Police culture has been called out. It’s time for change

Blog post

Police culture has been called out. It’s time for change

How should the police service respond to yesterday’s devastating report from HMICFRS on misogyny, misconduct and vetting?  This report comes on top of Louise Casey’s equally damning and just as well evidenced interim report on culture and standards of behaviour in the Metropolitan Police Service.

I won’t rehearse the appalling the details and case studies set out in those reports, as the reader is well advised to read them for themselves. In summary what these reports reveal is the existence of a toxic culture in parts of policing. It is hard to quantify with any accuracy how big a problem it is, but what it indicates is a hard core minority engaging in behaviour that is racist, misogynistic or homophobic, surrounded by a ‘wall of silence’, or a much larger group that, while not engaging in or approving of that conduct, finds it easier to turn a blind eye to it. 

The solidaristic nature of police culture (often a characteristic of dangerous professions) can make it particularly intolerant of whistle blowers or people who speak up against the misbehaviour of colleagues.  The key thing is to flip that culture on its head: so that the default norm is to call out behaviour that falls below ethical and professional standards.

So how can that shift be achieved? There are four places to start. The first is leadership. I have thought for some time that what the Met needed was a ‘Sir Robert Mark moment’, comparable to the time when Mark took the helm of a then scandal ridden force and purged a dysfunctional CID of corrupt officers. ‘We need to catch more crooks than we employ’, he said. For reasons I shall discuss below a ‘purge’ is harder to achieve now than it was then, but what the Met needs now is a good dose of Mark’s blunt and outspoken leadership on the issue of internal misconduct. You can see what I mean by blunt by watching this interview with him by the brilliant Michael Cockerell.

In this regard I am very encouraged by the way Sir Mark Rowley has gripped and prioritised this question.  His video to his officers and staff, giving them a direct instruction to call out this behaviour and offering his support to them in doing so, is excellent. His statement that he wishes to see the same vigour with which the Met pursues organised crime corruption taken to problems of racism, misogyny and homophobia is very promising. So, a clear statement of intent from the top and a real focus on following that through is the first step, and the early signs in the Met at least are encouraging.

Second, as we said in our Strategic Review of Policing report in March, there is a need to strengthen the quality of frontline supervision. I have been told by numerous sources that the ratio of sergeants to constables, at least in the Met, has been increasing to the extent that it is hard to see how sergeants are able to have enough contact with their people to exercise effective leadership. As we said in the Review effective leadership by frontline supervisors is the key to setting clear standards, calling out misbehaviour and setting an example of what a good police officer looks like. Sadly, frontline supervisors do not currently get sufficient learning and development opportunities to support them in doing this.  Addressing that should be a priority for the College of Policing’s new Leadership Centre.

Third, we need to sort out vetting. The HMICFRS report reveals a litany of mind bogglingly poor decision making. To pick just one example it references an applicant for the special constabulary who had a conviction for indecent exposure, having been found to have masturbated on seven occasions at the same woman walking past his window, who went on to be approved by the force’s vetting unit. The report contains many other shocking examples. While it will always be hard to stop someone with a heavily disguised character flaw getting through, the vetting system as it stands is clearly full of holes. Employment references are not followed up, previous criminal convictions are not properly risk assessed, the implications of warning signs on social media are not taken into account – the list goes on and on. Forces need to operate to the national guidelines set by the College of Policing and to do so with urgency. In my view such guidelines should be mandatory and the College should be given powers to ensure they are met.

None of this is helped by the speed of the current recruitment drive. The report is clear that vetting units feel under pressure to let people through so forces can meet the government recruitment targets. This is to some extent now water under the bridge, but wouldn’t it have been better to recruit more gradually rather than rush and expose the service to these quality issues?

Finally, the misconduct process needs reform. Put simply there are far too many people in policing who shouldn’t be there. They are dragging down the reputation of the service, undermining public confidence and damaging internal morale. As Baronness Casey found, too many matters are being deemed misconduct when they should be deemed gross misconduct and where people have had multiple cases found against them one has to ask whether they are still fit to be police officers. As we said in the Strategic Review senior officers should chair misconduct hearings rather than people from outside policing. It is important that these hearings are fair to the individual officer. But it is also important that those taking decisions understand the damage that misconduct causes to the reputation of the police. It is an absurd and Kafkaesque situation when chief constables have to take their own misconduct panels to court to remove an officer they do not want in their organisation.   

These reports are shocking and constitute a clarion call for change. There should be zero tolerance of racism, misogyny, homophobia and any other kind of prejudice in policing. There should be zero tolerance of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. Cultural change is the hardest kind of change to bring about. But the first big steps to achieving it are clear, and they should be taken now.