My name is John Sutherland. I joined the Met Police in September 1992 and have served a variety of ranks and roles across London. I write blogs about life and policing – about the extraordinary people I serve alongside and the challenges they face.
And so to the queue of people telling us that they want to be the next Prime Minister. Faced by an electorate baffled and bewildered and downright angry about the state of political leadership in this country.
Here’s my list of ten things I want from the people who want me to follow them – a list against which to measure those who seek to lead:
(1) Leadership is service
The first responsibility of a leader is to serve. Before anything else, to serve.
(2) Leadership is sacrifice
The greatest leaders are the ones who believe in something greater than themselves – and who are prepared to spend themselves in that cause.
(3) Leadership is courage
I find myself returning often to that Aaron Sorkin line from the film, The American President: “I was so busy keeping my job, that I forgot to do my job”. Leadership demands courage. I mean moral courage. I mean the insistence on doing the right thing, regardless of the personal costs or consequences.
(4) Leadership is truth
Leaders must tell the truth. Always.
(5) Leadership is listening
Two ears, one mouth – to be used in those proportions. In a world where people seem intent only on shouting at one another from progressively further apart, the ability to listen has become more important than ever before.
(6) Leadership is clarity
Everything can’t be a priority. If everything is a priority, then nothing is. Leaders need to be clear about the things that matter more.
(7) Leadership is consistency
Once a leader has understood and articulated the things that really matter, they need to hold fast to them, rather than bending with every new hint of a breeze.
(8) Leadership is hope
It was Napoleon who reportedly once said, “Leaders must be dealers in hope”. And he was right (about that at least). We don’t need the people in charge to tell us that we’re lost; we need them to show us the way home. We need them to display the audacity of hope.
And the fact that I love them means I cannot stay silent about the catastrophic harm being done to this country by this government.
Look at the state of policing
In September 2018, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report suggesting that:
44,000 police officers and staff had been lost in England & Wales since 2010.
The Home Office “has no overarching strategy for policing”
And it wasn’t just the NAO. The following month, the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) suggested that Forces were “struggling to cope” with levels of demand and warned of “dire consequences” for public safety if policing was denied the additional funding it so desperately needed. HASC members accused the Home Office of a “complete failure of leadership” when it came to policing.
Look at the violent crime figures
Violent crime is rising. And children are dying on our streets.
Look at the state of the NHS
In March 2019, Dr Rachel Clarke posted a tweet suggesting that:
The NHS is short of 42,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors
UK hospitals have the lowest number of CT & MRI scanners in Europe
The number of Mental Health Nurses has fallen by 6,000 since 2010
The number of Community Nurses has halved since 2010
Look at the state of the Probation Service
A BBC News report published in March 2019 stated that:
“The system which sees private firms monitor criminals serving community sentences is “irredeemably flawed”, the chief inspector of probation has said… After immersing herself in the world of probation for three years, Dame Glenys Stacey has reached the damning conclusion that privatising offender management has failed.”
Look at the state of the Prison Service
A Guardian report, published in July 2018, stated that:
“Prisoners in England and Wales are enduring some of the most disturbing conditions ever seen as violence and self-harm rockets due to stretched resources and staff shortages, the chief prisons inspector has said. Peter Clarke said the level of assaults, drug use, and squalor had “no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century”.”
Look at the state of the Criminal Justice System
In March 2019, the Secret Barrister tweeted:
“Some days the state of our justice system makes me want to cry. Today was a textbook day of compounded failings, leaving a trail of human suffering in its wake. A betrayal of defendants, victims and witnesses unlucky enough to have been ensnared in the criminal courts in 2019.”
Look at Windrush and the ‘hostile environment’ created for immigrants
In March 2019, a report in The Week Magazine stated that:
“MPs have accused the Home Office of betraying victims of the Windrush scandal, nearly a year after the government first apologised for it…. In a damning parliamentary report, the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) accused the Home Office of “complacency” and shirking its responsibility in response to the wrongful detention and deportation of some members of the Windrush generation.”
Look at the state of the Immigration Detention System
A BBC News report published in March 2019 stated this:
“The Home Office has “utterly failed” to ensure the safety of people held in UK immigration detention centres, a damning report says. MPs on the home affairs committee warn there are “serious problems” in almost every part of the detention system.”
Look at the state of the Welfare System & the growing number of people relying on Food Banks
In April 2018, a report in The Week Magazine stated that:
“The number of people who are dependent on food banks is soaring as welfare benefits fail to cover basic living costs, a new study warns. Annual figures from The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, show that a record 1.3 million food parcels were given to an estimated total of 666,000 people in 2017-18 – a 13% increase on the previous year. In areas where the Government’s universal credit scheme has been fully rolled out for 12 months or more, the figures were even more damning, with a 52% increase in emergency food packages recorded.”
