The Burning Platforms

Things were different when I joined. Well, they were. This was back in 1994, I was a boy. I didn’t have the first damn clue what I was letting myself in for. I had wanted to be a policeman since I sat staring in awe at the copper stood in full Number 1 uniform lining the route of the Queen’s Jubilee tour in 1977. I was 3.

“What’s that medal for?” asked my father pointing at the Long Service and Good Conduct medal proudly displayed on his chest.

“Not getting found out.” he replied with a wink.

When I think about it – to have been wearing that in 1977 he must have joined at least 22 years previously. He would have been policing since at least 1955. Sat next to him, in a pushchair, sat a little boy who would be doing the same job 60 years after he first started.

In those 60 years things have moved on. He would have joined only 10 years after the end of the Second World War. A war he must have lived through as a boy or young man himself. During my lifetime all the wars we have been involved in have been fought far away. We would both have seen issues arising from The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I grew up in South Wales, watching the pits that surrounded my grandmother’s home town close down and vanish – watching the convoys of lorries carrying coal and the pictures of striking miners clashing with police.

I am the fifth generation of police officer in my family tree. My great uncle was a traffic sergeant in South Wales police. My great great grandfather was a Chief Inspector in Manchester police. His son followed him into the same force. On my mother’s side another great great held the rank of sergeant and the keys to the old gaol. Although it skipped a generation or two along the way – policing is, as they say, in my blood. You may even say that with so much family history invested in the past and present of policing, I have every right to want the best for the future.

With the exception of short periods involved in some more strategic level work my entire service has been as a uniformed front line officer, across three ranks, 24/7 response, neighbourhood and now as a Tactical Firearms Commander. I’ve been “hands on” for two decades.

In all those years policing has changed immensely. The uniform, the equipment, the training, the types of things the police do. Evolving constantly as society has changed but always sticking to the original Peelian principles upon which the service was founded.

In the 21 years since I first joined I have witnessed incredible changes. Back then we still wore tunics. We still had wooden truncheons which lived in special pockets down the seam of your trouser leg. Patrol cars were already established by the time I started but I remember it being akin to the end of the world when a senior officer decided we didn’t need to wear flat caps when we were sat in cars anymore.

Back then it wasn’t compulsory to record everything you went to. A “no complaint” job never saw pen touching paper. These were the days, sadly, when we would still turn up at jobs and say “it was only a domestic” and walk away as though it was perfectly acceptable. In those days a husband could still rape his wife and it wasn’t considered an offence.

Not everything that took place back then was right. Or better.

Things really started to change when the New Labour government took charge. The police suddenly found themselves having to justify their existence and their spending. Gone were the days of crimes being recorded on paper (which could easily get lost) and in came new and more thorough ways of recording, retaining and auditing.

Targets became fashionable. They moved beyond fashionable and became essential. They then became more important than the job itself. What got measured got done and this led to the now, well-documented, gaming and smoke and mirrors where things were prioritised by crime type. The consequences of this are only now beginning to be exposed where we are now learning about decades worth of victims being largely ignored because the crimes they had been subjected to weren’t one of the four which kept Chief Constables as Chief Constables.

Not everything that took place back then was right. Or better.

The one thing that was consistent was that the budgets kept going up. With that the number of officers went up. With that the number of support staff went up. Salaries kept going up. These were halcyon days where, looking back on it now, you wonder what the hell it was all spent on.

The answer to that is two-fold. Technology (much of it wasted and now redundant) and the Crime Fighting Fund.

This wonderful fund was government money that could only be spent on police officers. Even then, Chiefs were turning around and saying “But we don’t want to spend it on police officers. We could put it to far better use on equipment or technology and we could modernise. Hell, we could even bring in experts from outside who aren’t police officers to help us deal with certain things.”

“No” said Whitehall. That money was ONLY to be spent on police officers and this was done so it could legitimately be claimed that there had never been so many police officers on the streets of the UK as there were then.

This was a massive bear trap. It meant forces ended up paying for police officers they didn’t need and with that came the associated salary and pension bill which came with it. This was all fine whilst the money kept rolling in but it was setting up a huge debt for the future.

