Why won’t Britain’s politicians take police reform seriously?

I have written a number of times about the British police, and been highly critical of its senior management – “institutionally stupid” being my verdict. The specific cases that have provoked me were Operation Midland, the Daniel Morgan affair, the harassment of a female back police officer and, most recently, the Plymouth shootings (which, unlike the others, did not involve the Metropolitan Police, the country’s top force). Now the Met is being heavily criticised after one if its officers was sentenced for raping and killing a member of the public, Sarah Everard, after arresting her. And yet on each of these occasions the police respond with nothing much more than “stuff happens” and “lessons will be learned”, and carried on much as before. And Labour and Conservative politicians have backed them up. We have to ask why.

The Everard case is particularly chilling to me as the false arrest took place very near where I used to live, on a stretch of road that I often used, by car, bus and on foot. It is almost always busy, and it is well-lit at night. It was another attack perpetrated by a man on a woman, simply because of her sex. It is an extreme example of a serious societal problem, that does not seem to be getting better, in spite of more liberal education. At the other end of the scale, a recent study showed that sexual harassment is at epidemic levels at secondary schools and sixth-forms – a problem that seems to be much worse than it was a generation ago. Murders of women by men they don’t know as they go about their daily life are still quite rare – but only after most women are advised to be “sensible” and take precautions over their own safety that men largely don’t bother with.

The response from senior police officers, and the ministers they are accountable to, has been underwhelming in the Everard case. Advice on how people might avoid false arrest by lone officers comes across as victim-blaming. Ms Everard should have been more “streetwise”, it is suggested. Could the perpetrator have been identified as a risk beforehand? Again the response so far has been pretty defensive. Alleged offences of indecent exposure committed by him beforehand were “minor”; vetting procedure had turned up “no evidence”. It’s all just too difficult. The man was a “bad apple” – a lazy way of expressing that it just one of those things that happens once in a while, like rotten apples. Lazy because, as Guardian columnist Marina Hyde points out, the actual proverb is that “one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel” – and there is plenty of evidence of bad apples in the police being left to do just that.

What are the management failures here? The first has been a complete failure to judge the public mood over such an enormity. Something more that the normal institutional defensiveness was surely called for. Beyond that are questions about the vetting of recruits, the management of misogynistic attitudes in the force and the prioritisation of crimes against women. There is also the question of how the police dealt with the indecent exposure incidents. These are all related to each other. Without understanding the evidence more clearly – and which of the various stories floating around are true – I find it hard to form a clear view myself. But it has been known for a long time that there are cultural problems within the force, and nothing much ever appears to be done about it. We are often assured that things are getting better, so reminders that the problems are still rampant are shocking. However it is also clear that police attitudes reflect those of large parts of wider society.

And so to the question I started with. Why don’t the politicians try to take control and act against police deficiencies? So far all the serious ones have rallied round the Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick. That includes Conservative ministers, and also Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, and Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, who, unlike Sir Keir, actually has the political authority to act. It seems that, to them taking on the police creates more problems than it solves.

The first question is over the position of Ms Dick. Her fingerprints are on many of the serious management problems that I have written about, if not as Commissioner, then in her earlier career. And yet the politicians have stood behind her, and extended her contract only recently. They may well know something I don’t – that she is, contrary to appearances, the best hope for making progress behind the scenes. She certainly recently had the support of my fellow Lib Dem blogger David Boyle. And the dismal truth is that there probably are few, if any, serving senior officers with the grasp to take on what needs to be done. It is an institutional problem. It clearly calls for an outsider to take charge – and that has been heavily resisted in the past.

Which highlights the wider problem – taking on police culture is likely to make things worse in the short term. This can be seen from the case of George Floyd in the US. His murder last year was in its way even more shocking than the Everard murder. It was in full public view and carried out by a policeman on duty, with the support of his colleagues. The outrage it provoked was extreme, and many politicians did attempt to act. But crime rates rose, and there was a political backlash – fears over changes to policing were among the reasons that Donald Trump and the Republicans did inexpertly well at the presidential and Congressional elections.

