Not even remotely sinister, right?
Meet Hannah and Rob, a couple of police officers I sort-of invented for this article. If you’re in the police, you might recognise them.
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Sergeant Hannah, age 27, has 6 years’ service. A graduate from a redbrick university (she has a 2:1 in Psychology), she’s studying for her inspectors exam. Personable, intelligent and socially-engaged, in another timeline Hannah would have made an excellent detective. As it is, Hannah’s especially proud of her commendation for helping develop the force’s social media strategy on Hate Crime. She’s been posted to a local crime taskforce as a development opportunity, arranged by a chief superintendent keen to be seen supporting young female officers. The taskforce, for Hannah, is a box to tick before taking a role more suited to her talents. Something strategic. Multi-agency. You know, engagement and outreach. Working from home three days a week on her force-issued laptop. You have to keep up with the times if you want to retain quality people.
Hannah realises she occasionally rubs people up the wrong way. This, frankly, isn’t her problem and probably down to sexism; she sees no conflict between personal ambition, idealism and operational responsibilities. In fact, she considers them complementary. Those who accuse her of spending too much time networking, evidencing competencies for promotion and attending conferences are (sometimes wilfully, she thinks) missing the point – people like her are essential if British Policing’s going to drag itself out of the quagmire it’s in. A quagmire, incidentally, for which her older, white and male colleagues are largely responsible.
Hannah’s career goal? Winning a place on the high-potential scheme, so she can change things from the inside. And if she doesn’t? She’ll leave policing, most likely for management consultancy, a local authority or third sector role. In any case she’s confident she’ll make chief inspector in the next five years if she works hard, which will look perfectly respectable on her CV.
Dc Rob, age 45, has 18 years’ service. Before joining the police he served in the navy before working as an installation engineer for BT. As far as career progression’s concerned, he likes the idea of working on a DSU. Although, given the way the Job’s going, he occasionally considers jacking it all in. A former CID colleague, also ex-navy, is making a small fortune teaching policing skills in the Middle East. He keeps asking Rob if he’d be up for it. The pay’s tax free and in dollars, Robbo!
Still, Rob likes his job and would, ideally, prefer to stay. He enjoys proactive policing and taking cases to court. He’s good at locking up criminals and has several Judges’ commendations to prove it. So why does he feel like the Job’s not really bothered if he leaves or not?
Another bugbear, along with self-interested managers and his ever-shrinking salary, is the force’s incessant harping on about social justice… stuff. He genuinely doesn’t understand how it helps him do his job, suspecting it’s a hobby horse for people who don’t want to get their hands dirty doing real policing. Non-cop mates take the mickey down the pub, asking him if he can do the Macarena. He’s also pissed off how it’s okay to make snide comments about being white and male – not least because most of the people making them are white and male too. Rob doesn’t feel particularly ‘privileged’ either; a denizen of the real world, if you sat down and explained Critical Race Theory and / or White Fragility to him he’d think you were certifiably mad.
Rob’s beginning to realise he works to live, not lives to work. He’s got two young kids, a wife with a full-time job and elderly parents he helps care for. Rob also coaches junior rugby, which he absolutely loves.
And you guessed it; Hannah is Rob’s new line manager.
No, this isn’t the plot of a bad TV sitcom (although it could be), it’s an example of a police kulturkampf that’s been brewing a decade or more. I fondly remember the Met’s intranet forum, dripping with amusingly passive-aggressive tension between younger and older officers. Some of the posts came from The Empress State Building, a mysterious place seemingly full of people plotting all sorts of weird and wonderful diversity projects. To some of us, they looked more like paid activists than coppers. To continue the Germanic theme, I suspect this might eventually be the cause of a policing Gotterdammerung.
Well, because UK Policing gives the impression of wanting more people like Hannah and less people like Rob. And, like it or not, it’s the Robs of the police world who ultimately protect the public. Not Hannah, who’s yet to realise the system requires her to become a police tourist, checking off desirable locations on her career advancement itinerary.
