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Why police officers don't trust anybody, least of all the Police
Hello, I hope you’re having a good week. My last article, ‘The Everything Police’, might have struck a nerve; nearly 3000 people read it directly on Substack. It also received 1700 ‘likes’ when copied onto the UK Cop Humour Facebook page (I’m not on Facebook, so I can’t thank them on the platform). In fact, my main critic on social media was a young chief inspector with ten years’ service who was disappointed by my negativity. No, their name wasn’t Hannah.
Anyhow, thanks for reading and subscribing. And if you like what I’m doing, please share.
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This week follows on from my piece on police misconduct. Policing’s been under the Media’s electron microscope more than usual since the game-changing Sarah Everard case. Sarah’s case will, quite rightly, reverberate down the generations for British policing. I genuinely hope the game changes in the right direction.
One recurring question concerns the sort of people joining the police in the first place. Another is about the Omerta inside the Job, the ‘Blue Wall’ of silence preventing officers from reporting colleagues for wrongdoing. Given journalism has long been an industry notorious for bullying and sexism, with large media organisations infamous for harbouring sexual predators of every persuasion, I’d have thought journos would be familiar with the concept of employee reticence when faced with wrongdoing.
Anyhow, now I’ve had a dig at the Fourth Estate, let’s look at some of their questions – journalists are only doing their jobs after all, and you always get bad apples (see what I did there?).
1. How prevalent is the police ‘code of silence’ and how does it work?
2. How do such unsuitable people get into the police in the first place?
3. How do the police deal with allegations? How do they manage officers who report wrongdoing?
I’ve mentioned it before, but for new readers I’ll reiterate my bona fides; for five years I served on the MPS Directorate of Professional Standards (DPS) with no time off for good behaviour. I worked in anticorruption intelligence, as a DSU handler and in covert operations. DPS is controversial, inconsistent and unloved – just like many members of the public view the wider police.
A quick disclaimer; This isn’t a scholarly essay because I’m not a scholar. It’s just one person’s observations and experience, but hey at least I was there. Unlike too many of the talking heads on the Sky News sofa, a place I’ve no intention of visiting anytime soon.
Police Culture and the ‘Blue Wall of Silence’
This subject has been covered ad nauseum by more than a few coppers-turned-academics, but hopefully my take is slightly more accessible.
Issues of trust, for police officers, gestate in the murky swamp of operational policing. Policing, especially street policing, is ugly and confrontational. There’s much scrutiny, no sympathy and officers soon realise everyone’s out to get them; Criminals. Their lawyers. The Media. Grandstanding politicians. Pressure groups. Their bosses (especially their bosses). Kids with smartphones, looking to wind up a copper for their TikTok feed. Even body-worn camera evidence won’t save you from a murder investigation.
As I wrote on the subject of police violence, coppers seldom get the benefit of the doubt and marginalised communities see bashing police (sometimes literally) as a way of expressing their frustration. In their shoes, I might too – as former Met Commissioner Sir Robert Mark famously pointed out in the 1970s; The police are the anvil on which society beats out the problems and abrasions of social inequality, racial prejudice, weak laws and ineffective legislation. And, as our policing by consent model breaks down in deprived areas (go on, Sir Mark, deny it), it feels like there’s a 1980s pre-Scarman report vibe in the air, too.
Nor does anyone fight the average copper’s corner in the Media – not even Federation Reps, who too often come across as wooden and shifty. The Police Federation (note to journos - no, it’s not a bloody union, cops can’t go on strike) could’ve spent their member’s money developing an effective media-rebuttal operation to defend officers. Instead they built a hotel. I’m not a Fed-basher, either (they’ve had my back on a number of occasions and were excellent), but when it comes to PR? Terrible.
And so a cop learns the only people they can really trust are their teammates. Not all of them, mind – that new guy who transferred from ‘A’ Division is scared of confrontation. And the sergeant? Far too ambitious. Trust is hard-won. It’s also easily lost. Roll with the punches. Yeah, that copper’s a sexist bell-end, but he’s got your back.
I remember when frontline policing teams were as tight as submarine crews. The Cruel Sea, for them, was anyone outside the team. A bond of trust developed, the sort I imagine you’d find among prisoners of war or members of a remote hill tribe. When someone pulls a knife, who’s answering the Urgent Assistance call – your team or the Guardian journo you emailed about bullying? Sticks and stones, son. Sticks and stones.
So here’s another truth bomb; for a well-led team, this trust and camaraderie can be a good thing. In fact, it might be the only thing keeping the show on the road. But for a bad, poorly-led team? Or teams overwhelmingly composed of young, inexperienced officers? All of who suffered a real-terms pay cut of 14% over the past decade? Drop a toxic, manipulative alpha officer into the mix and you’ve got the ideal environment for corruption to flourish, ‘noble cause’ or otherwise.