Look at the state of child poverty
In February 2019, a report in The Big Issue stated that:
“Government figures showed over four million children in the UK were living in relative poverty in 2018. That’s one in three. Now The Big Issue has learned that this number will rise over the next five years as Universal Credit takes hold, increasingly pushing more and more families into poverty. New figures from the Resolution Foundation this week indicate that the number of children living in relative poverty is on course to hit 37 per cent, topping the previous record high of 34 per cent recorded in the ‘90s. By the end of 2019, it could be the majority of children in single parent families or in larger families – with two or more children – living in relative poverty.”
Look at the state of the homelessness figures
A BBC News report published in November 2018 stated this:
“This year, 320,000 people were recorded as homeless in Britain, analysis from housing charity Shelter suggests. It is a rise of 13,000, or 4%, on last year’s figures and equivalent to 36 new people becoming homeless every day.”
This is a government that:
Called a general election in order to reinforce its parliamentary majority, only to lose thirteen seats.
Offered astronomical sums of money to the DUP in an effort to maintain some semblance of legislative control.
Restored the Whip to two members accused of sexual misconduct.
Faces accusations of institutionalised Islamaphobia.
Has been torn apart by Brexit – its members placing self before party and party before country.
And so it goes on.
This is a government of staggering malice and incompetence.
But this is also a government faced by an opposition so inept and so riven by its own overwhelming failings that the potential outcome of any future general election somehow remains far from clear.
And it cannot go on like this.
I know that there are good MPs in Parliament – on both sides of the House. I don’t doubt that some of them have the potential to be great. But they have got to stop playing political games and start putting people first. It is time for them to stand up and speak up and do what’s required.
Earlier this week, using a set of very carefully chosen words, Theresa May appeared to suggest that there was no connection between falling police numbers and rising violent crime.
She was wrong.
Of course the rise in violence is not only about police numbers (there are a hugely complex combination of factors in play), but the suggestion that there is no connection at all between those two things defies both common sense and the professional experience of thousands of police officers, my own included.
And it isn’t the first time that she has been wrong about policing.
In 2010, in her first speech as Home Secretary to the annual Police Federation Conference, she stated that the job of the police was “nothing more, and nothing less, than to cut crime.”
She was wrong.
The job of the police is about so much more than just crime. It is about saving lives and finding lost children and responding to people in mental health crisis and dealing with car crashes and delivering unbearable news to families who have lost loved ones and ten thousand other things besides. But the new Home Secretary appeared to have no awareness of or understanding for these things.
In her 2014 speech to the Federation Conference, she told her audience that crime was down and that police reform was working. It became her repeated mantra every time the government’s approach to policing was challenged or questioned.
She was wrong.
She was wrong about crime. Recorded crime might have been falling at the time of her speech, but recorded crime is only ever a significant underestimate of the reality. Domestic Violence and sexual offences and youth violence and child sexual exploitation are all examples of crimes that are very significantly under-reported. And if you don’t know what the numbers are in the first place, how can you be certain that they are falling? In any case, five years after her speech, there can be no doubt that crime is actually rising – certainly crime of the most serious kinds. She was wrong about police reform too. She had been talking about the notion of reform since 2010, but had never actually defined what she meant by the term. Instead, the police service had been on the receiving end of a succession of isolated changes without any reference to their place in a bigger plan. We had the puzzle pieces, but no picture on the box to describe how they were supposed to fit together. In late 2018, the National Audit Office published a report in which they stated that the Home Office had “no overarching strategy for policing”. And, if you don’t know where you’re going, how on earth can you tell if you’ve arrived?
Crime is not down and police reform is not working.
Also in 2014, she set out to challenge the police use of Stop & Search. She overtly politicised an operational police tactic and her intervention led to huge reductions in the use of the power.
She was wrong. Not in demanding the the police use the power appropriately and well, but in turning it into a political issue and overseeing a hugely damaging reduction in its use. There is, in my professional experience, an absolute connection between the effective use of Stop & Search and levels of street violence. And it is not difficult now to establish a correlation between falling police numbers, falling Stop & Search and rising knife crime.
In her 2015 speech to the Federation, she responded in uncompromising fashion to officers who had issued repeated warnings about the likely consequences of government cuts to policing. She told them that they were ‘scaremongering’. She told them they were ‘crying wolf’.
