Why Education Matters, But Not By Degrees

2 11 2015

A few weeks ago, a Twitter debate raged on the subject of whether it was necessary for all police officers to be degree educated. It has been proposed by the College of Policing that, in order to “professionalise” the police, it is desirable (and, therefore, likely to happen) that any new recruit will be required to undertake a Batchelor’s degree in policing.

At present, it is not clear what that will look like but the best guess is that it will actually be combining all existing foundation training and calling it a degree. Purists argue that this is not a degree at all as it does not test critical thinking and there is no dissertation. Others see it as the gateway to a future of officers who will act and think differently.

My own personal view can be read here and so far I have heard nothing to change that opinion. You can also read the views of someone who actually manages the criminal justice programme at Canterbury Christ Church University as Emma Williams has published her own blog which can be read here

I am very pleased to host this blog from military historian and …. dare I say it… career academic Jill Russell. Jill has been kind enough to share her views on this issue and they make interesting reading.

Why education matters, but not by degrees.

I sit down to write this piece on the relationship between education and policing in a peculiar situation. I hold four academic degrees, and currently sit at the centre of professional military education in the United Kingdom. There is not very much more that could suggest my lifelong commitment to education, particularly that which is to be found in the academy. And yet despite that, albeit for slightly different reasons, I come down on the side of the debate espoused by Nathan Constable and Emma Williams, which generally questions the wisdom of a degree requirement for policing. Nevertheless, what policing does need are education and the learning it generates.

While the seeming contradiction of that position nags at your minds, let me attend to the first point, which is that a degree requirement does not necessarily serve policing. My problem with such a requirement is that I have a sneaking suspicion that it would end up with a prescribed course which ticked the boxes on a number of technical capabilities around criminology or quantitative analysis. I do not have a problem with such qualifications, but it should be very clear that neither represents the sum total of policing. Such capabilities certainly have utility in policing, but as a historian who has turned a bit towards the analysis of the work, I hardly think either is necessary to deal intelligently with the issues of concern. Furthermore, such a prescribed course of study begs the question that policing is a technical field, which I think is hardly the case. Of course, if the degree requirement were simply to have studied something at the university level, whatever the course, I might feel more comfortable. But I cannot argue that such a requirement would necessarily deliver the benefits being touted, and thus returns us to the necessity question.

How, then, can I argue that education is necessary if there is to be no degree? It comes down to my fundamental philosophy on what constitutes education and how it generates learning. In the simplest possible terms, education is the process of generating good confusion, a state in which one is uncertain about the answer to a question or problem and proceeds to ask good questions about it. This is, I think, conveys clearly what is obscured by the lofty sounding term ‘critical thinking.’ I tell my students here that it is my express intent to generate confusion for them, and it usually renders them horrified at first. But if they are willing to let go of opinions and the things they are quite certain they know, to question everything and consider a multitude of perspectives, the false certainties inevitably give way to the considered wisdom that there are very few right answers in this world.

I should further note that although they are a firm technical requirement for the work I want to do, degrees are not necessarily the best at delivering education. For all the time I have spent in classroom study, I would argue that some of my most valuable education in terms of learning has come through experience and observation away from the formality of schooling.* More interestingly, an ideal example of education and learning away from the schoolhouse which is valuable to policing was demonstrated by none other than Nathan Constable himself. In his blog on the value of neighbourhood policing wherein he tells of how he dealt with a problem that seemed to defy any sensible resolution, the approach he describes himself as taking is education and learning. Rather than continuing to do the same things over and over, he accepted that the standard solutions were unsuited. Embracing the confusion of having ‘no’ answer, he set about to observe and ask good questions of the situation. Through that process he arrived at a set of answers which were novel as they were effective. It was in very many respects a research paper of action. And I doubt that he is alone, but rather suspect that there are many police officers without degrees who will read this and recall to mind their own similar experiences.

Ultimately, then, the requirement of a degree for police can be dismissed for the learning already manifest across the service. One need only survey the very many officers engaged in the process of writing about the work, of thinking through experiences and their meaning, to understand that Nathan Constable is not alone on his educational path. So, rather than forcing a process which may or may not be of value, the service ought to instead consider how to support these efforts and benefit from the work already being done.

*Lest it appear that I am arguing against the very institution within which I work, I do believe firmly in the importance and value of the professional military education system. It functions to introduce the officers to a universe of issues and problems which their prior instruction, training and experience has not prepared them to handle. The movement from tactical practitioner responsible for the work of their occupational specialty to staff officer engaged in matters of policy and strategy creates a deficit that is most reliably and efficiently overcome within the confines of a formal classroom. I might go even further to suggest that, as I coming to understand policing, there may be room for a similar requirement in that line of work. But exploring the contours of what would constitute valuable professional policing education is a blog for another day.

The Red Button Project is intended to allow front line practitioners, the public and people who work alongside the police to contribute ideas and thoughts on what a police service would look like if you had to design one from scratch. 

Previous blogs can be viewed on our blog site
You can follow us on Twitter @OldBillRebuilt and the hashtag #OldBillRebuilt. If you would like to contribute ideas, blogs or suggestions then please use the comments section below or contact @NathanConstable, @DedicatedPeeler or @EmWilliamsCCCU

What Else Have You Done?

2 10 2015

Let me be clear from the start. I am not an academic, I do not like formalised studying, I do not have a degree and I have resisted at least three opportunities to study for one at someone else’s expense. The main reason being that I simply haven’t seen the point in obtaining one. This doesn’t mean I am “anti-degree” nor does it mean that I do not recognise the many benefits of higher education and lifelong learning.

Over the last few days it has even been suggested that I resent students because they are fast-tracked for promotion ahead of me. Given that I made the rank of Inspector in seven years and was accepted on to the High Potential Development Scheme as a sergeant without a degree then I steadfastly refute that accusation.

In actual fact, I have never entered into debate on a subject where I have felt more spoken down to than the one I have been trying to have over the last few days.

The announcement at the Excellence In Policing conference this week that two academics from the College of Policing are advocating that all police officers should be degree educated / qualified has led to some quite polarised opinion. Their view is that all constables should be at Batchelor level and all superintendents at Masters level. It is not clear from my limited viewing (I was not at this conference) as to whether they are saying it should be a pre-entry requirement or whether it is something a probationary officer must study towards during their first two years.

The primary driver for this seems to be that it will “professionalise” the police service.

I am against the idea for a variety of reasons and particularly if it is suggested that it become a pre-requirement of entry into the service.

This would force the cost of training onto the applicant. I believe that it would narrow the field of diversity and that it would put off a great many people from applying at a time when the police service is actively looking to represent it’s communities more accurately. The starting pay of a police officer is now so low that, if you have to pay for a degree to join, it would probably be at the bottom end of the career choices available. Opportunities for progression would be limited as there are now three potential points of entry each with limited space. You could join as a graduate entry police officer – “basic entry”, apply for “fast track” where you will have to stand out amongst other graduates or you could apply for direct entry if you were a graduate with experience elsewhere. There simply isn’t enough room at the top for all the ambitious people and for those who might reasonably expect that a degree might allow them some progression.

There has been an argument that it will elevate the standing of the police. To this I ask, in whose eyes? I’m not really convinced that the public give two hoots about whether the officer dealing with their job has a first from Cambridge, a 2:1 from Swansea or whether they barely managed to scrape A-levels like I did. Of course they expect the officer to have been fully trained and they expect them to be courteous, sympathetic, empathetic, professional, competent and diligent but I certainly don’t recall it ever being an issue as to whether I have a degree being raised before. I also do not believe these qualities are uniquely or especially endowed upon or  learned by graduates.