The Labour and Conservatives have identified law and order as a central issue in winning over the white, older, working class and lower middle class voters they feel are critical to their success. So they tone done criticism of the police, and trust that the outrage will blow over before the next general election. And the public continues to be let down by institutional failings in our police forces.

Asking the wrong questions on the Plymouth shootings

On 12 August a gunman in a working class district of Plymouth killed five people: his mother and four others who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, before killing himself; two others are seriously injured. The community’s first thoughts, rightly, are for the victims and their loved ones. But questions must be asked about whether this episode could have been prevented. And here the early signs of the discussion are not encouraging. It is hard to see how Britain’s public services will get much better while politicians, senior managers and commentators all look at problems in the wrong way.

What is clear from the evidence that has emerged so far, however, is that this is indeed a failure of public service. The shooter used a licensed firearm; there was ample evidence that he was not a fit person to possess such a deadly weapon, and local people had expressed their concerns about his state of mind. The dots could easily have been joined and the weapon removed from his possession, as it had been temporarily previously. In fact the intervention could have been even simpler: by not returning the weapon to him a month or so ago.

And yet the senior politicians and public servants involved may be shocked at the loss of life, but they look unworried by accusations of failure. This is what the writer Douglas Adams called the SEP field in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which confers complete invisibility. SEP stands for Somebody Else’s Problem. In this case it stems from the way we assume that all organisations should be run, and especially public ones: through a system of written policies and procedures. Lawyers love this. To see if anybody is culpable if something goes wrong, all you have to do is check whether individuals followed the written procedures. Workers and managers like this for the same reason: follow the procedures and you should not be blamed if anything goes wrong. If something does go wrong even though everybody has followed procedures, then the call goes out to amend those procedures – and the public can be told that lessons have been learned. It is a wonderful system that rejects any notion of common sense and leadership, but it is no way to run an efficient and effective organisation. That depends on managers pulling together information from various sources and making decisions to further the interests of the society, or their employers. Procedures can help them to do this, but they can also get in the way, and they are often absent for the particular circumstances of the here and now. It is then that leadership kicks in – and the critical organisational thing here is whether managers have the scope to gather the information they need and the authority to act. This was clearly not the case for those overseeing public safety in Plymouth. But nobody is likely to be talking about it.

Commentary on this incident began badly. One of the main topics was whether the shooter should have been categorised as a terrorist. This matters so far as the various procedural routines that public servants follow, but is a red herring if you think that the main problem was a lack of local leadership. The conversation quickly moved on to the procedures for granting and renewing firearms licences, and the need to trawl social media postings. Absent from this discussion, as usual, is any question over resources and prioritisation. Apparently licences were being waved through because the police managers had decided that other areas were a priority. Police resources are stretched, so I would not like to second-guess that decision. Might the requirement to look at social media simply incur a whole lot of pointless trawling and arbitrary decisions about what is relevant? It would take a courageous public servant to suggest as much in the wake of this tragedy. Furthermore it still leaves those who were worried about the shooter’s state of mind with nobody to talk to.

There is in fact a clear organisational solution to the management of threats like this: neighbourhood policing. In London the police did try this a number of years ago, though only after prodding from politicians, and they quietly gutted it when political attention moved on. I had a little experience of it while helping one of our ward campaigns in the early 2000s. A team of half a dozen police officers and PCSOs were given responsibility for a local authority ward (about 15,000 residents in that case). They made it their business to meet regularly with local people, gathering information about their concerns and intelligence about who was doing what. They then took the initiative to try and head off threats to public order – organising youth activities, for example. In this case at least it would have given somebody the chance to put together the disparate pieces of information that pointed to a threat. The technique is popular in America, but it has failed to get much traction here. Police chiefs clearly think that it is an inefficient use of resources. They prefer to invest in specialist squads and things like heavily armed SWAT teams. Doubtless this follows modern management fashion, which emphasises focus and prioritisation. But a lot of the police’s job is risk management, which does not respond well to such thinking (“prioritising risk management” is an oxymoron: risk lurks in the areas you do not prioritise). But the problem isn’t just the police; it is the whole system of political management and public services. If there was more political accountability at ward level, the police would have to respond to it. Instead being a ward councillor is usually an undemanding first step for budding politicians, or a sinecure for status-seeking political activists. As with most of the country’s political representation, most contests are uncompetitive, with one party dominating. Councillors’ political careers depend more on managing their party connections rather than being accountable to the public.