She was wrong.
Government cuts have had devastating consequences for policing. As they have for every other part of the public sector. You cannot possibly cut 44,000 officers and staff from policing in England & Wales and expect it to carry on as if nothing has changed. Of course there is a connection between falling policing numbers and rising violence. And it is a consequence of conscious, deliberate government policy
I have been writing about for policing for some time now and, whenever I have raised concerns – not least about the actions of government – I have always taken care to avoid making it personal. I have always tried to stick to the facts – to be objective and constructive. In naming names now – or one name in particular – I am breaking my own unwritten rule. But I have read and watched the news of recent days with a growing mixture of anger and despair, and I find that I cannot remain silent. Theresa May has been wrong about policing at almost every point along the way and she and her government have done untold damage to a job that I love with all my heart and soul.
There are three really important footnotes I need to add here.
Firstly, for the avoidance of any possible misunderstanding, I do not think Theresa May is solely to blame for rising violence and for the deaths of young people on our streets. The situation is infinitely more complicated than that.
Secondly, I do not think for one moment that policing is fine just as it is – that there is no requirement for reform of any kind. Of course there is. I have never met a good copper who thinks that policing requires no further improvement. There is always more to be done. But that reform needs to be led by those who have a deep understanding of – and appreciation for – the Job and its people.
Finally, this blog is absolutely not for political use. I think that the current Government is an absolute train wreck. But I think that the current Opposition is an absolute train wreck too. There is an urgent need now for politicians of real courage and character (irrespective of party or persuasion) to stand up and speak up and do the right thing.
My phone has been ringing consistently in the last 24 hours – a succession of calls from journalists wanting to talk about Knife Crime, or to arrange radio and TV interviews to talk about Knife Crime. Prior commitments have meant that I’ve had to turn almost all of those requests down, but this is what I would have said given the chance:
(1) A Long Term Plan
We need a long term plan for dealing with knife crime – at least ten years, preferably twenty. We need to understand that, when problems have been a generation or more in the making, they might just take a generation or more to mend.
We have got to get beyond the relentless demand for quick fixes. The professional and effective use of police Stop & Search powers undoubtedly saves lives, but it is not the long term answer to anything.
(2) A Public Health Approach
We need to re-frame our understanding of violence, recognising that it is at least as much a public health issue as it is a crime problem. Violence is a disease that can be caught and transmitted. But it can also be diagnosed and treated.
(3) Young People as the Answer
The current wave of concern tends to define young people as the problem. In fact, they are a very large part of the solution. We need to involve them in designing and delivering every single aspect of the response to knife crime.
(4) Operational Independence from Political Control
The response to knife crime needs to remain completely independent from any form of political control. When politicians are in charge, experience suggests that the response to any pressing concern remains vulnerable to partisan priorities and shifting political winds. And we simply cannot allow that to keep happening. Some things are far too important to be left to politics. Knife crime is one of them.
(5) Policing at the Heart, but not the Head
Policing will always be first in line to respond to knife crime, and that is exactly as it should be. There is no greater duty or privilege for a police officer than to save a life, but the police should not be in overall charge of the plan. Knife crime is – and has always been – a whole society problem that demands a whole society solution.
There is so much more that might be said but, at this particular moment in time, these seem to me to be the five most important things.
I’m sitting on a train bound for Cardiff where, later today, I will have the privilege of spending a bit of time in the company officers and staff from South Wales Police. I’ll be talking to them about the day I fell seriously ill and the reasons why I think it happened. I’ll be telling them about the long, long road to recovery.
I love policing with all my heart and soul – I always have and I always will. It’s a heck of a job though – placing the kinds of demands on people (body, mind and soul) that most of the rest of us would struggle to imagine, much less endure. Police officers go where most wouldn’t and they do what most couldn’t. I love them for it.
But as I look round me in policing at the moment, I see more good people operating under substantially more strain than at any previous point in my lifetime. Crime is rising – certainly crime of the most serious kinds. Levels of recorded knife crime are now the highest they have been since the end of World War II. Demand is rising too, not least as a consequence the huge gaps that exist in the delivery of other frontline public services. Complexity is rising as crime crosses both geographic borders and digital frontiers. Risk is rising, with a deeply concerning number of officers being seriously assaulted in recent times. And all of this has unfolded over the course of an eight-year period that has seen 44,000 officers and staff cut from policing in England & Wales.
I have said these things on many occasions before, but it would appear that they still need repeating. Just this morning, the Police Federation for England & Wales – the representative body for the policing frontline – published the results of a demand survey suggesting that almost 90% of officers believe that there are not enough of them to be able to do their job properly.
