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Crowns and Bath Stars
Policing's toxic race to the top
Three of these ranks are doing 90% of the work
I’ve always been wary of ambitious coppers. I’m not talking about people who bother to learn their trade before making rank. Sadly, the best of them usually hit a less-discussed glass ceiling; the invisible barrier excluding officers who pose a threat to the managerial cultists who run the police. If I were into conspiracies as opposed to cock-ups, I might even be forgiven for suspecting the existence of a law enforcement Deep State, run by the College of Policing and the Home Office. And the more they try to reform police leadership, the more clonelike the bosses become. Depending on your political perspective, you might even see this orthodoxy as indicative of a ‘Blob’.
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So this piece isn’t a dig at the hardworking superintendent who got there the hard way (enjoy your retirement, guv’nor). It is about the toxicity that manifests itself in too many of those with their eyes on the prize – National Police Chief Council ranks. I’ve met specimens who’d throw you under a bus for a Crown or a Bath Star. And for both? They’d sacrifice you to the gods of PNAC, a bit like the end of ‘The Wicker Man.’
The past few years have been especially torrid for the Brass, with a barrage of cases involving bullying, incompetence and misconduct by senior officers. Nor does there appear to be a gifted new cohort coming through. Why else would the Metropolitan Police, for example, have two consecutive Commissioners who were recalled from retirement?
Something, as the Bard wrote, is rotten in the State of Denmark.
You might first encounter high-fliers as one of your contemporaries. A bright-eyed Hendon overachiever, already studying for their sergeants exam. The sort with a second from Oxford who thinks they’re doing policing a favour. Or, even worse, you might get one as your sergeant or inspector. Their ascent to greatness is like a science project… and guess who’s the bacteria in their petri dish? Others catch the ambition virus later in service and know all the tricks – the classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper (often found in CID). This sub-species is especially dangerous, especially as they usually arrive with a coterie of poisonous henchmen and henchwomen to do their bidding.
The typical flier, however, is most noticeable at superintendent level. Superintendent is the first proper strategic rank, the one where they can really cause mayhem. Their patrons in the Scotland Yard stratosphere (who enjoy sending them on dark quests, a bit like Tywin Lannister in ‘Game of Thrones’) drop them on unsuspecting units to implement reorganisation programs. Bigger petri dish, more bacteria. Overnight, unit priorities will spookily map to whatever developmental matrices they need to evidence for their next rank. You’ll see it in their eyes when they summon you to a meeting, the feral hunger for promotion. There’s something cultish about them, manifested in the weird business-argot they speak (‘we have a suite of options to deploy across the piece’). It’s the 21st Century version of a masonic handshake. Are you one of us?
Some also suffer the misapprehension that promotion magically increases their intelligence – this is often the late-to-the-game CID type. They don’t think the troops are smart enough to see what they’re up to. We do, and we loathe you for it. Not that you care. Shamelessness and ambition are often natural bedfellows.
Look, operational policing isn’t like running a widget factory or a supermarket (Tom Winsor please note). Screw-ups can have horrible consequences. Opportunities to go under a bus for the Job are legion. Someone having your back is crucial, but this is the police; high-fliers usually survive bus-related incidents. Constables, sergeants and inspectors make fuck-ups. Senior ranks have ‘teachable moments.’
You might think I’m being chippy because I retired as a humble Dc. I’m not, and besides my war stories are way better than those of a high-potential Chief Superintendent. I have few regrets; I didn’t join the police to haunt performance meetings or to cosplay. I can comment though – I’ve met my fair share of seniors during my career as my job involved briefing-up. Only a few were particularly impressive.
No, I’m not management material. Not unless you count a stint as a temporary sergeant. I attended Hendon’s leadership course, the highlight of which was a lesson about inappropriate nicknames (we were allowed to write them on a dry board then discuss why they were inappropriate). It was hilarious. I might do a piece on police nicknames for your delectation. Enjoy it somewhere HR won’t find you, like Czech radicals in the 60s reading Samizdat in a cellar.