Added to this is a persistent idea that an efficient organisation requires functional specialisation, which leads to what my management training referred to process fragmentation. Crafting a solution to a problem, such as somebody having mental health issues, often requires the involvement of several specialists, each of who can veto a solution. An official looking at a problem instead sees several problems, most of which are not his or her responsibility – the SEP field again. This can be compounded when people use data protection as an excuse not to share information. This is at the root of many public service failures – though not necessarily this one.

All this leads to a cycle of public service failure. Bad things happen; changes are made; things get no better because people ask the wrong questions. We content ourselves with the thought that things could be worse, and life goes on. We should demand better.

It is time for Sadiq Khan to stand up for London

What is the point of Sadiq Khan, London’s Labour Mayor, recently reelected for a second term? He is a powerful symbol of inclusion – a Muslim bus-driver’s son making it to the city’s highest office. After that I struggle. He has acheived little in five years. But now he has an opportunity to make his mark.

Mr Khan’s problems aren’t entirely of his own making. Since his predecessor as mayor, Boris Johnson, took over as Prime Minister in 2019 the national government has been actively hostile. We then discover how little actual power London’s mayoralty has. The situation worsened when the pandemic came along, and Transport for London’s finances collapsed. This one of the few things the mayor is responsible for, but he had to go cap in hand to the government for a bailout. In doing so the government has gone out of its way to humiliate him. Mr Khan has looked like a powerless bleater from the sidelines. But this also reflects Mr Khan’s lack of political skill. He has shown little aptitude in mobilising broad political coalitions to get things done.

But now he has an opportunity: the Daniel Morgan report. This report into the Metropolitan Police was commissioned by Theresa May as Home Secretary in 2013. It looks at the Met’s repeated failings in the case of the murder of Daniel Morgan, a private investigator, in 1987. It was suspected that corrupt policemen were involved. The report is summarised here by the FT’s David Allen Green. It is shocking. It shows the Met as being keener to protect its reputation than to be held accountable. This culture is described as “institutional corruption”. And the report makes it plain that it stretches to the present day, with the inquiry being obstructed by senior police officers, who were as slow as they could be in producing evidence. What is even more significant is that the current Commissioner, Cressida Dick, is deeply implicated in this criticism. Ms Dick is every inch a Met insider, with her fingerprints on numerous police foulups. It is time for her to go and for an outsider to be brought in to replace her. The Met needs a change in management culture and she is n ot the person to do it.

Mr Johnson is not going to support this, and has expressed his confidence in Ms Dick. He is not in favour of public accountability, and likes senior public officials to be beholden to him. He is not directly responsible for appointing or dismissing the Commissioner, though. That is a matter of joint responsibility between the Home Secretary, currently Priti Patel, and the Mayor. Will Ms Patel stand up to her boss? She probably could if she wanted too, as she is one the politically stronger members of the government (whatever one thinks of her record). It is unlikely though. Which leaves Sadiq Khan as mayor.

I doubt that the Mayor has the legal power to sack the Commissioner by himself – but a public statement of loss of confidence would make her position untenable. That would allow him to show that he is standing up to the bullying from government and asserting his new mandate from London voters. There is a risk that Ms Dick could try toughing it out based on Ms Patel’s backing alone – that would be sadly characteristic of the current times. In which case the mayor would need to up the ante and start making the government, and the Force, pay a price. This is what politicians can do. Authority depends on much more than just legal powers.

So it is clear what Sadiq Khan should do. But I expect him to bottle it and serve out the rest of his term as another act of futlity and pointlessness.

