Why do so many senior police managers speak in jargon-laden riddles?
Updated: May 23, 2021
In the last twenty-four hours, there has been a social media post doing the rounds on Twitter and LinkedIn, making fun of a completely impenetrable, jargon-laden comment from the senior police officer responsible for Operation Uplift; the ongoing police recruitment campaign to replace the 20,000 officers lost during the tenure of Theresa May.
I won't display the post, or name the author, as I'm sure that person has had quite enough 'stick' and may hopefully now reflect on their communication style. Also, to be fair, the comment may have been posted by someone without that officer's knowledge, in which case I sincerely sympathise because they have therefore been unfairly ridiculed, and their credibility damaged.
The point of this blog is not to vilify any individual senior manager in the police. Instead, it's to ask the question, 'Why do so many senior police managers feel that they need to talk in riddles?'. It's also to consider the impact of all this on the police workforce and on the credibility of the organisation in the eyes of the public.
When did all this start?
It's hard to put your finger on exactly when all this started. If I were to guess, I would probably say the late 90s into the early 2000s. After that, policing gradually became more corporate, with the Blair government micro-managing every aspect of the organisation by weaponizing hundreds of (mostly pointless) performance indicators. This bred a particular type of police manager who never questioned the value of these performance metrics and saw that they could more or less guarantee their next promotion by playing that particular game.
A good friend of mine tells a funny but sad story of how the final straw for him was when as a DS in 2007, he needed a decision on a serious operational matter. His only option was an ambitious but clueless Chief Inspector who advised him that "We need to get buy-in on the forward-looking piece". He gave that Chief Inspector some fairly robust, fruity and personal feedback and resigned shortly after to start a new career outside the police. He saw the writing on the wall and decided that he’d had enough.
This period spawned a culture of overly-compliant senior managers who were unable or unwilling to challenge upwards. Anyone who did challenge up was side-lined, denied promotion or bullied into silence. I believe that UK policing gradually created a weird echo-chamber, with senior managers seemingly willing to say or do anything to get promoted or supported on the next MBA programme. The cultural gap between the managers and practitioners began to grow and the gap shows no sign of contracting .
Those with long memories will recall that this was the period when thoroughly exasperated police officers started lifting the lid on all this nonsense in books like 'Perverting the Course of Justice' by Inspector Gadget and ‘Wasting Police Time‘ by David Copperfield. In the West Midlands we had our own underground satirist who wrote a hilarious and scathing account of modern policing in 'The Spamford Files'. I can remember watching a few senior officers smiling through gritted teeth as they recognised the absurdity of it all.
As the focus shifted away from performance, the obsession with hitting targets morphed into an obsession with the diversity agenda, which became the new and best way to get promoted. Cynical senior officers reinvented themselves, and now vied to outdo one another with cringe-worthy virtue signalling on social media. Both the police workforce and the public would rather hear about catching and convicting violent offenders, or why their internet scam had been screened out without even the pretence of any effort to investigate it.
Meanwhile, as many senior officers carried on working their way onwards and upwards, PCs, Sergeants and Inspectors, (who in 2020 made up 97.5% of the police officer establishment in England and Wales) were moved around a chessboard that increasingly bore less and less resemblance to the real world, like the 'poor bloody Infantry' in the First World War.
It's really important to point out that there are thousands of senior officers all over the UK who are brilliant leaders who care passionately about the organisation and protecting the public. They succeeded through hard work, professionalism and avoiding Twitter at all costs.
However, this deeply ingrained reluctance to challenge upwards arguably helped to lay the foundations for the deep and destructive cuts to policing under Theresa May, who ignored all of the (completely accurate) warnings from the Police Federation. The service was left voiceless and impotent, at a time when a more courageous response would have been for every Chief Officer in the country to have spoken as one and say 'Stop… .you're making a terrible mistake here and you risk undoing all the best work that the police service have achieved in communities over many years .' But of course that didn't happen, and Theresa and her advisors were allowed to take a long run up before kicking the service where it hurts, and it will probably take a generation to fix things.
I would also argue that the relentless mission-creep in policing over the last ten or fifteen years is also a symptom of poor and fragmented leadership. Frontline officers have incrementally been tasked with doing too many things that have almost nothing at all to do with preventing and detecting crime or public safety. The consequence of this is that police officers lack a common understanding of exactly what their job now is, and the public have no common understanding of what the police are there to do. If you don’t believe me, Google “(Insert name of Force) vision statement”. They’re all different, and will no doubt change again with a fresh batch of PCCs that very few people actually voted for or care about. This makes the organisation an easy target for hostile politicians and journalists because they appear to be doing too many things rather badly and getting the blame for almost anything that goes wrong.
The police service in England and Wales urgently needs to take a long hard look at how they promote people into the most senior roles. Everything needs to be put in language that is dead simple and crystal clear, and speaking in riddles should automatically guarantee failure in promotion processes.
