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  • Iain Donnelly

When will UK police officers be given a voice?

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

In recent blogs, and in my Tango Juliet Foxtrot podcast, I’ve touched on a few contentious issues and subjects. The feedback (privately and publicly) from many people still involved in policing, typically suggests a sense of relief that someone is speaking honestly, and saying what many people in policing have clearly been thinking for a very long time, but for one reason or another they haven’t felt confident in expressing their opinion.

I totally understand this reticence to speak out, because, like so many serving officers over the last ten or fifteen years, I felt like I was just a tiny, insignificant cog in a massive machine. Rather like in the film ‘Speed’, (sorry, showing my age now) most police officers felt like they were trapped inside an out of control bus, knowing that it was all going to end badly, but feeling powerless to do anything about it . Furthermore, there was abundant evidence that no-one was listening to police officers in government, in the Home Office or in the media. Those who tried to speak up for policing were ignored (Police Federation), or silenced (anonymous police bloggers). Far too many senior officers either completely failed to see that there was a serious and growing problem, staying relentlessly ‘on-message’, or they could see very well what was going on, but chose to stay silent in order to protect their promotion prospects. Thus, the service appeared to be voiceless when it needed a voice more than ever.

In the last week alone, the relentlessly negative media coverage of policing persists. Former Chief Superintendent Parm Sandhu alleged ongoing institutional racism in the Met in an article featuring prominently in the Telegraph. The Guardian led on the number of police officers facing sexual abuse and domestic abuse allegations and the ‘I’ newspaper led on the low number of complaints of racism against police officers that result in formal disciplinary action. Meanwhile, Channel 4 aired ‘The Truth about police Stop and Search’, interviewing many young men who claimed to have been subjected to discriminatory stops by the police. In common with all of these documentaries, there is absolutely nothing known about the participants, the truthfulness of their accounts or the context of their interactions with the police.

This toxic narrative has created a public safety crisis and threatens a collapse in public confidence in policing.

In the same week as these negative headlines, we saw two horrific incidents in London in broad daylight; one in Hyde Park where there was a mass brawl involving knives and machetes, and one in Greenwich, where four men armed with machetes fought in full view of the public. There was an incident in Brixton where a man in his 20s was stabbed and shot, and a 14 year old boy was stabbed to death in Birmingham.

The impact of all of this in policing is that today many operational officers feel abandoned. They end up shrugging their shoulders and thinking that the only people who really understand or care about the challenges that they face every day are their close colleagues, and maybe their partners, family and a few close friends that they confide in. Everyone else in British society seems to be forming their opinions about policing on the basis of biased media reporting, BBC Line of Duty, social media commentary and video footage uploaded to Youtube and TikTok by individuals with an agenda.

Is anyone actually trying to understand and support policing at the moment?

In one of my recent blogs, I addressed the issue of the constant filming of police officers by members of the public using camera phones. I talked about how this is now making many police officers (particularly those young in service) extremely reluctant to get involved in potentially confrontational situations, preferring to ‘turn a blind eye’ rather than enforce the law.

I was curious about how the Home Office saw the issue of camera phones fuelling a distorted social media commentary, so I sent them an email, and a couple of days ago I received a reply.

My email was based the points that I raised in this blog post

Here was the response;

Frankly I was grateful for any response, because I didn't really expect one, however it was the bit about the police Covenant that I thought I would focus on for now.

So, if you don’t know anything about it, here's my police Covenant 101;

  1. It was proposed after a Home Office Frontline Review in 2019 found i) that police officers nationally felt undervalued by the wider policing system, ii) there was a disconnect between the front line and senior/national decision makers, and iii) there was scepticism about wellbeing measures and a desire to see meaningful action

  2. It’s part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, (the Bill they want to Kill…) and it was debated in parliament on the 25th of May.

  3. It will;

  • Enshrine in law a duty to prepare an annual Police Covenant Report by government

  • Double the maximum penalty for common assault or battery committed against an emergency worker from 12 months to two years’ imprisonment

  • Allow the courts to judge the standard of police driving against a competent and careful police constable with the same level of training following a collision, rather than comparing them with a member of the public.

  • Ensure special constables have access to the same support and representation as regular constables through enabling them to join the Police Federation of England and Wales.

I have no doubt that there'll be a lot more detail regarding the contents of the ‘annual Covenant report’, however at first glance it seems pretty unambitious and vague. Ken Marsh, the chair of the Met police federation has already come out and warned that it won’t be worth the paper that it’s written on. He argued this on the basis that at a time when the government needed the police most over the last twelve months, they completely failed to prioritise frontline officers for the Covid vaccine, and to this day they still haven’t been given the vaccine unless they meet the normal age criteria. So he’s definitely got a point.

In an ideal world, what would a meaningful police Covenant need to address?

From my own experience, and the experience of pretty much every police officer that I know, the points above are not the things that make police officers feel abandoned by government and their own senior managers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a start, and we should be grateful for small mercies, however it won't address anything in the following list of issues that come back again and again as major causes of stress and reasons for resigning on police-related social media. (Trust me....I've done the research!)

  1. Bizarre promotion processes that frequently fail to promote the best people

  2. Exhausting bureaucracy, admin, IT and duplication of effort

  3. Too many weak, inexperienced and unsupportive managers who appear to be ‘only out for themselves’.

  4. Long journeys to custody blocks and long waits to book in even the simplest detainees.

  5. Custody watches, hospital watches and babysitting mentally ill people or people pretending to be sick.

  6. An inability to investigate quite simple digital crimes because they have no tools or training to do so.

  7. A hostile media who now get away with saying pretty much whatever they want.

  8. Annoying idiots with camera phones and Tiktok accounts

  9. Archaic Home Office crime recording and incident reporting rules that ensure officers spend their time chasing their tails and running around after time-wasters.

  10. An over-zealous IOPC who default to blame and misconduct hearings rather than encouraging ‘learning’.

I genuinely, genuinely hope that it makes a real difference, however my fear is that the police covenant will be little more than Home Office window-dressing, unless the NPCC and the College of Policing take a firm stance and insist on some meaningful ‘indicators of health and morale’ that both the Home Office and every force Command Team and PCC will be judged against.

In the meantime, if Priti Patel wants to make any sort of a difference to police officer morale and well-being she could do worse than starting to work her way down the list above.

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