If you ever dare to wade into the murky swamp of the comments section of any online news article on a police story you will inevitably stumble on many comments deriding the “high flying graduates” in policing which are usually followed by a demand for “proper coppers” – something I am actually yet to see defined. Unenlightened as these comments are they suggest that people don’t really care and possibly take the opposite view.

Some have said it will raise the standing of the job in the eyes of politicians. I’m not sure about that either. I can’t see it leading to them saying they had better increase the pay and improve the conditions of officers. The government seem to be targeting the public sector as a whole. There isn’t a profession who isn’t in some way having their pay, pension or conditions of service attacked be they lawyers, doctors or teachers.

Admittedly, Sir Tom Winsor has referred to policing as mostly “blue collar” work and that is nonsense. Even if we believe it is true then ensuring that all officers have degrees won’t change the nature of the job they do so we will just have a whole bunch of degree educated officers doing “blue collar” work. So what’s the point? The job is what it is – educating the staff won’t change the role they are expected to perform. If it is blue-collar work then why do you need a degree to do it?

Others have talked of how the techniques and art of studying for a degree will hugely assist how police officers go about their work. They have talked about how critical peer review will lead to best practice and how an analytical approach will help solve wicked problems. All of which I am sure is well and good but it requires time and officers do not have time. Nor, I suspect, will many of them have the inclination. Arguably this kind of approach needs to be centred at the College of Policing itself given that they will have the staff with the expertise and it is they who will determine what does and doesn’t work. The police force is effectively being cut in strength by half. Officers barely have time to complete the paperwork they need after every job let alone have time to sit and think deeply.

There are many roles in policing where this approach is advantageous and beneficial but I do not believe that it is an absolute requirement across the board. Furthermore, so much of policing is prescribed by law, rigid policy and Approved Professional Practice (determined by the College of Policing) that free thinking isn’t always necessary or even approved of. Add to that the inspection and investigation regime of the HMIC and IPCC who discourage any deviation from prescribed practices that one wonders exactly where these graduate officers would be free to use their new found skills.

Evidenced Based Practice is likely to restrict that thinking further as officers will increasingly be told exactly how,when and where to do their job.

If the starting point for constables is Batchelors and Superintendent is Masters then upon what level should we insist for officers within the National Police Chiefs Council bracket?

There are probably three jumps in terms of scale of role within policing. The first is from sergeant to inspector where you suddenly find that the nature of the role is very different and carries far more weight. The next is the jump to Superintendent which is the same multiplied by a factor of ten. The next is the leap to Assistant Chief Constable which is frankly on another planet altogether. If we are expecting our superintendents to be masters qualified to assist with that step then should we expect NPCC level officers to have at least a doctorate and maybe Chiefs should be professors? As one commentator said to me via DM “should we expect the Commissioner to be elevated to the rank of ‘Demi-God’?” Whilst this appears tongue in cheek it does ask a serious question.

Others have talked about the fact that a degree shows the ability to learn and have talked about continuous learning and development. My fear with this idea is that once you have obtained the degree as a compulsory part of the probationary period or prior to joining then what happens next? Where do you go from there? More degrees? Who pays? After 20 years in the rank of constable, holding a degree earned 18 years ago,what relevance does this still hold?

Police training is, sadly, shocking. It has been shocking for years and, after initial training, relies almost exclusively on teach-yourself computer packages which officers must complete. This is largely achieved by mashing buttons until the programme is over. This has become so obvious that the package now sends you a warning telling you it has noticed that you appear to be pressing the buttons too quickly. Very little is absorbed.

Obviously a degree would, or at least should, be better than that but there is evidence from the Southern Hemisphere to suggest that even when delivered properly and as part of a probationary period it all goes out of the window the moment the officer hits the streets. Whether they become overwhelmed by the culture they walk into or whether the degree is actually useless are yet to be determined.

There is no doubt that the police must improve how it trains and supports its staff but not just in the early years. Continual Professional Development is, as far as I can see it, something that just seems to happen for a few selected people. Not once, in ten years, has anyone sat me down and tried to help me develop or asked me where I want to go in the future. Actually, that isn’t true – it has happened twice – but those offers have come from senior officers in other forces who sensed my overall frustration through my tweets and blogs. I am grateful to them for their time and offers. I am not alone here. The sense of frustration is palpable and no plaque on the wall saying “Investors In People” makes it any better. Officers need to be supported in terms of their career development and, indeed, managing their expectations throughout their service not just in the first two years.

I have a very strong view point on all of this and it is not surprising that those who see it differently have an equally strong but opposite view. What has surprised me is the nature of the debate over the last few days. For the first time, I have been left feeling like some kind of under educated grunt who couldn’t possibly understand how a degree can make all the difference. It hasn’t been the public at large who have made me feel like this but the very people who believe I should be aspiring to their level of formal qualification.

One commentator suggested that, as a graduate, they could easily do my job but I couldn’t possibly do theirs. Whatever it is. Tell me that at 4:30am when I have to decide whether to deploy my firearms officers to carry out a hard stop and enforced extraction on a vehicle which might be carrying a suspected armed criminal.

I’ve been doing this job a long time. I have worked with many officers with and without degrees. I honestly don’t believe that the degree has made one jot of difference as to whether they make good officers or not. Nor have I ever come across a situation where I have thought “Blimey, a degree would really have helped me out there.” Some of the best superintendents I have ever known have joined as cadets and have no degree. Equally I have worked with many successful and talented officers who received higher education. It’s a broad mix and the service is better for it. A degree which everybody must achieve will, in my opinion, force everyone down the same path and produce clones.

The most confusing argument I have come across is that it will help the officer when they leave. Why would you sell something apparently for the betterment of the service on the basis that it has its most value when the officer leaves? It will apparently make them more employable. If everyone has one then surely the opposite is true?

“I have a degree in policing” says applicant

“Indeed you do,” says prospective employer “the same as all the other people leaving the police. What else have you done?”

And it is this, “what else have you done” upon which my entire view rests. There are any number of avenues to pursue in policing. You could remain a constable, seek promotion, be a detective, ride horses, be a dog handler, firearms officer, roads policing officer or neighbourhood officer. Within each of those roles are separate levels of supervision and specialism. You become an expert in your particular field and it is these skills, experiences and abilities which make you the officer (or potential future external job applicant) you become.

A degree in policing would be undertaken before any of this, everyone would have one and actually it is likely to be long forgotten as the officer begins to develop into their specialist role – where there would be no degree.

I am not against higher or formal education at all. I admire anyone who has the time, desire and ability to do it. For me, the answer isn’t to insist that everyone has BSc after their name at the beginning of a career. The answer is to properly train and support them then develop them with formal qualifications in their specialist roles as their career diversifies and takes its own path.

Ultimately – when I leave the service – my future employment isn’t about what I achieved in the late 90’s. It will be about what I have done since, my experiences, how well trained I was in any given role and how good I was at it. If I have specialised to such an extent that I have gone on to study it further and be recognised with educational honours and formal qualifications then so be it. For me – it is here that the College of Policing should be focussing it’s attention whilst improving basic training and ditching NCALT.

Have I ever felt encouraged to undertake further study for the betterment of myself or the service? No. Quite the opposite and many commentators have said they have taken this path at their own expense only to find the job pays no heed and pays no acknowledgement. Some have said it has actually worsened their relationship with colleagues. We have to get past that and I am pleased that at least some people have shared more positive experiences with me. But they appear to be minority. And that is wrong.