However, I do know a shedload about being managed, a perspective that’s woefully neglected in the police. And as my old DI used to say (when he was telling someone they were being a dick) feedback is a gift.
Some context for non-Police readers. Nobody has ever been happy with the way the police is run, because policing is about dealing with humans and all the completely batshit crazy stuff they get up to. It’s herding cats. It’s nailing jelly to a wall. We have, and always will, have utterly unrealistic expectations of the police. And we’re at the point where I think larger forces such as the Met are imploding under the socio-political pressures of the 21st Century. I think it might even be unmanageable. The idea a cohort of former public sector managers parachuted in at superintendent level can rescue it is risible.
Nor does it help the current crop of police leaders decided that, instead of doing less better, we should offer to do more and do it badly. It’s why patrol officers spend much of their time being ersatz social workers. But, hey, a direct entry superintendent is seldom going to sit with a would-be suicide for 12 hours because its after 4pm and social services have gone home. So they don’t care.
This is important, as part of this debate has always turned on the obtuse demand by the police service that its leaders know something about, er, policing. For all their carping about operational independence, what the Home Office and Government really want is a servile chief officer cohort. Or, if only they could parachute in a retired general / business magnate / former head of the NYPD to run the show, everything would magically improve.
For the sake of fuck, can you imagine making a police superintendent the CO of an infantry battalion?
No, neither can I.
So why does it work the other way around? And it’s not as if the military doesn’t have problems too (and I speak as a genuine fan of the British army). Basra, anyone?
And the police have been experimenting with fast-track schemes for many years. In the 30s the ‘Trenchard System’, named after the Met Commissioner (Lord Trenchard, ex-head of the RAF), allowed for direct entry inspectors. Part of the reason the experiment failed was the Second World War, when promising ‘Trenchard Men’ joined the armed services and did so well they stayed. Incidentally, this is why so many fictional detectives of the 1940s and 50s were well-spoken upper-middle-class gentlemen, invariably accompanied by their trusty cockney ‘Bagman’, the DS carrying the forensic bag for the boss.
Personally, if you’re going to have direct entry, I reckon Inspector’s the best rank to do it. Done properly, I think most coppers could live with it, although the type of people I’d recruit would probably be the polar opposite from the College of Policing’s preferred candidates. I’d be after gnarly ex-sergeant majors and sharp-as-a-tack captains with operational tours under their belts. The CoP would hanker for ex-Diversity and Inclusion managers from funky Hoxton tech start-ups. Or someone who can choreograph a killer Macarena. And please don’t hit me with the ‘why not have both?’ argument. We all know the direction of travel.
By the 70s, the Home Office began to implement a variety of accelerated promotion schemes designed to fast-track promising candidates. Initially for graduates, they were later opened to common-or-garden police officers who showed signs of
sociopathy potential. Many of the current crop of chief officers came through on these schemes, most of which required service in operational ranks for 5-6 years (i.e. constable, sergeant and inspector) before jumping on the magic carpet to higher things.
If you think about it, that’s slightly less than an army officer spends on regimental duty before attending staff college. On the other hand, most army officers don’t spend two years at the lowest rank. So I’d say it sort of evens out – any armed services people out there with a view are welcome to chime in. Of course, the army is apples and the police are oranges. Not that it occurs to the crustier sections of the press, or certain Tories (see below).
Yet still nobody was pleased, the fliers finding themselves caught between a rock and the Home Office. Rank and file officers saw accelerated promotion fliers as out of touch. The Home Office saw them as tainted by exposure to police culture and too resistant to change (change being, as always, shorthand for cost-cutting). And presumably, somewhere, it was decided the most promising candidates simply didn’t want to be police officers. Well, not the icky, silly-hat wearing, dealing with dead people sort of police officers. No, they wanted to be in charge, because.
You might say high-potential people need to get stuck in at the top. I might say entitled upstarts don’t want to get their hands dirty.
I’ll say it again – maybe the problem is we don’t know what we want the police to do anymore. What do we want our police to be? You can’t choose effective leaders for an organisation that’s lost its way. We’re setting them up to fail. Politicians don’t help. Quel surprise.
