaders not doing any of these things and, in parallel, demanding change from the Home Office to ridiculous and outdated policies that hamper their ability to keep the public safe?
I know what I think, but I’ll leave that question for others to consider.
Do I think any of these issues will be addressed any time soon? Sadly, I do not.