As it stands – do I feel professional already, based on my service and experiences to date but without a formal degree to show the world?

I wear a uniform; I am proud and honoured to wear it; I am confident in my rank and role and when I deal with something I always strive to leave it in a far better position than I found it. I am asked for and freely give my advice based on two decades of police service. I joined to serve the public and help people and that is what I think I achieve. When I turn up at the scene of something do people look to me to sort it out, take control and resolve it? Have I ever been asked what my formal qualifications are or does the uniform I wear and the rank I hold actually imply that I know what I’m doing? Does the action I take support and reinforce that view? Do I make a difference?

The best comment I have read so far which enforces my view is that policing remains the last public sector service that a 40 year old single mum, with few qualifications, can still join and make a difference. I am more proud of that than anything else.

I am absolutely not saying that a degree might not make me better or different but ….

Do I feel like a professional without a degree?

Yeah – pretty much.


A Drama Out Of A Crisis

24 09 2015

A tweet from Surrey’s Chief Constable Lynne Owens really struck me this morning. It said this:

“My officers & staff have been dealing with 3 high risk missing people overnight. The continual increase in these cases is concerning”


It got me thinking back to last week when, in my role as incident manager for the force, I felt deluged by the sheer volume of these kinds of calls.

Part of my role (in addition to the firearms element) is to initially review the risk of every single missing person reported to the force. On two shifts last week, by the time I had got to about the twelfth in relatively rapid succession it was becoming  unmanageable.

On one of these days we had no less than 7 cases that I considered to be high risk. This is not a decision I reach lightly or without much consideration.

There are four grades applied to missing people reported to the police:

ABSENT – where someone just isn’t where they are supposed to be (often the caller knows where they are or are likely to be.)

LOW – where someone’s whereabouts cannot be established and there appears to be no danger.

MEDIUM – where someone’s whereabouts cannot be established and there is a likelihood of danger.

HIGH – as above but where that risk is immediate (and therefore likely to be a risk to life – theirs or someone else’s.)

The decision on classification is not fixed and can be reviewed, lowered or escalated as an investigation continues.

Here are some examples for you to consider:

1. A 15 year old girl missing from a care home for the third time in a week. It is perhaps the 25th such report this year. Her whereabouts cannot be established but it is likely that she will be with friends or associates and possibly older boys or men. There is a likelihood that she will be drinking alcohol or even taking drugs and she is she is at risk of sexual exploitation having been sexually active for at least 2-3 years already.

2. An 79 year old dementia sufferer who has not been seen in their residential home for two hours. This has never happened before.

3. A 33 year old male who has just sent a series of text messages to his former girlfriend indicating “I can’t take any more.” “Life isn’t worth living” “Say goodbye to the kids for me.” This follows the break up of their relationship and his failed attempt to reconcile. She is convinced that he is going to harm himself.

What would you grade those as?

All three types of calls are extremely common. Very very common.

I don’t want this to be a political blog but you will no doubt remember that the Home Secretary has said on a number of occasions that she wants the police to be “single minded crime fighters.” That their mission is to “reduce crime – no more – no less” and she has recently rejected evidence from the College of Policing which states that as much as 80% of police work is not crime related.

Now look at those examples again and ask which are crime related.

Example 1 is most likely but look how often it has been reported to the police previously. It is quite likely that several crimes are being committed here including by the missing person themselves but this situation has been going on repeatedly with no positive outcome. The protocol of the care home is to call the police whenever she does it. It is a never ending cycle. The criminals here are those taking advantage of the missing person but the regularity with which it occurs suggests that little is having an effect in protecting her from their actions or dissuading her from placing herself in danger.

Example 2 might have a crime element to it if you consider the possibility that the elderly person may have been taken from their home or may be being criminally exploited by someone. These are possibilities which cannot be discounted but the most likely outcome is that they have wandered off – possibly confused and disorientated. There is no crime in these circumstances.

Example 3 there is no criminality at all. It is not an offence to commit suicide or to attempt to commit suicide if those are indeed his intentions. The only issue at stake here is whether the person intends to kill themselves.

In all three of these examples there is no-one else who will look for these people.

In example 1 it is all too common to hear that staff at the care home cannot / will not go looking and it is their policy to call the police.

In example 2 I have often found that staff will look and help in the search but I have found examples where they haven’t.

In example 3 it is the police. There is no other agency who will respond to this and yet it is the one example where there is no hint of criminality at all.

What Lynne Owens has noticed (and I have also noticed) is that these types of report seem to be increasing. I would need to have proper data to be sure of this and it may just be a sense which is actually not true but from where I sit there does seem to have been a rise in the number of people being reported missing to the police where there is a risk of suicide.

The question is – why?

Is it a societal issue? Have things become worse for people over the last few years where they feel this is a viable option?

Is it a lack of care further upstream and before it reaches crisis point? Have they even sought care? Does it exist? Is it being tried and failing?

There is a problem with the term “crisis”. I would determine the person in the last example is in crisis but that might well not be a view shared by a mental health crisis team. I have been told many times that just because someone is suicidal does not mean they are mentally ill.

If a situation doesn’t meet the specific criteria of the definition of a mental health crisis then the crisis team are unlikely to come out. They certainly won’t look for people. It isn’t their job they say. They deal with them when they are found.

If it isn’t mental health and it isn’t crime then who should deal and why?

This last few weeks has also seen an increase in the number of people calling us (or being reported by witnesses) from high places – buildings and bridges. It simply isn’t true that if someone calls in they are less likely to go through with it. I have seen the opposite happen far too often to believe that.

This then involves suicide intervention. Another skill which most police officers have zero training in. We have access to negotiators but they can’t always get there quickly enough and the person won’t always engage.

Again, there is no crime here and yet it is the police who have the only capability to respond and deal.

If police do not respond in a timely way to any of these calls or get the risk rating right and a death occurs then it is likely to lead to a full blown investigation by the IPCC.

Most high risk cases are usually resolved within a shift or two. This does not mean that they weren’t high risk. The person is usually found and then there is the issue of what to do with them.

In examples 1 and 2 they are likely to be returned to the care homes.

In example 3 it is possible that they may be detained for assessment under the mental health act but it is very rare, in my experience, for someone to be sectioned after such an incident. I’m not saying that this is wrong – just that whatever follow up is arranged instead needs to be swift and preventative.

The issues are these:

If demand on the police is rising in terms of dealing with people in crisis someone needs to be asking why.

What else is available earlier in these situations to prevent things reaching crisis point?

Are we all aware of these, signposting them and talking to each other?

They also need to be asking if it is right that the responsibility falls to the police.

If it does fall to the police then what training are we giving people.

Are the classifications used by police to grade such reports too narrow? What criteria is being applied and how much of it is driven by fear of future IPCC inquiry? How many are being under graded through complacency?
Is there a role for organisations like Samaritans to become involved (at cost) in the intervention process? Do the police HAVE to go to every report of a suicidal person?

I think there are many other questions to be asked as well but one thing is clear – I agree with Lynne Owens in that this is an escalating issue placing increasingly huge demands on police resources. It can take all available officers several hours to bring a situation like this to a conclusion. Whilst doing this they are not available to do anything else.

I just wonder if anyone else from any other organisation is actually asking the same questions.

The Man Who Cried

21 09 2015

I joined the police when I was 19. I had no life experience and I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t prepared for the things I was about to see. I was a boy.