The only surprise to me was that the figure wasn’t closer to 100%. We are now in a situation where we have fewer police officers, with fewer resources, doing a job that is more difficult, more demanding and, frequently, more dangerous that it has ever been before. And we cannot say that we do not know.
By way of constructive response, here is my 10 Point Plan for Policing – a quick-fire series of suggestions about what needs to happen now:
(1) Immediate & Substantial Re-investment in Frontline Policing
There is an absolute connection between police numbers and crime numbers. To suggest otherwise is to defy both common sense and professional experience. You cannot possibly take 44,000 people out of a critical emergency service and expect to see no change.
I am not suggesting that policing has run out of things it could do better or more efficiently. Of course it hasn’t. But there is a fundamental difference between a saving and a cut and the threshold between the two was crossed a long time ago.
The following parts of policing are in particularly urgent need of reinvestment:
Emergency Response (including the capacity to patrol proactively)
Serious & Organised Crime investigation
Safeguarding – both children and vulnerable adults
(2) An Urgent Public Debate about Policing
There is an overwhelming need for us to have a proper public conversation about what we want the police to be – and what we want them to do. Because everything can’t be a priority. I’m not talking about a Royal Commission. I’m talking about something that needs to happen now.
(3) Long-term Operational Strategy & Investment Plan for Policing
Once we have reached a point of agreement about what we actually want the police to do, we need a set of proper long-term funding arrangements that give them at least a fighting chance of being able to deliver. And we need an operational strategy that is drawn up and led by people who really understand the job.
Crime is not down and police reform is not working.
(4) Minimum 10-Year Plans for Critical Crime Types
Both culturally and politically, we are living in impatient times, forever demanding quick fixes in response to the latest crisis to hit the headlines. But they never, ever work – problems that have been a generation or more in the making might just take more than a day our two to resolve. As I once heard a preacher suggest, doing the wrong thing faster won’t get the right thing done.
We need minimum Ten Year Plans for a whole series of critical crime types – domestic violence and knife crime prominent amongst them.
(5) Effective Statutory Partnerships
Mental health services are underfunded.
Youth services are underfunded.
Adult Social Care is underfunded.
And so it goes on, with policing picking up the pieces at almost every turn. That is entirely unsustainable – both operationally and morally. A person suffering from a Mental Health crisis needs to be treated as a patient, not a prisoner.
Every frontline service needs to be resourced to do the job being asked of it. And all of them need to stop calling the police at 4.30pm on Friday afternoon and expecting them to take up the strain.
(6) An End to 43 Different Ways of Doing Things
The old-fashioned model of 43 different police forces in England & Wales just isn’t sustainable. The world has changed and policing needs to change with it.
(7) Abolition of PCCs
There are some excellent individual PCCs out there, but the overall experiment has failed. Policing is far too important to be left in the hands of politicians. That is not an argument against transparency and accountability – I am for more of both of those things. But it is an argument for the reassertion of operational independence from political control.
(8) Acceptance of Independent Pay Review Body Recommendations
There should never again be a question about whether or not the goverment will accept the recommendations of the independent Pay Review body for policing. No one ever joined the police to get rich. But all of them deserve to be paid fairly for doing a job like no other.
(9) Review of Police Misconduct Procedures.
Far too many police misconduct investigations – both those carried out internally by forces and those conducted by the IOPC – take far too long to resolve. There is a danger that we accept lower investigative standards when dealing with officers than we would ever countenance when dealing with members of the public.
Officers who are guilty of criminality or serious misconduct need to face effective justice. There is no place for them in the policing.
Officers who are innocent of wrongdoing need to receive effective justice. They are needed urgently back on the frontline.
(10) A New Narrative about Policing
Finally (for now at least), we still need to change the story we are telling about policing in this country.
There are times and places when policing gets things terribly wrong, and we should never shy away from holding it up to the light. Society still has every right to expect higher standards of police officers than they do of anyone else.
But, for more than twenty-five years, I worked with heroes and I don’t hear nearly enough being said about them. We need to be shouting, every single day, about the extraordinary courage and humanity of the men and women who police our streets.
So there you have it. That’s my plan.
I suspect that the response of some will be that we can’t afford to do it.
To which my reply will be, we can’t afford not to.
A couple of days ago, the Met Police released a brief series of film clips that showed officers targeting moped criminals. In several instances, suspects were seen being deliberately knocked off their bikes by the police vehicles that were pursuing them. Predictably, the footage went viral. In the accompanying press release, the police had this to say:
“It is hoped that by demonstrating the full range of tactics that officers are prepared to use against moped and motorcycle criminals, potential offenders will think twice about their actions.”
