- Iain Donnelly
Should we have done more? Could I have done more?
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
When I was finally offered a publishing deal for my book Tango Juliet Foxtrot, the initial euphoria was quickly replaced by a sinking sense of dread. I realised that this was now something that would be launched into the world, and once that happened, there would be nowhere to hide.
My uncompromising assessment of what went wrong with British policing and why that happened would be subjected to the scrutiny of many people and institutions that I blamed for screwing up public safety in the UK. I would potentially become a target for politicians and senior police leaders, who would try and rubbish what I was saying. I could also become a target for journalists, many of whom have a profoundly jaundiced view of policing. I would also become a target for activists who have hatred for police officers hardwired into their DNA.
However, as I sit here two months after publication, none of that has happened. At least not yet anyway. The response to the book and my podcast with the same name has been incredibly positive, particularly from the vast majority of serving and recently retired officers who seem unbelievably grateful that finally, someone has said publicly what everyone has been saying privately for years. I have been inundated with messages of support on Linkedin, Facebook, and personally via texts and email from those who know me or who have worked with me. It's genuinely been a life-affirming experience, and I feel deeply grateful for every single one of those messages of support.
The reality, however, is that there has been something of an angry reaction from a relatively small number of individuals who have accused me of being spineless in not challenging what was going on whilst I was still a serving senior officer. Here is a recent review for the Tango Juliet Foxtrot podcast.
My Daily Express article had an outraged response from serving officers on one particular police Facebook site. I was called some pretty unflattering names, and one person suggested that I was a coward and no better than Theresa May who had caused all this damage and Chief Constables who had acquiesced to it. They were all very bitter about what has been done to policing and saw my book, podcast, and press articles as too little, too late.
These comments stung, but I understood them. I could see that these were people who this government had entirely shafted in terms of their pay, pensions, and working conditions. They would now be working for a lot longer in a thankless job that no one seems to care about, dealing with unsustainable and growing demand, feeling paranoid (and rightly so) about where the next vexatious complaint would come from. They see senior officers as the enemy. In the eyes of many PCs and sergeants, senior officers feather their nests while the poor bloody infantry is hung out to dry. Senior officers are not their friends.
So I get it.
But it made me think and reflect on whether I was guilty of sins of omission? Could I have done more to challenge all this while I was still serving? Could I personally have stopped any of this from happening?
Frankly, I don't think I could have challenged this in any meaningful way that would have fundamentally changed anything going on across the UK. This is why I think that.
I have talked in my book about a toxic triad of forces that conspired to create the mess that UK policing now finds itself in, so I will deal with each of these actors in turn.
Firstly, and in terms of carrying the lion's share of the blame, are our politicians over at least twenty years. Labour firstly in saddling the service with hundreds of pointless performance indicators that drove all sorts of perverse behaviour, and then in 2010, the Conservatives under David Cameron and Theresa May came in with a wrecking ball, and trashed British policing in a way that will make it very difficult to recover.
Theresa May ignored or poured scorn on the Police Federation over many years. She also ignored the stark warnings from the Superintendents Association.
In 2018 Chief Superintendent Gavin Thomas, President of the Police Superintendents' Association,warned the Home Secretary that;
"Policing will be in a perpetual state of crisis if the government does not lay out a long-term vision for the stretched service……I would now suggest that this great service is on the verge of crisis in many areas."
We are now seeing these crises playing out on a depressingly regular basis. We will likely see many, many more in the future with 5000 unfilled detective posts nationally, Regional Organised Crime Units unable to recruit officers and now looking to the military for staff to plug gaps and a haemorrhaging of experienced staff leaving policing to find less stressful and better paid work.
So….could I personally have done any more than the Federation and the Superintendents Association were doing to challenge politicians? No, is the simple answer to that question.
The second element of the toxic triad arises from the perpetually negative coverage of policing by many journalists who ignore the hundreds of thousands of positive interactions every day, incredible acts of selflessness and bravery and the fact that their police officers are suffering under a tsunami of anxiety, depression and mental illness. They focus only on the cases where policing has got it wrong in some way, and if they haven't got it wrong, they exaggerate or lie to turn insignificant incidents into significant issues.
Could I, or anyone at my level in policing, have done anything to change that narrative? No, I can't see how I could have done that.
Challenging Chief Constables
I have been clear in everything that I have written that some of the blame for what happened must sit with Chief Constables who failed to stand up as a collective to challenge Theresa May and the craziness coming out of the Home Office for so many years. Maybe they were doing this behind the scenes, but there was no evidence of that.
This all started in 2010 when I was an Inspector. Could I personally have done anything to change the behaviour of Chief Constables and NPCC? No, I couldn't. Even the idea of trying to do that is laughable. I would have been given two choices if I had written this book or done the podcast as a serving officer. Resign or get sacked.
My friend, ex-colleague and author Dominic Adler offered his thoughts on my hostile feedback, saying;
"As a career constable this is the sort of conversation you'd hear in the trenches. Every. Single. Day. I had Supts who were brilliant, they knew the system was fucked but saw it was their mission to protect their staff. OTOH, they were heavily outnumbered by what the police blogger 'NightJack' used to call 'Vichy Cops' the ones who didn't care as long as the next rank was in sight. 75% of Superintendents I met were Vichy Cops. And that's too many."
So, what sort of Supt was I? I certainly wasn't a 'Vichy Cop'. I was a PC/DC until I had nearly 14 years service. It took me three attempts to get promoted to Chief Inspector and I managed to get 'Temporary' Supt for the last three years of my service. Was I the very best senior manager in the history of the police service? No, definitely not. What I did have, however was many, many years of operational and investigative experience at many ranks, a deep love for policing, and (I think) an excellent working relationship with most of my staff, who I listened to and respected as people and as professionals.
So here we are in 2022 with the police service in precisely the crisis that the Federation and Gavin Thomas predicted, lurching from one calamity to the next, and all entirely predictable; an inevitable consequence of one government’s contempt for policing and an abdication of their responsibility to keep the public safe.
Divide and conquer
The big takeaway for me in all this then is that perhaps the greatest calamity bequeathed to policing by David Cameron and Theresa May is that not only did they trash the British police service, they also succeeded in turning the service against itself. New pension scheme against old pension scheme. Uniform officers against detectives. Federated ranks against senior ranks. Chief Constables against PCCs.
If you agree with that assessment, then perhaps what we need to see in 2022 is the entire police family pulling together to confront a common foe, this government, who have done so much damage to policing and public safety. Current officers at every rank. Retired officers at every rank. Police staff. Friends and family of police officers. Everyone needs to speak with one voice to warn that enough is enough. The rules of the game need to change now, and change quickly.