22 years later, when I look back on that time, it feels very much like viewing someone else’s life. That boy who was about as green as they come is now so hardened, so exposed to horror and trauma and so used to dealing with crisis that he has become a man who is pretty much unshockable.

That isn’t to say that something couldn’t happen which would make my jaw drop or upset me but – right now – I can’t think of what that might be.

In many ways this is a good thing. That experience has made the “awful” seem normal. It allows me to more calmly consider a scene of utter chaos and devastation and see beyond what others are seeing. It allows me to make decisions when other people might freeze. It allows me to walk towards things that others would naturally walk away from.

In other ways it is a very bad thing. It has made me hard, cold and cynical. It can make you almost emotionless and it can make you forget that, actually, the vast majority of the world never see such things and most will never be in a situation like that. It can make you forget there is good in the world and it can be exceptionally annoying when you become so conditioned that upon entering any room or busy place your first reaction is to clock all the possible escape routes and insist on sitting where you can see the door.

Two recent blogs have caused me to reflect on that journey from boy to man and the events and emotions which have caused that transformation. The first from @suptalunmorgan is called The Public Don’t Know.
This is Alun’s first blog and it’s a cracker. It details a night when he was on duty as senior officer and during the course of this particular shifts he documents the conversations with his team as various serious events unfold. What struck me about this was the complete trust Alun had in his colleagues but also their own self-confidence in handling whatever scene of individual Hell was developing in front of them. “Don’t worry – I’ve got this” are words I will try to use more frequently.

The second blog is from the ever wonderful  @policecommander, John Sutherland. John writes very many fantastic blogs and they are always about other people. His latest one Brave lists officers and staff who have performed some incredible acts of courage. John’s attention to detail and the knowledge he has of his colleagues’ actions is the mark of a true leader. That he recognises what they do and shows such public admiration for them is humbling.

I could list many examples of times where I have been stunned by the bravery and resilience of others. Alas my anonymity makes this a little complicated so I will stick, on this occasion, to some personal examples.

This isn’t about documenting any actions of bravery on my part. Far from it.

Both of these blogs caused me to be thankful to the named and unnamed officers for their courage, strength and perseverance. Alun is right when he says that the public simply do not know the kind of things police officers, and indeed other emergency service workers, face on a daily basis.

And it is this aspect – the “daily basis” – which both of these blogs have focused my mind.

What are the personal effects of dealing with this level of trauma on individual officers? What happens when these events accumulate to the point they become normal?

The answer is simple – they become like me.

There are officers who have seen far worse than I have. There are many officers who have been far braver than I have or will ever be. My admiration and pride in them cannot be adequately expressed.

However, all officers see trauma and horror. There isn’t a single police officer in the world who hasn’t gone home at the end of a shift either wondering how they have managed to escape something or being thankful that their own circumstances do not reflect whatever they have just dealt with.

What follows are examples. I will say now that this is a TRIGGER WARNING and that whilst I will spare detail the events themselves are all real, they all happened to me or colleagues and they are the incidents which have left the deepest marks.

If you feel able and wish to – read on:

I can genuinely say that I have only ever been scared, truly scared, whilst on duty on about three occasions. Yes, there have been times when my heart has been in my mouth and my adrenalin pumping but actually frightened just a few.

Going back about twelve years I was a sergeant working in an inner city area. We received a call that two teenagers had been walking along the road when a maroon coloured car had pulled up alongside them. A man had got out of the car and started talking to them before suddenly demanding money from them. When they refused they said he had pulled a handgun from his waist and pointed it at them. They chose to run and called us in panic from a phonebox nearby. They said that the car had driven into an industrial estate.

I wasn’t far away when the call came in and was expecting to be told that armed officers were going to be deployed. They weren’t. The firearms commander on duty that day didn’t feel that the criteria was met. I called him directly and asked him to reconsider but he was unmoved. Instead he asked me to go and look for the vehicle. I don’t think he believed the call.

Taking a deep breath I drove into the industrial estate realising that there was only one way in and only one way out. The boys had pointed out a couple of distinctive features about the vehicle over and above its colour. Having driven in and committed myself to the road, I rounded a bend and there it was. Parked on the roadside with two occupants in it.

I had several options. Reverse at speed, stop and speak to them or just drive by and try to find somewhere to call it in. I was on my own so chose the latter option. Except it was a dead end road and when I reached the end of it I had nowhere to go.

I curse myself to this day but when I first saw the car I was so focused on watching the occupants’ movements that I didn’t get the registration number. It didn’t even cross my mind.

Now I was trapped. I could see the car in my rear view mirror but wasn’t happy with this so I turned the car around so I could properly see it. I was probably no more than 50 metres away from it.

Then the occupants got out.

Running alongside this road was a waterway, separated by a wall. Buildings to the other side and absolutely nowhere to go.

I had managed to compose myself long enough to radio it in and I knew now – at last – that firearms cars were coming but from some distance.

The front seat passenger was now fully out of the vehicle and slowly walked into the middle of the road. My eyes were fixed on him.

He slowly raised his right arm towards me. He had something in his hand and was raising it.

It reached shoulder height, he paused and then,with a flourish, he threw whatever he had in his hand into the waterway. He got back in the car and it drove off.

I couldn’t follow it. I was frozen.

We never did find the car again nor did police divers ever find what he threw into the water. They were down there all day the next day.

I will never know if it was a gun, an imitation or something else but in those seconds, alone and isolated I know what I felt and thought I saw.

No one asked how I was after this and it was never mentioned again.

I just dealt with it.

The second worst job I have ever been involved in was an occasion where we had to take three children forcibly into local authority protection.

In relative terms it was easy. We expected resistance, we were met with resistance and we dealt with it sensibly and proportionately.

I had read the briefing notes, seen what they were being exposed to and it was absolutely the right decision by the court to instruct authorities to take them into care. I have no doubt they were under great emotional distress and trauma where they were. I have no doubt that they were personally at risk.

Events were complicated by the fact that not one of the family spoke English. We had taken an interpreter but this proved to be of almost no use in the chaos and drama which ensued.

To this day, it is the closest I have ever felt to being “the bad guy”. Turning up in body armour; having to use force to gain entry; having to physically wrestle the screaming children from the arms of their equally traumatised mother; being utterly unable to offer any form of verbal reassurance or communication and then watching the, by now distraught, children being driven away by people they didn’t understand whilst trying to reach out of the back window towards their desperate mum.

It felt like a kidnapping. It was awful. I know we did the right thing that day but it has never felt like it.

The final example is the road accident involving a very young child. I heard the call come in and knew from the outset that it didn’t sound good.

In order to protect as many of team from exposure to it I directed the nearest unit to the actual scene, instructed all others to take positions on road closures. I made my way to the scene.

For the next 45 minutes to an hour my two colleagues and I took it in turns assisting the paramedics. One of us held a drip, one held the child’s head and the other performed chest compressions until our arms grew tired and we swapped. Meanwhile the air ambulance doctor and the paramedics tried desperately to perform a miracle and bring the child back to life.

At the same time we were trying to hold back desperate relatives and friends. My two colleagues even went in the ambulance and carried on CPR all the way to hospital until they arrived and were told what we already knew. There was no hope.

We had all tried but our efforts were in vain. There was nothing more that anyone could do.

This remains the only time I have ever gone home from work and broken down. This was the only time emotion had taken over. I won’t lie – I needed help after this and I sought it out. I also ensured that my colleagues were offered any assistance they needed.