Overwhelmingly, the response – from police colleagues and public alike – was positive. At last, people said, something was being done about the violent criminals who had previously been operating with apparent impunity. But there were some who disagreed.
From January to October last year, there were more than 19,000 crimes committed in London by suspects on mopeds. That’s a heck of a lot of very serious offences. The first (though far from only) duty of the police is the prevention and detection of crime. And they were being criticised for not doing enough.
Now though, some people are taking issue with them for what they are doing.
So here are my four simple thoughts on the subject:
First & Second Things
There is an order to everything that happens in life. In each of the clips shown, a crime has been committed before the police ever get involved. The crime is the first thing. The police response is the second thing.
If the crime hadn’t been committed, there would be no need for the police to act.
If the rider hadn’t failed to stop, there would be no need for the police to intervene.
It’s strange how easily we can forget these things sometimes.
Damned if you do & damned if you don’t
I’ve alluded to it already but, sometimes as a police officer, it can begin to feel as though you just can’t win.
You can be castigated for failing to take action.
You can be lambasted for the action you do take.
Well, which is it to be? That’s what the rest of us need to decide. Because it can’t be both.
Rights & Responsibilities
All sorts of talk about rights. But whose rights do we mean?
Those of the law abiding majority – or those of the lawless minority? Those of the victims – or those of the perpetrators? Because these things don’t always coincide.
And you cannot have rights without also having responsibilities:
The responsibility that every single citizen has to obey the law of the land.
The responsibility that the police have to protect the rest of us.
The responsibility that every decent citizen has to support the lawful actions of every decent police officer.
And the responsibility that every critic has to suggest alternatives to the things they don’t like. It isn’t enough to sit back and tell the rest of us what you are against. You need to tell us what you are for. If you’re not keen on the idea of suspects being knocked off mopeds, you need to come up with a better alternative.
Because doing nothing is not an option.
(Incidentally, that same principle applies to the views people hold about Stop & Search, about spit guards and about every other policing headline of recent times.)
Choices & Consequences
We live at a time and in a society where we celebrate the freedom that each one of us has to choose: what to eat, what to wear, how to spend our time, who to spend it with, and so on. It is a precious, precious thing.
But you cannot have choices without also having consequences.
If you choose to steal a moped, then you are choosing the consequences of doing so.
If you choose to steal and snatch and mug and stab and harm, then you are choosing the consequences of doing so.
If you choose to fail to stop for the police, you are choosing the consequences of doing so.
I would far rather live in a world where these things were not up for debate. I would far rather live in a world where police officers (knowing that they remain entirely accountable for the actions they take) were never placed in a position where they had to make the split-second decision to knock a suspect off a bike – because it was the least worst option available to them.
But then I would far rather live in a world where people didn’t steal mopeds and commit crimes and damn the rest of us.
Another round of depressing headlines about Chief Constables stating that their Forces no longer have the resources they need to do all that is being asked and expected of them.
Another round of deeply disturbing headlines about police officers being attacked in the street. The accompanying film footage is too much for me to watch.
I have never known times remotely like these – and it set me thinking about all that has disappeared from policing in the last eight years.
The list is staggering:
I. The loss of 44,000 police officers and staff in England & Wales.
Say that number out loud a couple of times and let it sink in.
II. The loss of neighbourhood policing.
London has more 600 local council wards. In 2010, each of those had its own dedicated Safer Neighbourhoods Team.
That meant a minimum of 1 Sergeant, 2 PCs and 3 PCSOs for every single ward.
Safer Neighbourhoods Teams don’t exist in London any more.
In many other parts of the country, local Neighbourhood Policing Teams have all but vanished – and with them, critical relationships and connections with local communities and the capacity for long term problem solving.
III. The loss of more than 600 police stations.
According to the Times newspaper, some Forces have closed more than half their stations. Gloucestershire Police have closed 21 out of 28.
The loss of these buildings means the loss of the tangible, local policing presence that is so important to so many people.
IV. The loss of specialist frontline policing resources – so critical in the fight against crime. Obvious examples include:
V. The loss of frontline proactive policing capability – as experienced officers are moved away from patrol teams and local crime squads, into Counter-Terrorism and specialist investigatory roles.
VI. The loss of confidence amongst some frontline officers in the legitimate (and absolutely essential) use of their Stop & Search Powers.
Stop & Search has been politicised to the most extraordinary degree.