The Metropolitan Police: institutionally stupid?

Some years ago London’s Metropolitan Police were accused of being “institutionally racist” by a learned judge. Recently I was talking to an experienced police officer (not from the Met, as it happens), who took great exception to this accusation. Now I have no strong evidence that the original accusation was fair (nor that it wasn’t), and neither do I feel able to comment on how things stand now on that matter. But it goes with the territory that institutional failings are often invisible to the institution’s members. This came to mind in the latest kerfuffle over the police’s investigation of child sex abuse claims.

The current row centres around accusations of child sex abuse made about Lord Bramall, a distinguished ex-soldier. Lord Bramall claims that the whole matter was bungled, took far longer than the merits of the case warranted, and was conducted without regard for the impact on the accused. Similar claims have been made about other investigations of child sex abuse, and not just by the Met (one by Wiltshire Police on former Prime Minister Edward Heath comes to mind). In response senior police officers seem unable to understand what they are being accused of, and reject the criticism as unfair, beyond the odd minor mistake. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met’s Commissioner won’t apologise, because he thinks that doing so would suggest that no investigation should have been carried out. Which his critics have never suggested.

Sir Bernard did muse, however, that perhaps the police’s policy of automatically believing accusers in sex abuse cases might not be quite right. This attracted an attack from Vera Baird, the police and crime commissioner of Northumbria, a lawyer by profession.  She suggested that any departure from a strict policy of believing all accusers would condemn thousands of victims.This entirely misses the point.

The trouble is that the sort of practices complained about by Lord Bramall are hardly restricted to the investigation of sex abuse claims on famous people. They are normal police practice. Plodding investigation (if you are lucky, that is; too often nothing is happening at all as cases never get to the top of the pile before the file is lost); vital clues ignored; complete disregard for the impact of their investigation on the people that are involved in it. In common language, a complete and utter lack of common sense – and instead blind adherence to policies and procedures that prevent context, efficiency and initiative from getting in the way. And this does not just apply to investigations; the police got into a real muddle over crowd management at the G8 summit in London in 2013. They applied “tactics” (a revealing word) that were often totally inappropriate in context, causing distress to thousands of ordinary law-abiding citizens.

But this is how many people like to run large organisations, and how, incidentally, lawyers often advise such organisations be run. The senior officers adopt sheaf-loads of policies and plans, and then tell their underlings to follow them. If something goes wrong, it either arises from a failure of an underling to follow a policy, or else the policy itself is at fault. And, of course, because the policy cannot cater for all circumstances, many failures are tolerated with a shrug, and, are not seen as failures but as just the way the world is. What is not allowed is for junior management to assess a situation, and decide the most appropriate course of action, given the organisation’s overall objectives, disregarding those sheafs of policy documents. Hence Ms Baird’s and Sir Bernard’s spat over police policy on how to treat sex abuse accusations. Neither can stand the thought of discretion and common sense entering police procedure; or rather, the idea that it might do is unthinkable. It is institutional blindness. and institutional stupidity.

Lord Bramall, as former Field Marshal, may well recognise the syndrome. One hundred years ago armies used to be run like this. The senior staff made plans; everybody else had to comply, regardless of context (even the political leaders, in the case of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan in 1914). It proved utterly disastrous as the First World War unfolded, and nowhere more so than in the order-loving German army. The shock was such that the Germans carried out a systematic rethink, so that by the Second World War they had managed to reconcile the need for local initiative and overall command. Evil though their cause was, the German army proved astonishingly effective in that war, except at its very top level of command. Right until the end they seemed to outfight their opponents man for man. Modern armies learnt from this, and local initiative is now a standard part of how the British Army works.

Alas the police have no such initiative-taking, intelligence-using, problem-solving culture, except perhaps in elite units. This seems to affect all British police forces; it just creates most damage in the Met, the country’s biggest, where senior management are most remote from the front line. A living demonstration of the problem can be seen in the recent disastrous merger of Scotland’s police forces, which was much applauded by policy wonks south of the border when it was first proposed.