Add to this, over two decades, the violence, the murder scenes, the injuries witnessed, the emotion seen, the news delivered, the crises managed and it is easy to see how an innocent boy can be transformed into a hard and emotionless man. A man who eventually needed to sit down and cry. A man who eventually needed help to put it all into some perspective.

Multiply that by 120,000  and you get a sense of the scale of what police officers contend with and personally manage every single hour of every single day of the week.

Police officers are frequently accused of lacking compassion and being insensitive. I’m sure that this is true but “flicking the switch” isn’t easy and after years of exposure to the very worst of the very worst that exoskeleton we all put on when we start a shift is hard to get through. It is a self defence mechansism without which officers simply could not cope.

Exposure takes a toll and officers aren’t good at seeking help. Organisations haven’t been much better at acknowledging, recognising or dealing with it either. It has been particularly pleasing this week to see that forces have been hosting regional wellbeing conferences. Finally, the penny is starting to drop that officers and staff are asked to deal with things of a severity and frequency way beyond what a human being should be exposed to.

If organisations don’t help to support their staff through this then they aren’t doing it right. All police officers join to help and serve the public. That comes at a personal price and it is vital – it is a moral imperative – that the organisation has their back.

We need to do more to publicise the work of charities such as @ThePDTrust and a new initiative from MIND called The Blue Light Programme which emergency service workers can contact directly for help and support.

The police continue to take a kicking in the media on a daily basis and it is up to each of us to remind the public of the personal price paid by our colleagues every day.

That is why I am thankful to Superintendent Morgan and Chief Superintendent Sutherland for their leadership and for reminding us all that, frankly, the public don’t know and that there are strong, courageous police officers out there putting themselves in harms way for others on every shift across the country.

If this blog has any purpose at all it is to remind everyone that these officers may need help and sometimes they need pointing toward it.

Our people are our best asset. Without them we are nothing and can do nothing.

Please look out for each other.

Theoretically Speaking

9 09 2015

In the last two weeks, @RichardJGarside director of an “independent public interest charity” called The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has penned two articles about police reform for The Guardian.

The central thrust of Mr Garside’s articles is that lowering the police budget will lead to more balance in the public sector and that slashing the police budget will stop police officers doing other people’s jobs.

Mr Garside’s first article states that the increase in police budgets in the decades prior to 2010 had the effect of “crowding out” other public sector professionals. Instead of a “comprehensive network of youth workers, social workers and crisis health teams” the police have adopted all manner of roles “probation officer, social worker, schools liaison, disaster manager, event steward” which he describes in his second article as “mission creep.”

I have been a police officer since 1994 and there is no doubt at all that things changed dramatically when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister and the Labour government took office in 1997.

Firstly, police started worrying about targets and value for money. Subjects I had not experienced during the first three years of my service. Indeed, up until about 1998 a superintendent was some god-like figure you rarely saw or heard from unless something bad had happened. Post 1998, superintendents suddenly became massively visible and were usually seen carrying some kind of spreadsheet. This was the birth of performance culture. Something which can be linked to government policy of “deliverology” but which, I think, has now been widely accepted as a Bad Thing.

The other thing that changed at this time was the introduction of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Not only did this piece of legislation introduce new racially aggravated elements to offences, it heralded a new dawn in partnership working. It became law that all other statutory bodies such as Health and Education must consider crime reduction in their planning.

This really was a new direction and it led to the formation of Crime Reduction Partnerships at strategic and tactical levels.

I was working as a neighbourhood beat constable at the time and witnessed for myself that this new arrangement was not without its problems. In many cases we found that strategic buy-in and promises from the various chief executives was not always met with the same passion at tactical level. I found that some partnership agencies (particularly council housing) were very keen to work more closely with the police whilst others (such as health) dragged their heels.

From a personal perspective I found that it was almost always the police who were leading on initiatives or chairing the meetings. This wasn’t a case of bullying others out – we just simply couldn’t get anyone else to take charge of anything. There were exceptions and notable ones at that, but as a general rule it was the police in the driving seat.

Despite all of this there were some great achievements which I have blogged about previously. These were the result of police working alongside the council, local activists and community groups and it led to a reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour. No one organisation could have achieved the same success by themselves but the result could not have been achieved without police work. Proper police work. Surveillance, enforcement, visible presence. Alongside this proper police work came planning meetings, school liaison, community meetings and working with and alongside social workers, council housing staff, drug workers, teachers and even town clerks.

Each of these brought something to the table and we all benefitted from learning more about each other’s roles and from working together. There was no “crowding out” it was very much a case of “encouraging in” and then working as a team.

When I returned to neighbourhood work in 2004 and again in 2008 something was different. The relationships had not developed as I thought they would have and with each new role I took on, over and above introducing myself personally, I found that it was like starting from scratch in 1998. This surprised me.

Most telling was the relationship I had with the council housing team in 2004. Here was a team of good, dedicated people who I fell out with spectacularly. I hasten to add that this was in the early days of us working together and we were able to quickly rebuild a fine and trusting working relationship.

We fell out because I stopped doing their work for them. When I took over the reigns of the best team I was astonished at the number of disclosure requests which were coming in. The housing team were constantly writing to the police asking for details of incidents and then asking police to “support the request made by our tenant for a housing transfer.”

The general tactic which had been adopted was for an issue to arise between tenants (threats, violence, anti-social behaviour), the tenant would approach housing for a move, housing would write to the police asking for details of the calls and written support from an officer saying why the tenant needed to move and then housing would look to move the victim.

My first question was “what are you doing about the perpetrators?”

I won’t bore you with the complexities of the Data Protection Act but suffice it to say the manner in which disclosure was being requested was wrong. I also sought guidance on whether the police should generally be offering opinion on whether they thought someone should be moved or not. In short order we stopped disclosing and we stopped giving opinion. I was less than popular.

It then took me several months to persuade my colleagues from the council of the correct processes involved and how it would perhaps be more effective to tackle the people causing the problems rather than simply moving victims. It was a rough ride but we started to make progress.

I don’t know how it had happened but the council had become almost reliant on the police to provide them with information and opinion before they would take (in my view – the wrong) action.

This is where I agree with Mr Garside. There has become a reliance on the police to take action or responsibility and I have written many times about how police have become the de facto “Plan B” for so many other organisations.

Where I disagree with Mr Garside is that I do not believe that this is down to budgets. I believe it is down to accountability.

There are two very good reasons why the police have ended up performing the roles outlined by Mr Garside and described as “mission creep.”

They are investigation and inspection.

Although there is a section of the media and many loud voices in the public who say that the police are unaccountable, I cannot think of another British organisation which is the subject of such intense and ongoing scrutiny. So much so that the government have reduced the overall police budget and syphoned some of the money off to increase the size and capacity of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

The reason why the police have become so risk averse and have ended up developing specialist roles and functions that Mr Garside calls “mission creep” is because at some point they have been heavily criticised by HMIC or the IPCC (or even the Judiciary) for NOT doing more to protect someone.

Many of the cases subject to public vilification have involved other agencies whose role, it is arguable, should probably have been primary to the police but it is the police who have faced the biggest criticism and they have naturally become defensive. This has led to the creation of all kinds of specialist departments and roles which didn’t exist in the past. If a body like the HMIC or IPCC is telling you you should have done more or that your systems are not sophisticated enough or your processes are inadequate and then inspects you on it, then you are going to dedicate resources to it.

For whatever reason, I do not believe we have seen the same response from other agencies. Partly because they are not inspected or investigated in the same way. There have been cases where social workers or other professionals have been disciplined or faced criminal charges but in many cases of multi-agency systemic failure it is the police officers, trying to deal with something at the point of crisis, who end up facing criminal charges. Just look at mental health restraint for example.

