Communicating ambiguity – a challenge for police leaders

Blog post

Communicating ambiguity – a challenge for police leaders

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe recently gave a speech at the BBC in which he discussed a number of challenges confronting the police service, and the Metropolitan Police in particular, when communicating with the public. Among other things he focused on the clamour for information about on-going high-profile cases such as Operation Midland, the changing expectations of an increasingly diverse public, and the police relationship with the media.

What he didn’t address, and what I want to explore here, is how hard it is for the police to communicate ambiguity in a world that demands certainty, reflected in the binary nature of a number of key debates in policing most recently on the role of belief in police rape investigations. The world of policing is, I suggest, becoming more ambiguous not less, and efforts to pretend otherwise must necessarily end in confusion and disagreement. The reasons for that ambiguity include the substantial withdrawal of Whitehall from defining the police role and a growing understanding of previously hidden harms, and there are implications for prioritisation, operational resourcing and tactical decision making.

Political transitions

In the Labour government years from 1997 to 2010, the police service was micro-managed from Whitehall and especially the Policing Standards Unit in the Home Office (from 2001). Central targets were set linked to resources that clarified exactly what the police role was. So-called volume’ crimes like burglary and motor vehicle thefts were to be reduced by a given percentage. Likewise, targets were set for offences brought to justice and public confidence, although the mix and prominence of these varied over time. Putting aside the perverse incentives the targets regime created, there was order and certainty, manifested most clearly in performance bonuses for senior officers when targets were reached or exceeded.

In 2010 Theresa May became Home Secretary and threw away the New Public Management handbook. The police role was defined as being nothing more, and nothing less’ than to cut crime. Moreover, policing was made more transparent and accountable to the electorate via Police and Crime Commissioners and localism, under the watchful eye of a better-resourced and more independent HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. The Home Office was shifted into reform mode, no longer steering the ship, but redrafting the layout of key components. Austerity was introduced, and the tide began to go out on performance management. In its place arrived the attractive but ambiguous language of threat, harm and risk’. The newly-created College of Policing published a Code of Ethics, as a first step on the road to policing becoming a profession, which was placed in the middle of the police National Decision Model.

Emerging realities

Then came Rotherham, Jimmy Savile and a surge in the reporting of serious sexual offences. Vulnerability’ became the latest catchphrase and was quickly found in a variety of uncomfortable places, including in the lives of drug dealers and gang members; it has started to become acceptable to talk about working with domestic abusers to address their violence. Moral certainties are falling away as different questions are asked, stones are overturned and light is shone into previously dark corners.

Uncertain priorities

Confronted with the challenge of weighing increasingly complex and opaque issues against each other, and in the absence of detailed direction from the government, it appears no one can agree with precision any more what should be a priority and what should not (nor in some cases what it means for something to be a priority in an era largely devoid of discretionary resources). One police force we have observed grappling with the question of prioritisation with its local partners has drawn up a loosely ordered list of more than 20 priorities’, covering everything from child sexual exploitation (CSE) to female genital mutilation via modern slavery, gangs, cybercrime, drugs and burglary. Such an approach seems to betray both a lack of confidence about what is most important, but also the political imperatives of increasingly narrowly-drawn social problems that in practice mean everything must be name-checked if for no other reason than risk aversion: in case someone questions whether a particular problem is being taken seriously (answer: it’s a priority’).

Operational implications

At an operational level these complexities come up against a number of pressures towards artificial simplicity, including police leaders concerned that subtle or nuanced messages will be altered or lost as they filter through organisational structures, and a can-do’ professional culture that values action over reflection (or tactics deliver, strategy delays’ as one chief officer put it a few years ago). Both mean that sometimes the police service can seem to have only switches where it needs dials. Take the example of stop and search in London, where rates fell by three-quarters between 2011 and 2015 and the police have been accused of doing too much and then too little (and sometimes both simultaneously).

Growing ambiguity is throwing up fundamentally difficult ethical operational questions. How should a police force balance its investment in tackling organised crime against something like CSE, which is arguably even more poorly understood? How much time and effort should be invested in looking for unreported harms? For that matter, in a force like the Metropolitan Police that is already 700 to 800 detectives short, how many detectives should be committed to an investigation of historical child abuse allegedly committed by dead establishment figures, when this morning’s domestic abuse victim and this afternoon’s neglected child land at the bottom of a new Detective Constable’s 20 or even 30 cases? And how can police forces convince the public that they have made the right decisions?

The Code of Ethics certainly does not provide answers. What does it mean to always do the right thing’ (policing principle 4) when it is not clear what that might be? How should acting in the public interest’ (policing principle 9) be understood when balancing the needs of the most vulnerable minority with those of the majority, especially in an era of democratic accountability?

A challenge for senior police leaders

Returning to the Commissioner’s speech, it seems the pressing challenge for senior police leaders is to communicate the moral and ethical ambiguities and complexities involved in making decisions about priorities and tactics to an impatient media on the look-out for an angle’ and concerned about balance’, and a sceptical public raised on a diet of front page police scandals; and then how to convey a nuanced and sensible approach to a workforce keen to crack on’. The key lesson from the recent police belief/disbelief debate seems to be that the solution is not to pretend things are simple, and that doing so risks undermining the credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness of the police service as a whole.