In 2014, to loud fanfare, Theresa May – then the Home Secretary – announced that she was setting out to reform Stop & Search. The direct result was a huge reduction in the police use of their various powers.
In September 2015, Sadiq Khan was seeking to become the Mayor of London. Out on the campaign trail, he suggested that, if elected, he would “do everything in (his) power to cut Stop & Search”.
Nobody is calling for less of it now.
VII. The loss of significant operational independence from political control – not least through the introduction of elected Police & Crime Commissioners.
VIII. The loss of hard-won reductions in serious and violent crime
IX. The loss of respect – in some quarters at least – for police officers and the role that they perform in society:
The political rhetoric about policing in the last eight years has, on occasions, been astonishingly hostile.
The police have been accused of being racist.
They have been accused of being corrupt.
They have been accused of being incompetent.
They have been accused of being resistant to change.
They have been accused of crying wolf.
This rhetoric has been picked up and reapplied with venom in certain sections of the media – with the kind of one-eyed reporting that reinforces the view that the police are not respected by those in positions of power and authority.
And there is an absolute connection between the lack of respect shown by politicians and the press – and the lack of respect being shown on the street.
There are serious long-term consequences to the short-term cuts of the last eight years. The following facts bear repeating:
Crime is rising – certainly crime of the most serious kinds.
Demand is rising – not least as a consequence of the gaping holes that have appeared in the delivery of other critical front-line public services.
Complexity is rising – as crime crosses both geographic borders and digital frontiers.
Risk is rising – with more officers being more seriously assaulted than I can ever remember before. And each one of them remains an explicit terrorist target.
Austerity was a conscious, deliberate political choice. And so were its consequences. There is now an overwhelmingly urgent need for reinvestment in frontline policing. And, even then, it may take a generation to repair the damage done.
Fewer officers with fewer resources are being asked to do a job that it more difficult, more demanding and – frequently – more dangerous than it has been at any previous point in my lifetime. And the responsibility for that reality rests squarely with the government of the day.
On October 25th, a report published by the Home Affairs Select Committee suggested that Forces are “struggling to cope” with current levels of demand and warned of “dire consequences” for public safety if policing is denied the additional funding it so desperately needs. The HASC report went further still, accusing the Home Office of a “complete failure of leadership” when it comes to policing.
This damning accusation mirrored one of the observations made in last month’s National Audit Office Report on police funding. The NAO suggested that the Home Office “has no overarching strategy for policing” and suggested that there are “significant gaps in (the Home Office’s) understanding of demand and of pressures on the Service”.
No plan and a complete failure of leadership.
The NAO report also highlighted the loss of 44,000 police officers and staff since 2010. 44,000. That’s a staggering number of people to cut from a critical frontline public service. And cuts have consequences.
On October 24th, two Met officers were stabbed by a man armed with a screwdriver.
On October 23rd, Lynne Owens – Director General of the NCA and one of the most respected voices in policing – spoke out on Radio 4’s Today Programme about the pressures facing the Service. She talked of the danger of losing sight of one of the core principles of policing in this country: the duty that every officer has to prevent crime. Under overwhelming resourcing strain, policing is becoming increasingly reactive – at the expense of the one thing the public value most of all: a visible, reassuring local policing presence.
On the same day, an article in the Guardian newspaper highlighted concerns shared by the Chief Constables of Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands – three of the largest Forces in the country. Ian Hopkins – Chief in Manchester – observed that budget pressures could take officer numbers in his Force below levels last seen in the 1970s.
On the same day, another teenager was fatally stabbed in London.
On October 18th, the latest set of crime figures were published. And they weren’t pretty. Crime of the most serious kinds is rising – including a 12% increase in Knife Crime. Homicide is up for the fourth year in a row – and now stands at its highest level in a decade.
On the same day, Professor James Treadwell from Staffordshire University published an article highlighting the impact of goverment cuts on policing and beyond. He suggested that, “the latest crime figures reinforce what the experts have been finding for years: that the best way to stop violence on our streets is to end the violence of austerity.”
On the same day a PC in Greater Manchester was seriously injured when he was hit by a van being pursued by his colleagues.
The day before, his Chief Constable – Ian Hopkins again – described the resourcing situation like this: “It’s like Manchester United going on to the pitch every week with eight players and wondering why they lose”.
On October 11th, the National Police Chief’s Council warned of the possible loss of a further 10,000 police officers as a consequence of changes to pension funding arrangements introduced by the government. Yesterday at PMQs, the Prime Minister suggested that Forces had known about this for some time. This morning, her statement was directly contradicted by the NPCC, who provided the following clarification: “The first notification that enabled forces to properly plan for proposed pension changes did not come until September 2018”.