In mental health matters the police have not crowded out other agencies they have been drawn in. Yes, the budgets for mental health provision have been well below what they should be but this, of late, has been down to local commissioning decisions rather than government policy. The government’s response to the problem is not LESS police involvement but MORE police involvement through triage programmes. The only people empowered to deal with mental health crises in public are the police. This is not the case in private but you will find that crisis teams across the country are telling people to “call the police” anyway.

Now it may well be that some of this is down to resources but the police simply cannot say no and don’t say no. Once it has been identified that there is no legal basis for police to be involved they can say no but there are ongoing examples of where police have not responded to a “concern for welfare” of an individual which are now being investigated by the IPCC.

Yesterday, I had a particularly busy late shift which involved no less than 9 high risk missing people (suicidal, vulnerable through age). In the same shift I reviewed equally as many missing people with a lower risk rating, I authorised 7 taser deployments (none fired but all in response to bladed articles or other weapons) and considered three jobs which did not meet the criteria for armed deployment at all. All of this took place in about a 6 hour period. This does not account for the many other calls for service my team took from the public and at the end of the shift I sat and contemplated whether shrinking the police budget would help at all.

If we did reduce the police budget would it lead to the utopia that Mr Garside suggests where other agencies might be better funded and therefore willing and able to undertake work instead of the police and which might prevent things ever reaching the point where police were needed.

It does rely on the money taken off the police being reinvested directly into the other agencies and, if that were to happen, over a period of maybe a decade, I can see how it might lead to better upstream intervention, greater community care and less crisis.

The main flaw in the argument and one which makes it untenable is that this isn’t what is going to happen. The money being taken off the police isn’t going to be reinvested – it just won’t be spent. The state is shrinking – it is being shrunk. It will not be redistributed evenly amongst the other public sector bodies. In fact, as stated, if it is being redistributed it is to enlarge the inspection and investigation regime.

What we are actually seeing is the budget being shrunk and the police actually having to use what is left to pay for services (such as triage) which should arguably be being provided directly by health. This is forced redistribution and it actually bolsters Mr Garside’s argument that money is in the wrong place to begin with.

But what we don’t see, nor will we see, is a lowering of the expectations on the police. Calum Steele, president of the Police Scotland Police Federation has come up with a wonderful quote which sums this up:

“Savings must be made – Nothing must be cut.”

Senior officers are now trying to start the debate on what it is the public expect the police to do. They are openly saying that with the budget cuts which are forecast they cannot do everything they have traditionally done. The media and public reaction has been outrage.

Maybe it would have been wiser to talk about all the other things that police have become expected to do rather than start with future police responses to burglary. Maybe it would have been wiser to start listing the roles that police perform which the public know nothing about and the reasons why they exist.

But you cannot have that conversation without explaining why those roles exist and how they have developed. This leads us back to investigation and inspection.

Mr Garside is right in that is a situation which only the government can sort out. The role of the police needs to be clearly identified and this includes what is NOT the role of the police and whose role it should be. That discussion shows no signs of coming from government. Rather than loosening the grip which has led the police to act as it does, Government are strengthening the investigation and inspection regimes which scrutinise policing. This will lead to more defensiveness, risk avoidance and role creation. Less ability to focus on the many and more need to concentrate on the vulnerable fewer.

The money saved by cutting police budgets will not be redistributed to the social workers or mental health teams. It will just disappear. In fact, it is likely that the budgets for these agencies will be cut as well. There will be no rebalancing of the public sector just overall reduction. All we will see is ever increasing gaps which vulnerable people will fall through.

As an aspirational piece of theory, Mr Garside’s articles make interesting reading.  I am not even suggesting that the concept doesn’t have value and merit. It is just that in the world we live in and the direction it is clearly heading I don’t believe we will be seeing it become a reality any time soon.

Because You’re Worth It

31 08 2015

I am absolutely delighted to host this blog from public relations advisor and fundraiser Gemma Pettman

Gemma has previously worked within police corporate communications and a large police charity, but now runs her own company helping charities to raise their profile and increase their income.

Gemma has very kindly given the Red Button Project the benefit of her experience and offers her view on how the police might better communicate with the public at a time when it seems they can’t do anything right. 

When I started as a police press officer, the learning curve had a 1:4 incline. I was one of the first ‘civvies’ in Media Services (my chair had previously been occupied by a serving officer, fast approaching retirement), many police officer colleagues were sceptical about the role (others were completely scathing) and local newspapers, radio and TV stations were well-staffed to the point that they were on the phone to me pretty much 24/7.

But, as time went on I got to know my local journalists, built trust amongst my colleagues and got used to expecting the unexpected. Importantly, media relations were mostly positive. It wasn’t all rosy, but we could be candid with journalists and often took them into our confidence.

Fast forward *cough* years (not that many, honest!) and the picture is vastly different. I could easily wallpaper my house and next door with the negative police stories that have appeared in the papers this year alone. Relationships with certain publications or individual journalists seem fraught. The police are, at any given moment, lazy / racist / overpaid / overweight / useless / all of the above, apparently.

Cynics suggest there has been a sustained smear campaign against the service. Others shrug their shoulders and say it’s simply the police’s turn for bad press. If the latter is the case, I can only conclude the job is struggling to throw a six; it’s been your turn for long enough.

So, when I was approached to write a post for the Red Button Project on how police could ‘do comms better’ and ultimately improve the image of the service, I was hesitant. Policing and indeed police press offices have changed significantly; the arrival of social media being one of the greatest challenges, for officers and comms folk alike. As it turns out, social media was my starting point for this post, because as much as it presents challenges, it offers opportunities too. And once I metaphorically slipped back into my police press officer’s chair the thoughts kept coming:

Firstly, to improve communications, keep talking

Be relentless in pushing the good news. Keep sharing your results. Show people what you’re dealing with. It is an inalienable truth that from a media perspective good news is rarely ‘great’ news – but please don’t let that stop you. You now have more opportunities than ever to speak directly to your audiences. Sometimes it’s like shouting into the abyss, I know, but I promise you people are listening.

Did you see this recent Facebook post from the West Yorkshire Police team at Leeds Inner East Division?

It reads as though it was posted in frustration but the principle is sound and an overwhelming number of people who have taken the time to comment on it seem to agree – ‘keep up the good work’, ‘you all do a fantastic job’. At the time of writing, more than 14,600 people have liked the post and 1800 have shared it.

When you release information like this there is a balance to be struck with regards to the fear of crime, but firstly, I would rather know my local officers were out there ‘doing something’ and secondly, I would suggest the prevalence of 999 accounts on social media (where members of the public discuss the sirens they have heard, or speculate about incidents they have seen) do more to raise the fear of crime that factual reports from an official source.

While we’re on the subject of official sources…

When a big story breaks, or an issue becomes the focus of a lot of media attention – such as the rise in knife crime, or the debate over whether police should be armed – a force will be approached for a comment, or an individual with responsibility for that area of policing will be asked to give an interview. Sometimes the answer must be no, but unfortunately this does create a vacuum; a vacuum you can be sure someone else will fill at a moment’s notice.

I have noticed an increasing number of interviews being given by former officers who have positioned themselves as police commentators. It is my personal opinion that while these individuals may not be bound by many of the same ‘rules’ as an official police spokesperson, they do have a responsibility to their audience. To my mind this means they should be well-informed, have done their homework, speak only on the topics they have a good understanding of and use appropriate language. I wouldn’t seek to detract from what someone has learned or seen during a long career in policing but there will be those readers and viewers who take a commentator’s personal views and experiences as gospel. They will be seen by some as ‘the police’.