They also need an urgent review of the 43-force model of policing. In 2020 there were 231 Chief Officers in England and Wales and 18 of the 43 forces have less than 1500 officers in total. So it really can’t be right that a force with a similar number of staff as a busy borough in London has a full command team of Chief Constable, Deputy Chief Constable and at least two ACCs. Sorry, but it just doesn’t make any sense at all.
Does it matter if senior police managers talk in riddles?
In my experience I think this is one of the most talked about and derided issues among operational officers, and particularly among middle-managers (Sergeant and Inspector), who have the unenviable task of trying to translate all this into something that means anything to anyone at 2am on a busy night-shift. At its core, the police service is a profession that values common-sense and good communication skills above all else, so it’s especially jarring to listen to meaningless corporate buzz-phrases.
In the minds of officers it creates a sense that no-one really understands what they actually do, and this breeds cynicism and resentment. You can (sort of) forgive politicians and the media for failing to understand what police officers do, but over time there is a definite sense that many of their own senior managers have little understanding either. Flitting as they do from one low-risk job to another, working on their CVs and networking with one eye on the next rank until they manage to get themselves onto the Strategic Command Course.
There are certain strategic roles in policing where there is considerable organisational complexity, and on that basis, the language of the MBA may be appropriate. However it should never be used to patronise, grandstand or mask what is probably a lack of understanding on the part of the speaker. As they say, "If you can't explain it simply, then you don't understand it well enough".
Dr Sarah Charman from Portsmouth University, recently looked at the reasons why the number of police officers voluntarily resigning has risen steeply in the last few years, with a whopping 8500 resigning in the last three years alone.
The most often-mentioned theme was that of perceived poor leadership and management, with officers stating that they
"…were ultimately frustrated by the perceived inability of the organisation to manage the demands upon them and by a sense of organisational injustice emanating from perceptions of a lack of 'voice', a lack of leadership, a lack of autonomy and a lack of support."
The police service therefore needs to figure out how to stop haemorrhaging fully trained, experienced officers before worrying about recruiting 20,000 newbies.
It's time for some plain speaking
I've been quite blunt in some of my blogs and in my podcast about all this stuff. I make no apology for that, because it's motivated out of a deep concern for contemporary policing and an ongoing wish to keep the public safe. Two years away from policing gives you time for reflection. Exposure to lots of different companies and organisational cultures in the business world made me realise how oddly dysfunctional police management had become. I found it refreshing to see how a much flatter hierarchy creates healthier debate, where individuals are listened to and valued for their contributions, rather than dismissed on the basis of their rank, or whether they are a member of some opaque ‘in-club’.
There have been one or two welcome contributions from senior officers recently who have shown leadership and bucked the trend for saying 'Yes' to every new policing gimmick. Nick Adderley, the Chief of Northamptonshire has recently sent out a warning that the pressure to recruit large numbers of new officers at all costs, combined with a degree-focussed PEQF programme is potentially going to backfire badly. He describes a situation where many new recruits are horribly unprepared for the realities of frontline policing, and who didn't realise that they would be working anti-social hours and weekends. He also describes situations where recruits throw the towel in when they discover (shock horror) that the job may involve dealing with violence and confrontation.
Frontline officers need and deserve to feel that their leaders fully understand what they do. They want to be led by people who have hard-won credibility in tough, risky jobs that required many years of operational experience. They don't want to be led by career butterflies who have studiously avoided those difficult jobs. They don't want to listen to corporate jargon, and nor do members of the public.
In the unlikely event that I need the police, I only want three things. I want them to take my issue seriously. I want them to behave professionally, and I want them to help me and my family as much as possible. That’s it. It doesn’t need to be made so complicated.
Putting my money where my mouth is
The very last thing that I want personally out of all of this is to be seen as some 'wise after the event, disgruntled, middle-aged ex-cop'. I'm actively working with a range of technology companies to improve things for policing and thus the public. I'm helping to drive innovation and improve the police response to technology-enabled crime.
I'm also working with two prominent behavioural psychologists (with about 50 years experience working with police officers between them) to create a learning experience for inexperiennced officers that will do three key things;
Communicate in a way that builds rapport and trust to improve policing outcomes (more co-operation, less aggression, fewer complaints, better intelligence, better recall of events by witnesses)
Gain a better understanding of human behaviour to proactively identify offenders (reduce crime, improve criminal justice outcomes and detections, increase public confidence, faster elimination of the innocent)
Improve and enhance decision-making (clearer and more defensible and ethical rationale for taking action, stop and search confidence, improve court performance, increased public confidence)
At the moment, everything in police learning and training seems to start and end with the PEQF syllabus, but if you’d like to hear more about what I’m working on, you can get in touch by dropping me a message via firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be very happy to explain more.