Last month the Home Secretary delivered a scathing speech to the Police Federation. Reported by the Daily Mail under the headline “Theresa May goes to war on the police”, her speech quickly elevated her to firm favourite in the race to succeed the Prime Minister. In reality, the speech was just the latest in a long line of speeches announcing police reforms that have radically altered the policing landscape. One of the key messages underpinning all these reforms has been that the police are there to serve in the public’s interest (not their own), a laudable aspiration whatever one’s political persuasion. I don’t always agree with the government of the day, but on this occasion it was hard to find fault in a speech that laid bare some of the septic wounds the Police Federation has inflicted upon itself and for which, frankly, it only has itself to blame.
If officers really have lost confidence in the organisation that is there to represent their interests and for which they pay an annual membership fee, then it needs to change, simple. If it is riddled with in-fighting, bullying and contempt for its membership and the public, then it needs to change, simple; it’s not as if they hadn’t been warned. And so if the home Secretary was merely explaining that if they are unable to get their house in order she would ensure that they did, then this needs to happen, simple. And yet the press or at least certain parts of it chose to report this as a leadership challenge. How on earth did they arrive at this?
The speech says all the usual things about the bravery of individual officers, the central importance of policing by consent, the damage that recent events have done to relations between the police and the public, and of course the need for sacrifice in this difficult economic climate. (Other public services are making similar if not greater sacrifices, so why should the police be any different?). The Police Service have, after all, had their recorded crime statistics downgraded by the Office for National Statistics and the use of their powers called into question by inquiry after inquiry. The Home Secretary was just doing her job, but the Federation instead chose to be defensive, with one member even calling the Home Secretary a bully.
Sometimes it is better to just listen and learn and this was one of those times. A generous interpretation of the silence that followed her speech is that most of the delegates had grasped this, if only instinctively. The subsequent vote to accept all of Sir David Normington’s recommendations for reform should give them, in my view, the benefit of any doubt.