I don’t profess to know what relationship forces have with the commentators in their areas, but I would hope the lines of communication are open in a similar way as for card-holding journalists.

Ensuring you can respond to media opportunities, particularly on a national level, requires co-ordination, which brings me to my next point…

Co-ordinated communications

Now here’s where I think the police service can learn something from the private sector and this follows on from the local approach I have concentrated on so far.

I appreciate we don’t have a single UK-wide police force and completely understand the difficulties this brings from a comms perspective, but I genuinely think there are lessons to be learned from the co-ordinated approach taken by large corporates.

Let’s take Sainsbury’s as an example. Stick with me because there are similarities between the police service and the supermarket giant (aside from the 4% wages increases, obviously): most towns have a branch; they differ in size and staffing levels; the communities they serve are hugely varied; they have to be one step ahead of the wants, needs and desires of a broad customer base, and have to meet those expectations as best they can.

Sainsbury’s, like any other large company, has a very strategic marketing strategy. Branding, pricing and their unique offer is determined nationally and rolled out across their network. You can go into a store in Brighton and find the same core products you can find in Bridlington. It’s generic, it’s consistent and it’s what customers expect and feel comfortable with.

Alongside that overarching national strategy is a localised plan. Stores operate within the generic framework set nationally, but have the freedom to undertake activities within their own community: fundraising collections, family days and so on.

The point is: could police forces (and bodies like the Police Federation and National Police Chief’s Council) do more replicate national/local model within their communications activities? Are there are core issues that warrant a coherent message up and down the country? Is it practical to develop national campaigns that can then be localised? Occasionally forces release information on the timewasting 999 calls they receive; indeed some like GMP live tweet details of EVERY call they receive in a given 24 hour period as part of a special campaign. Would these activities have greater impact if all forces took part?

I would be really interested to explore this further and I’m keen to hear your views.

Make friends with local reporters

So imagine the aforementioned national/local coordination was in place. As a force, or a division within that force, there would be a strategy to work to, stories/campaigns/messages that could be localised and therefore provide opportunities to engage local media and in turn, reach the wider community.

Local media, and newspapers in particular, still play an important role in community life and their reach shouldn’t be underestimated. Local reporters are generally exactly that; they both live and work in the community they serve. There is a confidence and trust in local publications which doesn’t always extend to national newspapers.

There will undoubtedly be times when an incident occurs which attracts national media attention. It will be a manic few days/weeks but those journalists will ultimately move on to the next story whereas local reporters remain. I would place as much, if not greater, importance on maintaining relationships with local journalists, as with those from further afield.

Work with them to tell more of your stories, share your successes and in turn, put your hands up when things don’t go so well. The police are the public, but in many ways local media are the public too; or at least are their eyes and ears. As with the police service, newsrooms have been cut to the bone and journalists are over-stretched; you might have more in common than you think.

Be sure to challenge poor reporting, at all levels

A friend of mine works in a comms role for the NHS. Increasingly fed up with how they were being represented in the media, they took steps to redress the balance. Statements they put out were being edited down to the point they were no longer in context, so each time they gave a comment to the media, they also posted it on their website – in full – and shared the link via their social media channels. This has continued and seems to reassure their audience, but that benefit aside, why should incorrect information, or comments taken out of context, go unchallenged?

Of course there are times, when cases are ongoing, that is impossible for the police to act in this way. But why not follow this up as soon as it is appropriate to do so? Corrections may be buried somewhere around page 23 of a paper – they may not appear at all – but don’t leave it at that. At the very least consider using your website and social media to get the facts out.

Don’t be boringly corporate

I’m giving serious side-eye to those forces that tweet the same message, from multiple accounts across their force area, at exactly the same time of the day. This does not constitute a conversation. Why not grab yourself a megaphone and shout at people instead?

Of course you have to share vital information and offer advice but you also have to understand your audience and ask yourself what they want to gain from following you. Allow your teams to be your ambassadors; a recent guest blog written for me by @NathanConstable explains the many benefits of empowering your staff to use social media.

With that in mind I shall refer you to the genius of @HantsPCMark and his recent Vine discouraging parents from instilling in their children a fear of the police.

And lastly, increase the size of your comms team

This is less about hiring more staff and more about mobilising the troops on the outside. Who can help to share your success stories, promote your activities and circulate appeals? Which partners can enable you reach those ‘hardest to reach’ members of your communities? West Yorkshire’s Facebook post reached around 15,000 people – how many more could have seen it if key partners helped to circulate it? Sharing your content with those who can share it even further builds trust in a really cost-effective way. These communication partnerships are likely to become even more important as the next round of cuts begin to bite.


There is always an alternative. The police service can simply hunker down and get on with it. They can try to ignore the media missiles that are lobbed in their direction. But ultimately that would only further damage the most important relationship of all, the police-public relationship. And while it’s easy to lose sight of (particularly if you venture ‘below the line’ and read the Daily Mail comments section) police officers are still valued by the majority within the communities they serve.

And you should absolutely remind them of your worth.

The Red Button Project is intended to allow front line practitioners, the public and people who work alongside the police to contribute ideas and thoughts on what a police service would look like if you had to design one from scratch. 

Previous blogs can be viewed on our blog site
You can follow us on Twitter @OldBillRebuilt and the hashtag #OldBillRebuilt. If you would like to contribute ideas, blogs or suggestions then please use the comments section below or contact @NathanConstable, @DedicatedPeeler or @EmWilliamsCCCU

Re-imagining Police Custody

26 08 2015

A Home Office commissioned report has today said that about a quarter of a million vulnerable people are not receiving the support of an “appropriate adult” while in police custody.

A few months ago, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published their report on “The Welfare Of Vulnerable People In Custody” which made clear the distance still to travel in terms of how police manage the vulnerable in their care.

I blogged about this at the time in a missive called One Size Fits All. The point of the title was to draw attention to the fact that custody suites are designed to be generic buildings with little to no provision for anyone with any form of vulnerability. A cell is a cell is a cell.

I happened to catch the last twenty minutes of 24 Hours In Police Custody this week. As a general rule I don’t watch police based programmes, fact or fiction, for the simple reason that they make me angry. I get annoyed at procedural errors and the editing and portrayal of police activity is often skewed towards the “watchable and exciting.” This often presents a misleading image of what policing is.

This episode was no exception and has reenforced my commitment to not watching police based TV.

It showed several people who appeared to have some form of mental illness. The first was a man who became increasingly agitated the longer he was in custody. Now, from where I was watching it was hard to determine whether some of this wasn’t an act. I say this because almost immediately upon his release the symptoms disappeared. Now this could simply be because he had been released and it therefore relieved his anxiety – I am no expert. However, the only option available to the custody team was to allow him into the exercise yard, on constant supervision with an officer, in the hope that it would calm him down. It didn’t.

The second male was a giant of a man who was acting very strangely. He had been seen by the Force Medical Examiner (FME) who had determined him fit to interview. By the time he was asked to accompany officers to the interview room it was clear that he was anything but fit to interview. Yet the officers said they were reluctant to undermine the FME and seek a second opinion. At one point he was taken to see the duty solicitor and within minutes he simply walked out of the room. The solicitor came to the custody desk and said he was unable to get instructions from him.

I have to be mindful of what might have been edited out here but the solicitor appeared to make no representations that the male might not be fit and might, at the very least, require an appropriate adult.