The county Tory wing of the Conservatives want a cheap, biddable version of Dixon of Dock Green. Class undoubtedly comes into this – British police have traditionally been drawn from the working and lower middle classes. It’s why so many Conservatives think
plebs the police can be ‘solved’ by imposing Sandhurst-style officer entry. They’re instinctively comfortable with the army and don’t care it’s a different beast from the police. And how many Tories have served in the armed forces as opposed to any sort of law enforcement?
Another sort of more ideological Conservative primarily views policing through the perspective of outputs and semi-privatisation. They’ve been doing this since the 1990s and finally delivered the coup de grace with the Winsor Report. The upshot was the Ken Clarke / David Cameron / Theresa May axis of evil that’s largely to blame for the mess we’re in now. They created a class of technocrats intended to primarily drive structural and cultural change. These were direct entry inspectors and superintendents (introduced in 2014, and nearly a decade on, how’s that working out?).
The Labour Party’s also split. The radical, Corbynite half still harbours a near forty-year grudge over the Miners’ Strike and would happily defund an organisation it sees as hopelessly racist and sexist. They’d prefer a sort of social worker-style peace corps, which is great as they’d struggle to force people into the gulags.
The technocratic, New Labour-ish, half (the ones who were actually in power) thought managerialism and hard-wiring progressive politics into the machine would do the trick. Along, of course, with a load of PFI police stations. The result? The direct entry inspectors and superintendents as a cohort more concerned with having on-point social views than any on actual policing. Oh, and a shitload of debt. Cheers, Tony.
What a bloody mess. I hope you haven’t read this expecting an answer. I was only a Dc, remember? I’m not going to pontificate on leadership theory. People far more learned than I have squandered millions of words on the subject and we’re still in the shit.
Nor do I don’t think we’ll ever solve the problem, not until we decide what we want from a 21st Century police service. If that’s even possible in our socially fragmented country. Until then, we’re simply guessing what sort of people should lead the strange push-me pull-you the Job has become.
For what it’s worth, as a former practitioner, this is what I expect from a senior boss, and I don’t really care how they got there (HR please take note for the competency-related application form).
· Someone with dirt under their fingernails. Some one who faced down the Angry Man for real. Has some experience of the stuff they expect others to do. That’s important in policing. Actually, it’s non-negotiable. If you haven’t, you shouldn’t be carrying a warrant card.
· Someone who actually knows how policing works. All of it. From a fractious public order situation to a complex criminal investigation. How you learn is your business. Hey, you’re the one who wants the Knighthood and a gargantuan pension, right?
· Someone who knows how to say No to governments who expect the police to make up for their fuckwitted policy shortcomings.
· Someone who knows the limitations of policing by consent and when to support their people when things get kinetic. Someone who isn’t afraid to face down those with an agenda, including those inside the service.
· Someone who isn’t a bully. At the moment, it seems to be a prerequisite.
· Someone who understands Welfare and actually gives a shit about their people. And not only gives a shit, but does something about it.
· Someone who can take a joke. If you can’t, you shouldn’t have joined.
Policing is a people business. People as in Humans (look it up, boss). Flesh and Blood. If you don’t look after your people, they won’t police properly.
It sounds so bloody obvious, doesn’t it?
That’s not to say you shouldn’t get medieval with the lazy and incompetent – most coppers have little time for the ones dragging the rest down. Just remember, good officers can disagree with you and still be right. Don’t use the misconduct system to silence them in the name of ‘Corporate Reputation’.
So here’s an easy one for any fliers, although I doubt it’ll earn you much kudos up in the stratosphere. Baby steps, right? Take a look at the place where your people work. Where do they eat (if, indeed, such a place exists)? What are the changing rooms like? Can they park their cars? What are the arrangements if they’re nearing burnout? Are they sleeping on the office floor because they can’t get home on public transport after working the shift patterns your performance analysts conjured?
The chances are all of those things are substandard. And its because people like you stood by when they closed all the bloody police stations and privatized OH and HR.
So tell me, guv’nor, what are you doing about it now?
Action this day.
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