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  • Iain Donnelly

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

Last week, the whole-life term handed down to Wayne Couzens was entirely appropriate, given his appalling and shocking crimes. I doubt that a single serving or ex-police officer in the UK wasn’t as horrified as the rest of the British public.

As well as feeling desperately sorry for Sarah Everard’s family over the last few months, I also feel terribly sorry for the men and women of the British police service who yet again have to read and listen to so much media vitriol being directed towards their entire profession. We know that there will now be a ‘Soham-style’ inquiry into police failings and broader discipline and conduct issues in the service. If previous enquiries of this sort are anything to go by, the outcome will not be good for the morale of the vast majority of honest and professional officers across the UK.

I do not for one-moment under-estimate police failings or defend anyone who misbehaves in the organisation. In my book ‘Tango Juliet Foxtrot’ I am very frank about many of these organisational failings;

  • Promotion systems that reward corporate buzzwords before integrity, experience or competence.

  • HR processes that make it almost impossible to get rid of lazy or incompetent officers.

  • Too many examples of officers exercising terrible judgement who do not understand the seriousness of their chosen occupation.

  • Increasingly lax standards of dress and comportment.

  • Over-familiarity between supervisors and those they supervise.

What do operational officers think?

My first and last motivation is and always will be to show my support to the overwhelming majority of officers at PC, Sergeant and Inspector ranks. They do a great job in a society that is becoming almost impossible to police. These three ranks make up 97.5% of the police workforce, yet no-one seems remotely interested in what they think or what they have to say; muzzled as they are by corporate communications teams or the fear of disciplinary sanctions if they speak out.

As ancient philosophers stated, ‘Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad’.

In the last financial year, 8500 officers were signed off with anxiety and depression, and nearly 10,000 were signed off the year before that. Currently 480,000 rest days are owed to police officers in England and Wales. Every one of these cancelled rest days means less time to spend with friends and family, and less time to reset and recharge. Furthermore, between 2011 and 2019, 169 police officers committed suicide. This is double the rate of the rest of the population. Clearly something has gone horribly wrong, and operational officers are bearing the brunt as never before.

In my book, I describe the perfect storm that British police officers have endured for a very long time now. For the sake of context, let me remind you of what I mean by that.

  • Twelve years of a Tory government who reduced funding by 30% in real terms, resulting in the loss of 20,000 officers, 23,000 police staff and the closure of about 50% of the police stations in England and Wales and 75% of the police stations in London.

  • Sweeping ‘reforms’ to pay, conditions and pensions that guarantee that policing is no longer seen as a long-term vocation.

  • A criminal justice system on the point of collapse, where the bureaucratic demands for even the simple cases are now so burdensome that many police officers just can’t be bothered with it all.

  • Demand for frontline policing has become impossible to service due to byzantine Home Office rules on recording crime and resolving incidents.

  • The withdrawal of funding for essential frontline services (drug treatment, mental health, alcohol treatment etc) means that policing is now expected to mop up demand that previously would have been picked up by others.

  • A blame culture where (because the police are now trying and failing to do everything) policing now carries the can when almost any bad thing happens.

  • Certain parts of the media who seem to delight in portraying all police officers as corrupt, racist, homophobic and now misogynistic.

  • A passive approach from many senior officers who either bury their heads in the sand, or default to blaming their own staff.

  • A Home Office who appear to have been ‘asleep at the wheel’ for the last ten years.

A service in crisis

My very great fear now is that the already large numbers of experienced officers resigning from the service will turn into a flood, particularly for those who have transferable solid or technical skills attractive to the private sector. In 2020, there were 5000 unfilled detective posts in England and Wales and no bloody wonder. By 2023 most local response officers will either be in training or only just out of training, and a third of all officers will have less than five years’ service.

So, here we are with the police service yet again being dragged through the mire as a result of an incident that bore as much resemblance to everyday policing in Britain as the work of Harold Shipman and Beverley Allitt did to the work of your local GP or nurses in your local hospital.

None of this is good for policing, and it’s even worse for the safety of the public. A policing crisis will eventually turn into a national security crisis as the deep knowledge, skills and experience required to investigate the most complex offences like murder, serious and organised crime and terrorism just won’t be there any more. But what’s the answer to it all?

Frankly, I have no idea. In my latest TJF podcast episode, I said that despite everything that’s going on at the moment, my advice to operational officers was to just ‘Keep calm and carry on’, knowing that the (silent) majority of decent people are on their side. However, this level of hostile scrutiny is not sustainable. Very soon, TJF will no longer simply be something that cops say tongue in cheek.

It’s time for everyone to start listening to the collective wisdom of the many tens of thousands of experienced PCs, Sergeants and Inspectors. The top team had their chances to speak truth to power, and they blew it.

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