Along with this came endless time and motion studies. Whole new layers of bureaucracy and recording systems which would allow the government of the day to make all kinds of announcements and pronouncements about exactly what the police were doing with every 15 minutes of their day and how much was being spent.

In fact – we spent more time writing things up than it took to actually DO the thing that needed doing.

Not everything that took place back then was better. Or right.

Then the money ran out. Or it was stopped. Whichever way you look at it, the tap was turned off and Chief Constables now found themselves staring into the abyss of massive future salary and pension bills and a budget which was set to shrink by 20%.

More cuts are coming.

Here lies the first burning platform for reform – finance.

Since 1998, all statutory agencies have been required to work together to reduce crime. Be it health, education, social landlords – all were now legally required to factor crime prevention / reduction into their work and strategic plans. For the first time, multi-agency panels were put on a legal footing and the first Crime and Disorder Partnerships were formed.

This felt like progress. This meant that, legally, the police weren’t now solely responsible for dealing with what had traditionally been “police work.” In many ways it was an extension of the Peelian Principle that the public were the police and the police were the public. Now the public agencies were the police and vice versa.

Oddly enough, there was no legal requirement for the police to consider health or education or social work in their plans so it is all the more ironic that, as time has gone on, the police have found themselves doing more and more of this and less and less “police work.”

To the point where 80% of police demand has nothing to do with crime.

I’m not entirely sure how this has happened – but it has.

In the first two years of my service, for example, I was only ever called upon once to get involved with the forceable sectioning of a mental health sufferer in their own home. The less said about that incident the better but it was dealt with unsympathetically and forcefully and it remains one of the most shameful things I have ever had the misfortune to be present at and involved in.

Fast forward to 2014 and my teams were dealing with numerous mental health sufferers every single day. They were dealing with numerous missing people every single day. They were dealing with countless domestic abuse cases (properly) every single day. Things that 20 years ago we were either rarely called to or simply weren’t dealt with properly.

Back then, we were very rarely called by other agencies. We only ever set foot in hospitals if we or a detainee was hurt or ill. We weren’t getting so many calls full stop and we certainly hadn’t become the default back up contingency for every other service provider in existence.

In the 20 years or so that I have been a serving officer the police family has grown but the demand placed upon it has grown as well. Hugely. Did Sir Robert Peel ever imagine that police officers would one day end up becoming a de facto front line for mental health services in the United Kingdom?

No – he didn’t – otherwise he would have written a principle about it.

The fact is that he didn’t (and there is some doubt as to whether he ever ACTUALLY wrote down the principles which have been attributed to him in exactly the way they are now presented.)

What he did do was create a police force whose measurement of success was supposed to be absence of crime rather than indication of police activity. Where a constable was nothing more than an ordinary member of the public who was paid to spend their working life solely dedicated to performing the crime fighting civic duty expected of ALL citizens.

By all measures you could argue that this has failed.

Crime has gone up and there are many more ways to commit it than there were in 1829 and the public and police have become more separated than ever before with the public playing less and less of a role in civic crime fighting duty than at any time in history.

This is a very negative way of looking at – what to my mind – remain an extremely sound set of principles and values upon which to build a police service. But something hasn’t quite worked out. The police have become, or been allowed to become or have allowed themselves to become the service of first resort in many things which Sir Robert Peel almost certainly could not have imagined or predicted.

The debate has moved on. Where he talked about “crime” we now talk about “threat, risk and harm.” Why? Because over a period of time and after many high profile and uncomfortable inquiries and investigations into how police have dealt with various incidents – there has been much and heavy criticism over not protecting people adequately enough. Not society at large – but individuals. These cases have led to such stinging criticism that the police could and should have reasonably been expected to see the risk – but didn’t – that we have now ended up in a situation where almost no risk is acceptable and something must be done to prevent it.

Gone are the days when police could concentrate on burglary and theft. Unpleasant though they are it is not these types of crime which are likely to lead to death, exploitation of children or serious injury. Crime has become hidden from view to the point where “volume crimes” now mostly take place in private in the form of domestic abuse or online fraud. No highly visible patrolling officer on foot can possibly hope to prevent any of it.