A quick question: who’s to blame? As a criminologist might say about offenders – the individual thrown into that environment, or the society which allowed it to develop in the first place? What about the ‘leaders’ who expect police officers to do the impossible with limited resources in the first place? Let’s call out some of the institutionalised bullshitting of the sort Russians call ‘Vranyo,’ – in this case the conceits that (1) our leadership model isn’t broken and (2) the police as currently constituted are match-fit for the challenges of the 21st Century and (3) the constitutional and political arrangements for managing forces work properly (yes, I’m looking at the Home Office and PCCs).
There you go – my take on some of the structural issues behind police culture. Not an easy problem to solve, especially for an organisation with a big stick but no carrots.
As if that wasn’t depressing enough, here’s another question; what about officers who shouldn’t even be in uniform in the first place? Surely a culture of secrecy and fear is less likely to develop in an organisation with decent recruitment mechanisms. Which brings me to…
Once upon a time, prospective police officers would be visited in their homes by an inspector to see if they were fit and proper people to hold the Office of Constable. I’m sure a modern social scientist or HR officer (although I’m sure nowadays the roles are interchangeable) would see this is an outrageous petit-bourgeois exercise in prejudice and self-perpetuation (etc). Nonetheless, a nosy old copper would still have looked at an applicant’s circumstances and spotted any obvious red flags. You know, stuff like like swastika flags, a verdant crop of cannabis plants or an unhealthy interest in edged weapons.
Now we have to find 20,000 officers for the government’s ‘uplift’, to replace the 20,000 experienced officers who left due to austerity measures, AND expect them to be properly vetted in time for the next election (it’s always about the next election, right?). If you think that’s gonna happen, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
I worked on DPS when the Met were desperate to employ several thousand Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs). The Met’s Vetting unit was swamped and under pressure to process them quickly. A high-profile policy, the Mayor, Home Office and Met all wanted to see ‘Blunkett’s Bobbies’ out on the street ASAP.
Unsurprisingly, we ended up hiring people who you wouldn’t want in a position of trust. There were several with ambiguous immigration status. There was a rapist. There were people with family members involved in serious crime.
The problem was compounded by the conflicting empires responsible for different strands of vetting. The main vetting unit, then called SCD26, was responsible for new entrants and ‘Management Vetting’ for officers in sensitive posts. There was another department responsible for counterterrorism vetting and government security vetting. Then there was DPS, who provided a view on intelligence concerning candidates, not dissimilar to a police version of the Disclosure and Disbarring Service (DBS). It was, frankly, a mess.
Mainstream vetting decision-making was obtuse to say the least and erred on the side of putting arses on seats. For example, I remember a report concerning a PCSO applicant. Most of their family were recidivist criminals involved in drug-dealing and crimes of violence. This wasn’t merely ‘intelligence’ – more or less everyone at the would-be PCSOs home address had a lengthy criminal record.
We hired them anyway.
The vetting officer’s ‘mitigation strategy’ to address concerns about the PCSOs family? To post them to a neighbouring borough to where they lived. This, apparently, meant the PCSOs family would be unable to put any undue pressure on the officer. As if an arbitrary local authority boundary magically protected the candidate, the public and the organisation?
It was laughable. I remember colleagues were agog at the sheer stupidity of the decision. Vetting was run by police support staff who were especially jealous of their independence and notoriously touchy about being called out by police officers.
I’m not suggesting people with family members who’ve been in trouble with the law should be barred from joining the police. I’ve at least two relatives who’ve had their collars felt over the years (this never stopped me holding DV status, either, as I was upfront about it when asked). Still, there has to be a line, and I think that case definitely crossed it.
And here’s the really scary thing; back then (this would have been 2007/2008) the Met was awash with resources compared to now. Since 2010, austerity forced the MPS to hollow out its back-office functions. I don’t think its unfair to be highly sceptical of its current vetting capabilities, especially with pressure to fill recruitment slots.
As a DS who worked on DPS vetting once told me, “every bad vetting decision is a problem for some other poor bastard to manage later.” A problem that might put members of the public in danger, compromise performance and cost tens of thousands of pounds to investigate and prosecute. I occasionally see a copper in the news for all the wrong reasons, someone DPS knew about years ago. Some of them were reported by their colleagues at the time, who probably gave up on the system when nothing happened.
There is some good news. Now there’s a national register for police officers dismissed for misconduct, meaning they won’t be rehired by another force. A lack of information sharing previously led to bad officers slipping through the net. This won’t, however, stop non-police wrong ‘uns from applying in the first place.
