Simple routes to ‘visionary’ British policing for the 21st century and beyond?
This week the media has been awash with ‘exclusive’ reports about ‘new’ police methods for combating the current terror threats but, what do we actually want/need from today’s police service?
The news agencies have trotted out their usual selection of sensational (but largely incorrect) emotive headlines and if I’d been a gambling man, I’d have been on a sure-fire winner selecting titles such as; ‘Bobbies adopt Rambo Tactics’ or ‘Bobbies turn to SAS to manage the Capital’s killing fields’ or indeed any of the other crap they often use.
Here we go again thinks I; now for all the internal security ‘experts’ being hauled out of police and/or military retirement to offer their ‘opinion’ (and claim their handsome sound bite fee plus expenses). The social pundits will berate the further ‘moves towards a police state‘ and, how long will it be before the ‘Human Rights‘ comments are eloquently voiced by Ms Shami Chackrabarti on behalf of Liberty et al, if they haven’t already? As an aside; Shami is usually well-informed and her observations and comments are usually also pertinent however, the media tend to use her to reinforce views opposing required or sensible policing measures. The BBC were a little more restrained than their tabloid and commercial cousins might have been when reporting the issue…
Police in training for ‘Mumbai-style’ gun attack in UK – “UK security chiefs have ordered an acceleration in police training to prepare for any future “Mumbai-style” gun attack in a public place” (Read more)
There was also a modicum of sensible and realistic comment from Frank Gardner, the BBC Security Correspondent…
“Scary as this all sounds, it would be far more shocking – even scandalous – if the government were NOT making these preparations for a worst-case scenario.” (Frank Gardner)
With the increased criminal use of firearms, there is actually a need for Armed Response Units to combat today’s gun crimes. There is also a realistic need for units like the Metropolitan Police Service and their Central Operations Specialist Firearms Command (CO19), to constantly monitor and update their training methods. This is a sensible and a professional requirement to combat the ever-changing and increasing threat levels. That said, it’s highly unlikely we will see hordes of Elite Special Forces or heavily armed police teams patrolling our streets in their Jankel Guardian TIV, at least not as a matter of routine.
What do we actually want from our police service?
The underlying and most fundamental questions raised by this latest news are; what type of police officer does our society actually want? Do we still require the stereotypical Sgt George Dixon (of Dock Green) archetypal ‘British Bobby’ or, some armed to the teeth gun-toting type ninja called PC John Rambo?
For some time now I’ve been thinking about these questions (and hopefully developing some answers). We probably require a police service that sits somewhere between the two and, although the threats of modern times dictate higher levels of armed response type enforcement, it is actually an unsuitable and unworkable policing paradox to try to efficiently provide one at the expense of the other. Perhaps there is a desire to move towards a continental model like the French for example? A policing system that has two distinctly differing core functions; one for helping you and dealing with your crime reports and, one for beating you with a big stick and controlling you with riot shields and water cannon. Is this the type of service we really want?
The old ethos of a multi-tasking and omni-competent police officer is probably something of a pipe dream today (unfortunately), and likely to be consigned to the history books for ever. Even if it’s only due to the unsustainable financial implications for the public purse. There is also a need to address numerous operational resource management issues, ones that are currently having a profound and negative impact upon service delivery to the public.
“How does the service reconcile having the largest number of staff ever with claims about huge falls in crime, yet it cannot cope with the demand it faces and wants to withdraw from being the public’s perceived 24/7 ultimate social service, and suffers immense bureaucratic burdens? The messages are inconsistent.” (Dr Huw Evans – Management Consultant)
The provision of PCSOs was originally an attempt to bolster the failing public face of British policing. There has been limited success however, due to vagaries in training, individual personal skills and the differing powers bestowed by Chief Constables in different force areas, the service has failed to develop their full potential and consequently, their ultimate value to the policing process. Despite the perceived values of the PCSO role, there is still far too much inconsistency in the individuals and forces they work for, I therefore remain to be convinced about the true value of the PCSO role. Are they being used correctly to support the policing function or, just providing policing on the cheap? There are still far more operational and financial advantages for having fully warranted and multi-skilled police officers.
2010 has been the year of public sector ‘reform’ (aka cost-cutting), a process which has been moving at an even faster pace since the election earlier this year. I fully support the fact that, government agencies like policing, are (finally) being brought to the operating table. Some radical and long overdue surgery is required. We need to remove the cancerous growth of mismanagement of public funds by the turkeys that don’t vote for Christmas. This grotesque illness has continued for far too long. What concerns me however is; despite the myriad of pre-op examinations and routine tests by locum practitioners, the surgeons are still wielding the scalpel blind.
How confident and brave the ‘surgeon’ will be still remains to be seen but things do need to change. As I’ve commented before, the firearms issue is only one aspect of the challenges of the police reform process and unfortunately, I’m still waiting to see something radical. There has to be some new thinking for anything really radical to actually take place.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” (Albert Einstein)
Comprehensive reform is well overdue, especially when you consider the current failings in the service. Unfortunately to date, we have simply been tinkering around the edges.