There is still a long way to go before police get this right.

Here lies the second burning platform for reform – victims.

Gone are the days of a benevolent government who believe that the size of the police is, by its own definition, a symbol of the success of the police. And whilst the police budget is cut so is everyone else’s. As their resources contract they are evermore looking at the police to plug the gaps.

Whether we like it or not – whether we accept it or not – this is the future and no amount of shouting about how “more cops will solve the issue” will solve the issue. We had more cops in the 90’s and we didn’t get it right then either.

We aren’t getting more cops. We are getting fewer. That is the harsh reality for probably the next decade or more. The pendulum may well swing back the other way but not for a long time.

Demand is currently outstripping supply and, in my view, it isn’t necessarily because we have too few police officers it is because the police are being expected to do too much. We could have a smaller police service IF some of that demand was routed somewhere else or better shared.

Police are struggling to deal with what is asked of them.

Here lies the third burning platform for reform – demand.
The president of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Sara Thornton, spoke on Monday about how 70,000 fewer police staff is a “game changer.” She said that the whole system of public service delivery needed to be radically changed and policing needed to be re-imagined in the light of the new financial picture. Just as importantly, she said that if you continue to expect the police to carry on doing what they have been doing, with fewer resources, then the staff themselves will break.

Sickness levels are already rising.

Here lies the fourth burning platform for reform – staff welfare.

Chief Constable Thornton is right. She said herself that she isn’t one to “cry wolf” and isn’t doing so now. For that matter, I don’t believe that the Police Federation Chairman, Steve White is crying wolf but they are saying slightly different things.

Whereas Steve is saying “don’t cut us anymore because cuts have consequences”, Sara Thornton is saying “the cuts are coming – everyone has to adapt to this – radically – or there will be consequences.”

I have said in previous blogs that the Federation needs to get into a position where it has ideas and influence which rival those (both in terms of quality and impact) as those of the leading think tanks. The Red Button Project was an idea to try and begin the debate. It is not associated with or sponsored by the Federation. Just three like minded people who can see the writing on the wall.

The concept is simple. If you had to design a police force now – from the ground up – with the budget we have – what would it look like? What would it do? What would it NOT do? Who else should be involved? How do we measure the things we do? What does success look like? Who else would be in the room or on patrol with us and why?

Over time we look forward to hearing from as any front line practitioners as possible. Not only from those who do the job, but those who work alongside us to do the job and those who watch us do the job. This is about hearing what those people think will work – across the board from response to investigation. From communications to armed policing. From how we deal with mental health and missing people to how we police protest and disorder. From how we deal to who should deal.

The debate and discussion was opened on this by CC Sara Thornton and the NPCC on Monday. We had no idea that was coming or that her speech would chime so closely with the aims and objectives of this project. It is an ideal time to start it and hopefully be heard.

Policing has changed – it has always been changing and it now needs to change in ways possibly not imagined since the service was created. It needs to change because society has changed; its problems and expectations have changed and the financial landscape has changed.

But before we charge headlong into reform for reform’s sake some very basic questions need to be asked and fully answered first.

The most important of these are what are the police for and what should they be doing in 21st century Britain?

Whether we like it or not, policing WILL be changed and as that is the case I want the voice of those involved at the sharp end to be heard as loudly as possible. That is the only reason why this project exists.

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


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4 responses to “The Burning Platforms”

  1. Jack Night says :

    I’m in. I will start writing tonight. Provisional title “3 Engines Burning”

  2. Stuart Bell says :

    Hi, really interesting and there is a lot going on in individual forces, have you got a DM I can contact you on?

  3. YES Society (@yessociety999) says :

    One person, the right person, can lead a country, an empire to victory however I prefer the 3 person think-tank concept for this task, to coordinate the ideas of those who recognise the desperate need for significant change, who are not afraid to embrace radical change and will wholeheartedly support the best option process.
    Even though now recently retired I will still contribute as and when I feel compelled to do so and I wish you every success in your endeavours.

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