British policing needs to learn from the Army

At long last London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, forced out Dame Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. I called on him to do so some time ago – but that doesn’t stop it looking like an act of political grandstanding.The important bit comes next.

My main criticism of the Met (and many other of Britain’s police forces) is bad management, which has led to the organisation being “institutionally stupid”, as I put it. In other words an organisation composed of perfectly intelligent people who somehow keep doing stupid things. Institutional stupidity is, of course, very common. It is marked by an over-emphasis on procedure over initiative, and a strong desire to protect the institution’s reputation at all costs. It often goes alongside a culture of bullying and excessive centralisation of decision-making. Examples of stupidity at the Met are legion. The two that stand out to me are the Operation Midland investigation into child sex abuse, and the Met’s response to the Morgan enquiry into the serial failures of an old murder investigation. In Operation Midland vast resources were expended following up the allegations of a very shaky witness, which damaged the reputations of several highly respectable people. A few simple enquiries could have ended the whole thing very quickly. The Morgan enquiry accused the Met of “institutional corruption” because of its continual obstruction right up to senior level. “Corruption” was probably the wrong word to use, but the obstructionism was no less shameful for that – and it remains unacknowledged by police management. Redolent as these episodes are of management failure, they were not enough to do for Dame Cressida: her term was extended last year.

In the end the shocking results of an enquiry into police behaviour at Charing Cross police station were too much. It revealed a flourishing culture of racist, homophobic and misogynistic banter that the more naive of us thought had been stamped on ages ago. Many were shocked that nine of the fourteen officers involved are still serving. Personally I wasn’t particularly upset by that – corrective action needs to focus first and foremost on management. Junior police officers landed in the middle of a rampant canteen culture tolerated by management are in a very difficult position, and it should not be up to them to bring it to a halt. While the incident itself may not be as serious as some of the other failures – on the basis that this could have been a rogue clique – I can appreciate its role as a last straw. Like the killing of George Floyd in America two years ago, the deeply shocking thing about it is how little attitudes have changed amongst many policemen even after decades of kerfuffle and reform. It serves to show just how ineffective our attempts to deal with the problem have been.

The Mayor has focused on police culture, and especially discriminatory attitudes. That is important, but, in my view, secondary to changing the management culture. The discrimination culture is much easier to fix if the management is respected and effective. If you focus too much on discrimination at the expense of proper management, the whole process can be discredited as the police fall down on the task of protecting people. Ordinary policemen will simply suggest that effectiveness is being sacrificed to political correctness. This seems to have happened in at least some places in America following the Floyd outrage.

Is it possible to change the culture of such a large organisation with such strong internal bonds among its members? It’s easy to see how policemen feel an “us against them” attitude. They are expected to deal with things the rest of society won’t touch; they put their lives in danger – and all they get for this is abuse, most often. Change is clearly difficult, but not impossible. An example where change has been successful is in the British Army. The Army used by notorious for institutional stupidity. Discipline and orders were considered more important than responding to situations intelligently. But the demands of modern warfare forced change. Army leaders were chastened to see how much more effective the German Army was at “middle management” level than their own in World War Two, especially in the early years – and they started to pick up on German doctrines that encouraged initiative at junior levels, and learning from mistakes. The Army is far from perfect – bullying remains a problem – but its transformation over the years has been dramatic.

A lot hangs on Dame Cressida’s replacement. The new leader has to understand the management problem – something I don’t think Dame Cressida ever did – but also inspire respect amongst members of the force. There is an enormous amount to be said for appointing an outsider – though there are risks to this. Somebody from outside the UK has been suggested – though problems of management in policing are hardly confined to Britain. My suggestion would be to look for an inspirational leader in the Army.

The choice rests with the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in consultation with Mr Khan. Neither individual has shown much understanding of effective management and leadership. Ms Patel has been dogged by accusations of bullying, and makes promises that can’t be delivered. Mr Khan showed impressive focus in his political career, right up to his election as Mayor, but has practically sunk without trace once he got there. Still, they both have a strong incentive to get this right: let us hope they make a good choice.

6 thoughts on “British policing needs to learn from the Army”

  1. A Police Force in a Democracy is in an ambiguous position. It is an arm of the State set up and paid to uphold and to maintain the laws and order as laid down as by the government of the day. The question is to whom, or what is it answerable. To the Government? Government’s change. To an individual Minster? Ministers can break the law. To the State? When the Weimer republic collapsed the police force continued to function as an independent separate body
    So where does a policeman’s loyalties lie? Who judges Him? I think it is inevitable that it must be to the Police Force itself, to themselves. To that body of men and women whose tribulations needs and beliefs that they all share .The nature of their job means they live a life, that is a step removed from normal society , and it is easy to take that a further step ,that societies rules need not apply to them.. If I am correct in that belief, then closing of their ranks to protect each other is understandable And if the laws they have to uphold for example against prostitution or gambling, that they think, are at the best venial; then turning a blind eye, or taking a “backhander” may not, in their eyes, seem untoward,
    And if some senior officers do in fact feel separate and apart, from current changes in accepted social behaviour it would explain how and why they viewed and then glossed over the litany of complaints, some going back over many years
    And as the man said “Quiz custodies ipod custodies?”

    1. Thanks Charles. I think it is inevitable that the police will see themselves as apart from the rest of society, and form a strong and cohesive culture. It has its positive aspects. A lot depends on getting the leadership right. But leaders that do not gain respect from within the force are going to be ineffective.

  2. From past experience in a large organisation, I recognise the points that defence of the organisation, and attachment to procedure rather than innovation, are problems. As to Khan’s role, I agree with him that a plan is needed – that is, a management plan – to sort out the management problems identified in this post. Do we not need the cooperation of the more enlightened type of insider in this endeavour? There must be some police officers for whom a more civilised policy culture would be welcome. It would help also if the nationwide responsibilities of the Met were taken from it, so as to enable the London police force to focus on the problems of policing a large and particularly multicultural city. But would Patel agree to this? – it would reduce her power.

    1. I agree. But I think management culture needs to be directed towards more initiative within a clear framework of objectives. The is why I think they might have something to learn from the military. It’s not just about non-inclusive attitudes.

  3. All they, the Met senior managers, need to do is read (Dr) Inspector Simon Guilfoyle magisterial book, “Intelligent Policing”.(2013). Get in touch with me if you want to order a copy and will give him a call (email).

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