Not at all. Hannah’s a product of the world into which she was hatched. I even see her point. The police she joined nakedly presents itself as an adjunct of the social services, one where she can project her worldview of what constitutes ‘justice’. It’s just a shame the police never asked the average taxpayer if that’s what they wanted (hint – they didn’t). More than a few police managers reading this will, albeit secretly, concede I have a point.
Rob isn’t sexist by the way – his best-ever DI was female – but preachy Hannah being his boss will probably be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He’ll put his papers in, flushing 17 years’ experience down the drain, but churn is good right?
It’s not all plain-sailing for Hannah, either; she’s part of a graduate cohort who sees vertical advancement as her career. And here’s the rub – there will never be enough promotion slots for all of the Hannahs, just like we’re killing the ‘career constable’ model that used to retain people like Rob.
Anyway, I suppose it’s equal ops of a sort – both officers have equally limited opportunities.
Hannah and Rob illustrate a wider problem in the contemporary police service; it’s relentless march away from what most of us understand to be policing. Hannah’s cool with this, but Rob isn’t – and officers like him avoid local policing like the plague as a result. Local policing bears the brunt of the police-as-social-work burden. A shame, as someone like Rob leading a crime team would make a difference on the street.
There are still pockets of the Job dealing with crime and crime only, but at a local level – the most important – officers are too hard-pressed dealing with non-crime tasks. Senior officers at BCU level suggest their officers spend up to 75% of their time assisting other services and agencies.
75% Yes, you read that correctly.
The next time you read another drearily predictable and lazily-researched newspaper column bitching about the police, you’ll notice they never mention this inconvenient fact.
Officers are leaving in droves. You’ll learn more about why from the amusingly scabrous ‘Bullshire Police’ than you ever will from a force HR department or the Home Office. The Job is now the thin blue roll of duct-tape, expected to fix any societal problem thrown at it.
‘Bullshire Police,’ dropping another truth-bomb
How did this happen?
I reckon a possible Ground Zero of this problem was the Conservative ‘Care in the Community’ policy of the early 1990s. What does the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 have to do with Hannah and Rob?
Because it was when I think this ‘Social Care Policing’ mission creep began.
In the early 90s, the government de-institutionalised people with mental health problems and mandated devolved, locally-based treatment. By closing old, expensive mental health facilities, patients were placed into the community for hard-pressed healthcare and social services staff to manage.
Guess who they needed to help them wrestle with people who failed to take their meds? You guessed it. Old Bill became mental health nurses with truncheons. We had no training, of course, but were still criticized for failing to manage the mentally ill as well as trained nursing professionals.
A model slowly developed, borne of necessity and driven by high-profile cases, whereby police were forced into a new operating model. This was, unambiguously, the result of cuts to other public services. For the record, I’m not making a political point here – I’m sure the NHS is as capable of wasting money as any other part of the public sector. The point is, politicians wilfully ignored the impact of ‘savings’ on other public services, like the police, who were forced to take up the slack. What’s worse, nobody asked – including, quite incredibly, senior police officers – who was going to pay for it all?
And, more importantly, nobody asked; what are the police actually for? Apart from the Police Federation, but nobody listens to them. I joined the Met assuming I’d fight crime and keep the (then) Queen’s Peace, not be a mental health or social work auxiliary.
Actually, Sir Ian Blair (now Lord) had asked this question, except he thought it was a good idea. ‘New Labour’s favourite policeman’ thought the problem wasn’t the police becoming part of social services. On the contrary, I once read an essay where he explained the real problem was the sort of people who wanted to be police officers weren’t actually best suited to the brave new service he wanted to create. One of safeguarding and harm reduction and unicorns dancing on rainbows.
I know, I’m a dinosaur. Then again, maybe I’m a dinosaur with a point – anyone who thinks UK Policing isn’t in a hole needs to, as they say in Ireland, ‘catch themselves on’.
During the 1990s I saw the line between social work and policing become increasingly blurred as people like Ian Blair floated to the top of the septic tank. And, for a generation of left-leaning officers, this type of policing offered a refreshing change from stop and search, fighting with drunks and handcuffing people. New Labour, unsurprisingly, wholly supported this model. You’ll notice how both major political parties attempt to shape the police in their image. The end result is a chimera that satisfies no one – especially the poor bloody taxpayers who fund the whole thing.