It is perhaps one good reason why an outsider, from another country or another service, might be a good idea to lead the Met. But the problem is much deeper. Police middle management seem to be of dire quality, being so cossetted in a culture that favours following orders and procedure, and then sticking together under pressure. It will be a tough job making things better.

Britian’s police: unprofessional conduct

Carol HowardFor once the BBC News’s editorial priority seemed to be spot on. Top story on the 7am Radio 4 news was an astonishing case of discrimination involving a black police officer, Carol Howard. Amongst other things, it showed that the Metropolitan Police were systematically manipulating evidence. Alas by 1pm the story had dropped right out of the bulletin. Instead the channel carried a story about a potential paedophilia scandal in the 1980s, based on some very thin evidence. But this story should not be allowed to drop from our attention. Indeed it raises many questions that should be very worrying both for Londoners and the whole country.

Ms Howard joined the Met’s elite Diplomatic Protection Group in 2012. She was quickly victimised by her boss, Acting Inspector Dave Kelly. Mr Kelly appears to have assumed that Ms Howard’s behaviour was dishonest, and instead of handling this in a professional manner, he is accused of hounding her with unreasonable complaints, and he then become “hostile and aggressive” when she invoked a grievance complaint. Ms Howard then went on to bring a complaint of sex and race discrimination. The tribunal hearing this complaint asked to see a report on the original grievance complaint – but the Met’s management edited out all references to discrimination, saying that they were not relevant to the tribunal. They then claimed such deletions were a matter of policy to protect the Force.

The tribunal found in favour of Ms Howard, and was understandably very critical of the Met. All the Met has done so far is to offer this very weak statement:

We are aware of the decision of the tribunal. We are disappointed at the tribunal’s finding in favour of PC Howard.

The tribunal’s decision will now to be given full and careful consideration. We will review the findings, take legal advice and take forward any learning or actions as appropriate.

In other words: zero leadership, but we’ll ask our lawyers how to fiddle with our procedures. They are clearly hoping the story will go away. To judge by the speed with which the BBC has dropped the story, their hopes appear to be well-founded. It is now up to our politicians to on their case. This is one area were the London Assembly can really show its worth. Here’s hoping.

But evidently no major politician has seen fit to take the case on so far – perhaps the reluctance has something to do with the rise of Ukip, and the backlash against political correctness, by older white males in particular. If so our politicians will be letting the majority of people in London down – of all ethnic groups.

Here are the questions I would like to ask:

  1. How is it, 30 years after Lord Scarman first identified problems in the police, that this kind of behaviour seems to be tolerated by middle management in the police force?
  2. There seems pretty good evidence that Mr Kelly’s conduct was unprofessional as well as discriminatory. He has brought the service into disrepute. Has any action been taken by the Met against this officer?
  3. How was it that an attempt was made to manipulate the evidence from the grievance complaint. Is it legal? Is any disciplinary action warranted against any officer? Or should a more senior officer take responsibility for unethical conduct?
  4. Have such deletions affected other complaints? Have they affected statistics produced to the public about the number and resolution of complaints of discrimination?

And then there are the wider issues. The Police are a public service, funded by us as taxpayers. A quid pro quo is that they should be accountable, with a culture of public disclosure and truthfulness. Instead they seem to have a defensive culture, where the public seem to be treated as the enemy, and openness as a threat. Furthermore, proper professional standards seem to be lacking, and the application of discipline highly selective. If officers are unprofessional, they should fear the reaction of their own superiors; instead these superiors seem to rally round. After each scandal, I hear that police morale has been hit, and I hope that this is at last evidence that they have got past of the denial stage of the grieving process for their old ways. But I may be underestimating their resilience.

I am going to leave the last word to Ruwan Uderwerage-Perera, a former policeman and now a Liberal Democrat councillor. Here is what he said in a Facebook post earlier today (quoted with his permission) (and please allow for the informality of that medium):

“The ‘Canteen Culture'” states Prof PAJ Waddington (himself a former police officer) “is often portrayed as a pervasive, malign and potent influence on the behaviour of officers. The grounds for this portrayal are, however, insubstantial and appear to rely more upon the condemnatory potential of the concept than its explanatory power.”