Now more than any time previously, it should be easier to apply the change that is required. Change that is required not just for British Policing to survive (at least in some recognisable format) but also, to give our policing system a fighting chance and the capability of addressing the law and order issues of the future.
I’d like to offer the following observations and suggestions to address some (or all) of the problems…
The current structure of British policing (like Sgt. Dixon) and its 43 autonomous police forces (in England & Wales) needs to finally be consigned to the history books. Take a leaf out of the Scotland policing book; they’re already making sensible inroads towards national/regional mergers (see previous post). Most importantly, members of ACPO and the Police Authorities need to bury their autocratic and parochialism crap, and stop misleading the public by implying they will lose local control and accountability with force mergers.
It is however a fundamentally flawed process to base any ‘reform’ simply upon the ‘Neighbourhood Policing’ (NP) model, a format that has extolled by many but also one which has (in many ways), compounded service failures. NP (or whatever it is called this week) was little more than ‘buzzword’ policing, in many areas it simply halved the 24/7 response element of policing, at a time when actual demand was on the increase. Calling a grouping of police officers (and PCSOs) a ‘Safer Neighbourhood Team’ might have sounded good, it may have appeased the politicians for a while, it may even have conned the public (in the short-term) into thinking the police are keeping them ‘safe’ however; when the service constantly fails to deliver response to demand, surely it has to be a joke.
Reform processes so far have been bogged down in a quagmire of theory, political considerations and autocratic self-preservation. Perhaps my (usually maligned) simplistic approach to the problem might be a good starting point for once? There may be many strings to the bow of modern policing however; these differing functions actually fall into distinct geographical areas of policing responsibility to uphold the law of the land, these include;
- National – Including international crimes such as; people trafficking, drugs cartels, money laundering and other serious organised crimes. There are also additional responsibilities relating to the nation’s transport infrastructure.
- Regional – High level and cross border crimes like burglary, autocrime and those crimes committed by travelling criminals, who have little or no regard for geographic boundaries.
- Local – Community policing issues such as theft, criminal damage, domestic violence, child protection, missing persons, public order and antisocial behaviour.
There are times when a crime or incident can realistically span all three of the above; this can create primacy and responsibility issues, usually because of financial considerations. Police managers also fear the prospects of accountability when something goes wrong with something they had no direct control over. None of these issues are actually insurmountable.
Shouldn’t we take the opportunity to look at basing the reform process around these three simple geographic areas of policing? To be fair the police service has actually tried however, because of piecemeal implementation of infrastructure, there hasn’t been a very high success rate, so far. Much of the failure relates to the parochialism in policing leadership (again), that and the lack of will to develop financial and governance infrastructures to support collaboration. The methods being rolled out in the Policing Yorkshire & the Humber model may be worth expanding upon?
The most important part of any national/regional service provision is a fully integrated communications and IT system, with local, regional and national capability. Despite initial moves in the right direction, with systems like the Police National Computer (PNC) and the national Airwave Tetra radio system, inter-force capability and compatibility is still patchy and haphazard. The radio system is just one recent example of a failed opportunity (in many forces). Because each force has negotiated system specification individually with the radio network provider, much of the potential in the system is underutilized.
I could go on for page after page; the police service has continually failed to fully embrace the potential of technology for years, for both autocratic financial and political reasons. There have also been massive failings in securing the financial advantages of economies of scale presented by joint procurement arrangements and combined/shared back office functions such as HR etc. Thankfully, the service has finally had its hand forced (to some extent) by the austerity measures, now we are starting to see moves in the right direction, but what of the future policing structure?
Although some moves have been made to extract better value policing in the three areas outlined, I believe we can and should do more. Let me expand further on the three differing areas of policing…
NATIONAL POLICE FUNCTIONALITY:
The government have already outlined changes relating to the demise of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and the introduction of a new National Crime Agency (NCA). The SOCA Annual Plan for 2010/2011 can be seen here. Tarique Ghaffur, a former Assistant Commissioner Metropolitan Police force with responsibility for serious and organised crime has said;
“…constant criticism of SOCA, justified or otherwise, has almost certainly contributed to its replacement by the NCA. The question remains, as to whether the NCA will actually deliver the anticipated results?” (Read more)
In addition to the ongoing SOCA/NCA debacle, and the communications technology infrastructure issues already outlined, we still need to address the national procurement issues and the sharing of other ‘back-office’ support functionality. It is my belief that, the latter issue will probably be most efficiently addressed at regional as opposed to national level.
With the proposed remit of the NCA, which includes serious crime and aspects handled by the UK Border Agency. This new agency could also take responsibility for the provision of policing functions at our sea and air ports. I also believe there is scope to develop a national transportation police function, further developing the work already (but only partly) undertaken by the Highways Agency.
The British Transport Police (BTP) could provide a national ‘Highway Patrol’ functionality, supported by the current Highways Agency Traffic Officers (HATO). They could be utilised in a PCSO type support role within the expanded BTP. The two agencies already possess the required national command and control and administration infrastructures to support such a development.