Police officers do report bad colleagues. In my world, this was usually via anonymised reporting systems (either a telephone hotline or confidential email system). It was genuinely anonymous, with baked-in safeguards to prevent revealing caller’s identities. One problem was the range of reports we received – as I’ve written before, too many involved simple line management issues (solution – train your sergeants properly). Others, less frequently, involved crime.
I remember one officer calling to report suspicions about a colleague who’d made unusual comments at a social function relating to sexual activity with children. Now, the officer calling DPS was perfectly happy to go on the record - I think most people would in those circumstances - but he’d phoned the anonymous reporting line because he didn’t know who he was meant to tell. That, in and of itself, suggests a problem.
The MPS absolutely needs better training and awareness for new officers about reporting mechanisms. I actioned the information and the suspect was arrested. The system occasionally works, but clearly not smoothly enough.
Any intelligence on wrongdoing received entered the NIM sausage machine – collected, developed and disseminated as per the intelligence cycle. I think, in retrospect, DPS focussed too much on crime and networked corruption as opposed to workplace misbehaviour; stuff with the potential to escalate into something worse – for example sexual assaults (which are notoriously difficult, but not impossible, to prove using covert policing tactics).
However our priorities were systems-driven, determined by a NIM-compliant strategic intelligence plan; ours was predominantly aimed at intelligence leakage. Intelligence leakage happens at all levels, by the way; lower level examples might include a PCSO learning a pub they use is being looked at for drugs offences via the automated briefing system and mentions it to their mates. Or curious officers accessing custody imaging to see mugshots of a celebrity who’s been arrested.
Also, many detectives joined anticorruption from units tasked against serious and organised crime; unsurprisingly our focus was on police officers involved with ‘proper’ criminals, not dodgy workplace behaviour. I assume the new command the Met’s setting up will address this. Something similar was done in the late 1990s and early 2000s to combat racism after the Macpherson Report, involving integrity testing (i.e. ‘mystery shopper’ style quality assurance exercises). I’d also expect a renewed focus on technical intelligence, especially on police-issued comms devices. Again, this is a difficult balance when it comes to proportionality; does the Met really want its own WhatsApp Stasi? Fear’s like salt in the soup - a little is good, but too much renders the whole thing inedible. UK police officers are already probably the most scrutinized and workplace-surveilled in the world.
We expect police officers, Crown Servants with extraordinary legal powers yet no right to union representation, to be held to a higher standard. I get that, but where’s the line? If you want the police to be an order of robotic monks who never make an off-colour remark, that’s fine, but what happened to the Peelian principle of the Police being the Public and the Public being the Police? The problem’s compounded by what I call the Police Discipline Vortex, a shadowy place where misconduct, crime or simply poor performance meet. It’s this vortex where too many bad officers lurk.
I firmly believe the Met needs to (1) start behaving like an employer as opposed to a paramilitary organisation and (2) recruit, train and empower a cohort of high-quality line managers - something the current promotion system is conspicuously failing to achieve.
Good sergeants nip problems in the bud and good inspectors create the space for them to do it. I know this works because I’ve seen it. The current promotion system is too clogged up with sharp-elbowed people trying to pass through the ranks rather than master them. I say this as a former career constable with no dog in the ambition fight - create a special pay structure for outstanding sergeants and inspectors to keep them in post. They’re the glue holding the police together.
I’m also of the view the vast majority of misconduct cases shouldn’t end up anywhere near a court, either civil or criminal. The police is a workplace, with inevitable interpersonal conflicts both petty and profound. Robust management, supported by decent HR with buy-in from staff associations, shouldn’t be impossible to achieve. Some sort of mediation process might help. I’ve never seen it in the police, though.
And people who report wrongdoing? Tricky. There’s due process. There’s fairness. But those who step up need to be protected, not moved or singled out. That’s happened too often. Then again, if officer ‘A’ accuses officer ‘B’ of serious bullying, do you really want to post them on the same team taking emergency calls?
If you’re a young police officer reading this and have concerns about a colleague - real concerns - you might ask ‘what the hell should I do?’ After all, I’ve painted a grim picture, haven’t I?
Well perhaps, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. I still think most cops are good people. I just don’t believe in angels.
What I’m saying is there are people you can talk to. What you need to do, though, is use your judgement. Your gut. You probably (subconsciously) already know who you need to speak to. It might not be, sadly, your sergeant or inspector - but it might be someone else’s. Or it might be a Fed Rep or a senior constable you trust. Maybe an instructor from training. Anyone with experience and good judgement. And yes, you can pick up the telephone to DPS - it’ll most probably be answered by a sweaty old bastard like me who, underneath it all, wants to do the right thing by you.
It’s your call.
I know; this isn’t easy. Then again, nothing really worth doing ever is.
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