On October 8th, a man was charged with Attempted Murder after an attack on four police officers, two of whom were stabbed.
On the same day, a PC in Manchester was stabbed with such ferocity that the knife snapped.
On October 5th, a Leicestershire PC was seriously injured after being hit by a suspect vehicle. The driver was charged with Attempted Murder.
At the start of October, the Prime Minister once again denied that there was a connection between police numbers and crime numbers. Her statement was in defiance of both common sense and professional policing experience, my own included.
Police Officers have been warning for several years that the Service was in real trouble. At first they were accused of “crying wolf”. When their concerns were reiterated, they were told, repeatedly, that “crime is down and police reform is working”.
Well it isn’t and it isn’t.
There is an urgent need for reinvestment in frontline response policing – in the capacity of the service to respond to rising crime and demand. There is an urgent need for reinvestment in neighbourhood policing – in the rebuilding of relationships with local communities, so critical in the fight against terrorism and organised crime. There is an urgent need for reinvestment in proactive policing – not least in the short-term ability of the service to stem the endless flow of killings. And there is an urgent need to reinvest in long-term, partnership based problem solving – of the kind that might actually prevent crime from happening in the first place. At its most fundamental level, this is about saving lives.
Coppers have always liked to have a good old moan. They’ve been doing it since 1829. But this is different. Chief Officers are speaking out now. Frontline officers have been speaking out for much longer.
For more than twenty five years, I worked with heroes – the finest men and women you could ever hope to know. And the very best ones amongst them are speaking up now – constructively and insistently – telling us that all is not well.
Policing is breaking. Police Officers are breaking. And those in positions of power and responsibility cannot say that they do not know.
(p.s. If you are an opposition politician, you don’t have my permission to use what’s written here for political ends. Policing is too important for that.)
There’s an old line from the Good Book that’s been on my mind of late. It goes something like this:
“Without a vision, the people perish.”
It comes from the Old Testament book of Proverbs (known also as ‘The Book of Wisdom’) and it has particular resonance as I scan the current police-related news headlines.
First there is the National Audit Office report into police funding. Amongst a series of damning conclusions, you can read the following:
‘The Home Office has no overarching strategy for policing, limiting its ability to plan investments and programmes of work over the longer term.’
‘The formula for funding police forces does not take into account the full range of demands on police time.’
‘There are no common standards for measuring all demands for police services and their costs, and therefore no national picture of what forces need.’
Extraordinary. Just extraordinary.
And, without a vision, the people perish.
The NAO point out that there has been a 30% real terms reduction in central Government funding for policing since 2010. That is one heck of a cut.
The BBC coverage of the NAO report’s release includes the following detail:
Policing has lost a total of 44,000 officers and staff since 2010. That is a staggering number of people.
It includes a reduction of more than 22,400 police officers.
The suggestion made is that the Home Office failed to forecast the potential consequences of these losses.
And all this at a time when:
Crime is rising – certainly crime of the most serious kinds
Demand is rising – not least as a result of the gaping holes that have appeared in the delivery of other frontline public services
Complexity is rising – as crime crosses both geographic borders and digital frontiers
Risk is rising – as officers continue to be seriously assaulted and each of them remains an explicit terrorist target.
This week saw the opening of the Inquest into the Westminster Bridge attack, prompting us perhaps to pause for a moment to reflect on the realities that police officers now face – and the extraordinary personal sacrifices that some of them make.
And, without a vision, the people perish.
This week, the head of the national Police Superintendents’ Association, Gavin Thomas, has also spoken out. He’s made a number of telling observations – including the following:
‘There is a void in the long term strategic vision for the police service.’
‘Policing is now utterly reliant on fewer people working longer and harder.’
‘I cannot emphasise enough that the delivery of routine policing functions should not be dependent on officers effectively giving their time for free by staying past their shift times or working on leave days… That exploits police officers and defrauds the public.’
The newly-elected Chair of the Police Federation (the body representing rank and file officers), John Apter, has spoken out repeatedly about the same issues.
I know Gavin and I know John – I’m proud to count both of them as friends. And here’s the thing: neither of them is some kind of grumpy, damaging throwback to a policing past where frontline officers complained indiscriminately about anything and everything, oblivious to the fact that they themselves were actually a significant part of the problem. Neither Gavin nor John is a blind apologist for a job that can sometimes get things very badly wrong. Actually, they would both be amongst the first to acknowledge that there are things that policing can – and must – do better. The simple fact is that they care deeply about policing – about what it is and what it represents in society. They care deeply about the public they serve – and about the men and women they serve alongside. And they understand that precious, old-fashioned thing called duty. Like all the best officers I ever worked alongside, they joined simply because they wanted to make a difference. I share their sense of overwhelming concern about the way things are.