‘Multiagency Working’ became normalised, meaning the police became ensnared in stuff that hitherto had nothing to do with actual ‘policing’ (the semantic argument over the definition of Policing divides the Ian Blairs of the world from the Dominic Adlers, although of course he was Commissioner and ennobled, so what do I know?).
Mental health patients? Incalcitrant teenagers absconding from care homes every night? Every flavour of safeguarding? Taxi services for vulnerable ‘clients’? Sex offenders kicked out of (expensive) prisons requiring constant monitoring? Hey, the police can do that, right? The cat’s cradle of Human Rights law, litigation, public inquiries and risk aversion tied the police up in knots. It felt like whatever they asked for, we did. I remember the following joke;
Q. How many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. None. They wait until 4pm then call the police and ask them to do it.
Multiagency working became a sure-fire route to promotion so it grew even bigger. Which begs the question; did the police begin to develop the same Guardianista groupthink as their new town hall colleagues? Whatever happened, the system failed when messy reality met dogma. This elite cohort of senior officers all seem to have impeccably progressive views. At this point, Robert Conquest’s second law of politics seems apposite.
If you want to see how this model evolved into a Frankenstein’s monster, look at the contemporary obsession with inane ‘Community Engagement’ projects or Hate Crime units monitoring ‘problematic’ views on the internet. It partly traces its lineage back to the Social Care Policing model I describe. Forces are often aided and abetted by activist organisations with nakedly political agendas. I speak as someone with considerable experience investigating terrorism and politically-motivated crime; the recent antics of some police forces, for whom ‘Without Fear or Favour’ seems an alien concept, makes me weep.
None of this is intended to denigrate officers working in critical roles like domestic violence, child protection and sexual offences. These absolutely require effective liaison with social services and other agencies. These roles are also some of the toughest jobs in policing, carry dizzying levels of risk and responsibility. In fact, why don’t forces divert resources wasted on institutionalised virtue-signalling into those areas of business instead?
The answer is because, for some police managers, investigating sexual offences is too challenging. Scary. Risky. Why juggle twenty rape investigations when, for the same money, you could supervise the force twitter feed?
I would suggest it’s time for a radical rethink.
I remember, in the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike, an ongoing debate concerning public order policing (the more muscular model as opposed to knee-taking and skateboarding with protestors). Given the competing demands on law enforcement, was it fair to expect officers to be cuddly community cops on Monday but riot police on Tuesday? Did the UK need a ‘Third Force’, a gendarmerie committed to crowd control like most continental European countries? Or did we expect police officers to be human Swiss Army knives, capable of any task thrown at them from one day to the next?
Like most big structural problems, it was never fully resolved. Instead, each of the 43 UK police forces maintained small cadres of specialists (support groups like the TSG) augmented by local officers trained in riot control. Make-do-and-mend, that particularly British disease too often disguised as a virtue. I’m not sure a British gendarmerie would work, personally, but the issue probably deserved more consideration.
We now face a similar problem with the conceit of policing as an existential facet of social work. One that’s displacing stuff like catching criminals, beat policing and maintaining the King’s Peace. And to hell with the poor bastards living in areas where feral kids and recidivist criminals have no fear of the law. And so I ask the question: do we need a ‘Third Force’ for Social Care Policing? Will we finally accept its insatiable demands require a separate service? After all, such support swallows more time and resources than public order ever did. Or do we make-do-and-mend?
I don’t know the answer. What I do know is the status quo is unlikely to hold. Not with Austerity v2.0 coming down the track. Not with a fractious public increasingly frustrated with police impotence in the face of flagrant lawbreaking. I suspect the answer is, as usual, the disease of inertia will be presented as a virtue.
What I do know is I feel sorry for Hannah and Rob.
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100% as usual. To this day I don’t know what a ‘partner’ or a ‘stakeholder’ is. The job is full of far too many ‘Hannahs’ and not enough ‘Robs’