As a former officer myself I believe this aggressive and macho sub-culture that further stamps the belief of ‘them & us’ between the police and the policed is not only still very much alive and well, but has proven resilient to the three plus decades of criticism since is existence was acknowledged by the police service following the Scarman Report of 1981.

The ‘Canteen Culture’ as a result of its very existence is exclusionary and as such Women, BME and Gay (sworn) Officers (for support staff and PCSOs and the like are never fully accepted) either have to acquiesce to the egotistical, male dominated, heavy drinking, womanising and otherwise hedonistic culture which is supported by the ‘work hard, play hard’ mythology or they are cast aside and will be subjected to further abuse.

I add ‘further abuse’, for even perceived membership of the group means that if one is different e.g not white male and straight then one will be the butt of the so called humour anyway, but at least the victim is ‘one of us’ for the time being.

In my opinion the continuance of this sub-culture holds back the service from becoming a professional body, and means that the service will remain believing that it is not part of society, but somehow is on some ‘crusade’ to save society from itself.

Update: 3 July 10.40am

As I hoped, some traction is being made by London Assembly members on this issue, pressing London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson, to his credit, does seem to be taking the matter a bit more seriously than the Met’s senior management. He has said he will review 34 other cases.

According to yesterday’s Standard, the Met have denied that the deletions were a matter of policy. That always did sound like a bit of a middle management excuse to me. Also Ms Howard’s lawyers have called for a public enquiry. I don’t agree with that. What is needed is proper accountability, up to the Chief Constable. A public enquiry will merely drape the matter in more evasion, obfuscation over evidence, legalese, and lost time. The answer starts with leadership, and if no leadership is forthcoming from the incumbents, we need new leaders. Quickly.

And just to be clear. This story is about London’s Metropolitan Police. But the problems uncovered are typical other British police forces.

 

Letting the dust settle

Now, in London, is not good moment to be a thinking liberal.  The recent riots consume everybody’s attention, but there is too much anger and panic around to say anything sensible.  But nobody will listen if you want to talk about something else.

The anger is not in itself unhealthy, or bad – indifference would be much worse.  It may well have helped to stop the violence, which has thankfully calmed very rapidly.  But little of lasting value comes from it.  Mostly we get calls for extra punishment, police powers and so on.  There is a lot of harking back to mythical earlier times when people had stronger moral values beaten into them, and so on.  And we get the usual tripe about too much human rights favouring criminals rather than victims.  Unfortunately our Prime Minister seems to share many of these beliefs.

But as the anger settles we will be left to confront a number of questions, which do not have ready answers.  Why did so many people think it was OK to go rampaging like this?  How could they be so heedless of the consequences of their actions?  Is this new?  Is it getting better or worse?  How do we promote responsibility?  More facts will help us answer these questions – and we have little more than an accumulation of anecdotes at the moment.

The most rational debate for now is about policing.  The police weren’t ready for the trouble and did not handle it well.  And they are facing significant cuts in funding.  Personally I suspect the problem is weak police management, especially in the Met.  I think this has been evident for a long time.  They adopt inflexible tactical methods which they seem unable to adapt to the needs of the moment; common sense gets lost.  Their solution is always more men, more money and more powers.  Unfortunately they will be unable to deliver cuts without reducing operational effectiveness, even if there are opportunities to make them much more efficient – and it would be very surprising if such opportunities did not exist.

Another aspect of this episode has been a massive closing of ranks by the majority of society.  Here in Battersea (scene of the Clapham Junction riots, not, incidentally in Clapham itself, as almost universally mis-reported) masses of people turned up to help the clean-up – and the hoardings on the shops are covered in supportive graffiti (where these are bare wood; where painted they are left properly pristine!).

Supportive graffiti at TK Maxx in Clapham Junction, Battersea

This reaction seems to bridge class, race and age group.

Who can say where all this will lead?