It could also be beneficial for the service if there was a national air support provision based upon England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The functionality (and support structure) would however probably be best delivered on a regional basis. Indeed, much of the national functionality would probably require a regional command structure for reasons of operational efficiency. Other national functionality could/should include;
- Counter Terrorism Investigation/Intelligence
- Narcotics Enforcement/Intelligence
- CEOP & Hi-Tech Crime Enforcement/Investigation
- Provision of Intelligence
- Wanted/Missing Persons Bureaux
- Police IT and Computer systems
- Creation and development of a Professional Policing Accreditation Body
- Procurement Processes (including nationally specified police vehicles)
REGIONAL POLICE FUNCTIONALITY:
In addition to the national functionality (provided on a regional basis), there is still much scope for shared working methods. My previous mention of Policing Yorkshire & the Humber is a good example of collaboration. Another good example of sharing resources was the now well established Central Motorway Police Group in the Midlands. The success of this unit which has been in place since 1990 is apparent and the North West Motorway Police Group took on a similar role and structure in 2008. This type of working is finally being looked upon more favourably than was previously the case. Functions that can also benefit from collaborative working and/or regionalisation include;
- Specialist Crime Investigation functions such as Child Protection
- Crime Scene Investigation
- Tactical Firearms Teams
- Armed Response Teams and Roads Policing
- Public Order Policing
- Marine Support (where applicable)
- Recruitment / Specialist Training / Personal Development
- HR / Finance / Estates functions
There is much to commend this type of functionality, both from an operational and financial viewpoint. It’s a pity the final drivers had to be based upon financial necessity, as opposed to visionary police leadership. If ACPO members can finally bury their autocratic hatchets once and for all, more advantages can be realised by joint service provision.
LOCAL POLICE FUNCTIONALITY:
Despite all the political and social rhetoric about community policing values, and the constant changes to unit structure and methodology over recent years, the frontline delivery aspect of the service is one of today’s major failures in policing. Delivery of an efficient 24/7 response functionality in policing is an integral part of the overall service. This Sgt. Dixon type policing ethos is actually the bedrock of British policing. It builds, develops and sustains public acceptance of the now famous and still respected (just) concept of ‘Policing by Consent’. Failures in this area have probably done more to damage the image of British policing than any other.
A desire to return to community based operational methods is to be commended indeed, it is a much-needed ethos, especially in those urban areas where policing has become a situation of ‘us and them’. Not with standing the undoubted benefits of community policing, the previously flawed method of simply cutting the service in half was destined to failure. The creation of a two tier service, i.e. response officers and community officers created a two tier service, it effectively created a situation whereby neither of the groups could actually meet and fulfil the demands placed upon them.
It is my belief that, there was no need to split the service into different groups, all police officers have a responsibility to apply and uphold the law with a policing by consent ethic. Any failure in this area of policing is as much to do with an officer’s individual social skills, ones that reflect the society they are a product of, as it has to do with any methods employed by the service. We need to see response and community teams combined once again and all operating with a community ethic.
RANKS & POLICE POWERS STRUCTURE:
As I’ve said previously; there are undoubted operational and financial benefits in having multi-skilled and fully warranted police officers. There are also benefits from having an extended police family support structure, one that includes a police reserve function and a Community Support Officer role. It is my belief that for reasons of flexibility in resource management and overall service resilience, the minimum standard must be fully trained and warranted constables for any role that is required to exercise the power of arrest.
The current rank structure and the associated failings have been widely commented and reported on previously and, I believe it no longer sustainable. A comprehensive report about the excess of senior police management was produced by The Thin Blue Line.
“Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” – Officers report that their forces are top heavy with Senior Management ranks, causing confusion with a blurring of responsibilities. This causes inconsistencies in strategy with one Chiefs’ flavour of the month project being superseded by another, often opposite viewpoint, sometimes within weeks or months of the first being issued. (Read full report)
Financial and operational advantages presented by force mergers and/or collaborative working are offset by retaining the same number of senior ranks. The example that I gave previously about the Yorkshire/Humberside initiative is a case in point? Assuming the collaboration process is permanent (and was even more comprehensive), where is the sense in maintaining four Chief Constables, four deputy Chiefs and eight or more ACC ranks? There is also the remainder of the senior rank and civilian hierarchical structure to be considered.
There are various pieces of legislation and/or guidance that dictate a certain rank based level of ‘authority’ or, dictate actions and responsibilities to sit with a certain police rank. Given that legislation/guidance can be changed, is there actually a requirement for many managerial and administrative roles to be filled by fully warranted and highly paid senior police officers? The only outside duty undertaken by many of them (where heaven forbid they might actually encounter the general public), often amounts to little more than 5-10mins at the start and end of each working day whilst walking between office and car. Continually trying to justify high levels of public money expenditure on senior ranks (and other public sector executives) is becoming increasingly difficult. Couldn’t many of those administrative tasks be performed by suitably trained and qualified civilians on lower salaries?
These are just some of my questions and ideas. I am happy to answer questions and/or expand upon any of them however; what we can no longer do is sit on the fence, pontificate and theorise about the whys and wherefores. The time for comprehensive action is now. Before we waste another opportunity to give Britain the police service it requires.
In the words of our now famous meerkat… “Seemples, tssk!”