In recent years, politicians have spoken repeatedly about police reform – without ever defining what they meant by it. In place of any semblance of a coherent vision, we have been faced with with a series of individual and frequently isolated changes – the hugely unpopular reforms to police pay and pensions, the controversial introduction of PCCs, the provocative appointment of a first civilian HMIC, the establishment of the College of Policing, the introduction of direct entry programmes and so on – without any clear reference to their place in a bigger plan. And it seemed to me that the police reform agenda was being driven by a small number of people with little or no first hand experience or understanding of policing. And certainly with no empathy for it. All the while, austerity tightened its grip and the public sector began to buckle under the strain.
In truth, I have never felt more troubled about policing than I do at this particular moment in time. And the thing that troubles me most of all is the very real consequences of the current situation for the real lives of real people.
I think of my former colleagues – those extraordinary women and men who stand on the thin blue line. For more than twenty-five years, I worked with heroes: the best of who we are and what we can be. But these days, quietly and privately – out of the sight and hearing of most of us – they tell me that all is not well. They tell me that they are struggling to manage caseloads, that they are struggling to answer calls, that they are struggling to provide the standard of service that the public need and deserve. They tell me that their health is suffering as a consequence – but that duty compels them still.
And I think of the communities they work in: affected increasingly by crimes of unimaginable trauma and horror. I think of the number of murders in London this year. I think of victims and their families – of lives lost and lives shattered as the madness of history continues to repeat itself.
And I realise that, without a vision, people are perishing.
The headlines are telling us that crime is rising.
So here are ten brief suggestions from a retired police officer to suggest why that might be so:
(1) Falling Police Officer Numbers
There is an absolute connection between the number of police officers in England & Wales and the number of crimes committed in England & Wales. Whilst it is impossible to set out detailed cause and effect (crime is affected by a thousand different things), to deny the connection would be to abandon both common sense and professional experience.
There are 20,000+ fewer police officers in England & Wales now, compared with just eight years ago. That’s a heck of a reduction.
(2) Falling Police Community Support Officer Numbers
It’s not just the reduction in warranted officers. PCSO numbers have been decimated – with inevitable consequences for street visibility and local community engagement.
(3) Falling Police Staff Numbers
It’s not just the reduction in warranted officers and PCSOs. Police Staff numbers have also fallen very significantly – with inevitable consequences for a number of vital operational support functions, such as intelligence analysis and briefing.
(4) Falling Investment in Neighbourhood Policing
The strain on police numbers has had direct consequences for Neighbourhood Policing – with huge reductions in the numbers of officers and staff dedicated to local crime prevention and problem solving.
(6) Falling Investment in Specialist Police Resources
The pressure on police budgets has had hugely damaging consequences for the provision of specialist support functions – including dogs, horses and helicopters. Each of these is proven and effective in dealing with crime and each has been cut dramatically.
(7) Falling Police Proactivity
The loss of overall police numbers and the movement of officers and staff from the frontline into important investigative and safeguarding roles – combined with deeply misinformed and damaging rhetoric on the police use of Stop & Search powers – has had a significant impact on police procativity in all its forms.
(8) Rising Demand from Other Public Services
There has been an overwhelming increase in the demand placed on policing as a consequence of the huge gaps that have appeared in the provision of other critical frontline public services: Mental Health; Children’s Services; Youth Services; Adult Social Care… the list goes on. And every time the police pick up a responsibility that belongs to someone else, it has an immediate impact on their ability to fight crime.
(9) Government Policy
Each of these first eight factors is – unavoidably and undeniably – the direct consequence of conscious, deliberate government policy. And we are beginning to see the first indications of the inevitable long term costs of short term cuts. Crime is not down. Police reform is not working.
(10) Increasing Complexity
Policing has always been complex, but it has never been more so than now – particularly in relation to the investigation of cyber crime. The web – and the dark web in particular – has become the enabler of an avalanche of enormously sophisticated criminality and, the more complicated it gets, the more people, time and resources it will take for policing to respond.
It’s not just about policing of course.
There are endless additional considerations that have little to do with law enforcement, but everything to do with the condition of the wider world – factors such as poverty and inequality and aspiration and hope.
Policing is in urgent need of new investment. Society is in urgent need of a helping hand.