The programme went on to show him being interviewed, without either legal representation or appropriate adult. During the interview he stood up in the most intimidating way and this forced the two officers to back out of the room and press the panic alarm to summon assistance.

It was a credit to the officers who came to assist that the situation was resolved peaceably and without recourse to any use of force at all. It had the potential to become a very difficult and violent incident.

The programme went on to say that the male was seen again and sectioned. It also said that he was charged with the offences for which he was arrested. This shows that it is possible for someone to be mentally ill and still be capable of committing crime.

Overall, I was very concerned about the lack of appropriate adults in both of those instances. I was concerned by the fact that the officers didn’t seek a second opinion earlier in the latter case and confused as to why the legal representative didn’t say something.

It is therefore of interest that today’s report from the Home Office shows that many people are not getting access to appropriate adults. There are a number of factors to blame. One appears to be lack of awareness amongst police officers of when one might be required but another is the simple fact that there are not enough of them.

This has been the case for my entire service. It is notoriously difficult to get access to appropriate adults. There does not seem to be a centrally managed call out list of trained and suitable people.

It is even hard to get appropriate adults for children in care. Many, many times I have known social services or even the care home from which the child has come simply refuse to come out and act on their behalf.

This is something which needs to change. There are no shortages of volunteers to become Independent Custody Visitors so surely it cannot be impossible to run a campaign to increase the number of appropriate adults who could be called upon.

Appropriate adults are in constant demand. It almost makes sense to have them on the police payroll and available 24/7 but they have to be independent of the police.

Of as much concern is the fact that police officers seem to be unaware of when an appropriate adult is required. This was summed up beautifully in 24 Hours In Police Custody when an officer was asked what training she had in mental health. After a short pause she diplomatically replied “We get online training.”

It simply isn’t good enough.

Admittedly there are a lot of current demands for police to receive better training in many things. You run the danger of having officers spending all their time training but the answer is not and cannot be a click and point computer programme of compulsory input.

This is “tick box” training where an organisation can make it mandatory and then claim that the staff have “received training.” Whilst there is a responsibility for the user to undertake it and learn, the inputs are often very poor and there is no substitute for classroom based, interactive sessions. It’s no good the police delivering this either – there needs to be input from subject matter experts who can be questioned and challenged whilst sharing their expertise.

But returning to custody itself, it is increasingly clear that one size does not fit all. Police custody units are designed to flow at their best when the detainee is fit, healthy, sober, compliant, English-speaking and understands what is going on. I cannot think of the last time I met a detainee where at least one of those things on the list wasn’t present.

Custody units are hard environments with hard walls and doors. Previously, I have heard government ministers talk about how custody units should be “for criminals” and not for the vulnerable. This rather over simplifies the problem. Look back at the man in 24 Hours In Police Custody. Clearly he had some very big mental health issues and presented an enormous risk in terms of potential violence. Yet – he was suspected of, and later charged with, the offence of robbery.

Whilst it would be ideal never to have anyone in police custody who is solely there because of a mental health disturbance (as in – Section 136 of the Mental Health Act) we cannot avoid the fact that people with mental health disturbances will end up in custody because they are suspected of committing a criminal offence. This applies equally to the elderly, children and people with any number of possible health issues or vulnerabilities.

I have previously suggested that custody units might benefit from a “soft room” where a violent person might be taken instead of relying on physical restraint on a concrete floor. I am always met with cries of “ah, but that means other agencies will rely on the police too much and not take responsibility themselves.”

I don’t agree with that logic. Whether police like it or not they will always have to deal with violent people and they will still have to accept mentally ill people who “cannot be managed” elsewhere. It is the express will of government – we need to be ready for it.

One has to ask whether police custody actually needs to become far more tailored and adaptable.

Ultimately, its primary purpose is to hold people safely so that an investigation can take place. That should never be forgotten and the premises need to serve that purpose and be capable of securing some very dangerous people at times.

The staff in custody units are always busy and under pressure. It can be a very highly charged (no pun intended) atmosphere and is a very intense place to work. Detainees can be very demanding and often these demands aren’t real. Some detainees really do play up spectacularly and deliberately try to make life as difficult as possible for the officers and staff.

And yet there are many people held in police custody who have genuine needs. Many have addictions, many have mental health issues diagnosed or undiagnosed. Many have no-one who can act on their behalf and no support network of their own. Many have health issues brought on by poor life choices. Many don’t speak English as a first language.

Custody seems to be an ideal place to intervene here. There are many forces who have alcohol and drug advisors who will speak to detainees and try to offer them help.

It is no lie to say that you see the same people coming in and out of custody all the time (and I am not talking about the staff.) the vast majority of detainees will have been through the process before and in many cases many times.

They are dealt with for whatever offence they are suspected of and then released or sent before a court and it won’t be long before they are seen again. Sometimes even the same day.

This isn’t a criticism of sentencing or rehabilitation – it’s an observation that nothing seems to be done to stop the cycle.

Perhaps there is a better way. Perhaps custody provides the ideal opportunity – with a captive audience (pun intended) – to look at health, referrals and support for detainees. Not only as a means to help them but as a means to prevent them coming back and ultimately reduce demand.

When police see a victim of domestic abuse they will complete a risk assessment which is then further assessed and could lead to any number of agencies discussing the situation and getting involved.

We now see the rise of victim care programmes where huge effort is placed in contacting victims and supporting them after the event.

Both of these are absolutely valid and worthwhile but are we doing the same for suspects – especially vulnerable ones?

A modern custody unit, if you take all the various reports together, needs to be a hybrid detention centre, hospital, mental health suite and social care office with different facilities for children and the elderly. Such a place does not exist.

There are so many obstacles in the way which make assisting the vulnerable far more difficult. Most of the things needed are not immediately or readily available. It takes hours, sometimes days, to get access to medical, mental health, appropriate adult even linguistic support.

Despite the talk about police custody being a place for criminals, it isn’t. It is mostly a place for suspects and they are very different things.

Police custody is a pretty cold and harsh environment. It doesn’t need to be brightly painted with scatter cushions but the more I think about it the more of a revolving door I see. The more I see that custody could provide a far better opportunity to intercept and redirect someone towards help and support which may reduce crime and demand.

The more I think about it – the more I realise that custody units and the facilities in them and the ease with which staff can obtain the support they so frequently need to help the vulnerable simply isn’t there.

This is again, bigger than the police alone. It is something that Police and Crime Commissioners need to view with the same importance as supporting victims.

It relies on others stepping up to the plate as much as the police getting their own house in order.

A while back I proposed multi-agency hubs in control rooms in a blog called One Door.

The need for professionals from a range of disciplines to work together within the policing and criminal justice world is becoming increasingly evident. It should have been this way since 1998 but as budgets shrink it is becoming more and more obvious that a symbiotic relationship is mutually beneficial in terms of identifying and resolving issues and reducing demand for everyone. More importantly it helps the people themselves – directly and in a far more systemic way.

Custody is, perhaps, another ideal environment where this approach could be transformational, save lives and reduce crime and demand.

The Red Button Project is intended to allow front line practitioners, the public and people who work alongside the police to contribute ideas and thoughts on what a police service would look like if you had to design one from scratch. 

Previous blogs can be viewed on our blog site

You can follow us on Twitter @OldBillRebuilt and the hashtag #OldBillRebuilt. If you would like to contribute ideas, blogs or suggestions then please use the comments section below or contact @NathanConstable, @DedicatedPeeler or @EmWilliamsCCCU


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