Beware Frankenstein’s monster: Policing needs a coherent guiding mission

Blog post

Beware Frankenstein’s monster: Policing needs a coherent guiding mission

This spring, as I join the Police Foundation as a Senior Associate Fellow, policing is at a tipping point. The Foundation’s own extremely thorough Strategic Review of Policing shows the scale of the challenges. We’re just had elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales. Many chief officers and operational officers and staff look exhausted and increasingly say so out loud and on the record.

There were two things I wanted to write about in this first blog and at first I thought they were competing with each other, but now I think they’re closely linked. 

The first is the huge damage done in recent years to public trust and confidence in the police. From my perspective as CEO of a UK wide domestic abuse charity, I watched with horror as evidence mounted about the misogynistic behaviour of some police officers. I don’t present it as new that there is unacceptable behaviour in some parts of policing; there have been multiple reports and whistleblowing over decades about behaviour relating to race, sex/gender, and sexual orientation. I think, though, that the last few years have broken people’s hearts and damaged the public’s wellbeing in ways that are too severe and too widespread for simple reforms. Even those of us with a deep belief in policing and sincere gratitude for the role it plays have been heartsick. At the same time, huge workforce turnover is taking place. This could present a further risk or an opportunity. This turnover is relevant at all levels; last year the National Police Chiefs’ Council published data indicating that tenure for a chief constable (outside the Metropolitan Police) is now less than four years.

I’m a Trustee at Crimestoppers UK and was glad to see them working with the police on rooting out corruption and abuse within policing. For too long policing loyalty – necessarily forged in adversity but vulnerable to ‘us against them’ mentality – has not left space for safe reporting. This includes reporting for police officers and staff who desperately want a service they can be proud of.

As with the independent role Crimestoppers is taking on, it’s not for police leaders alone to grasp the challenges policing faces. We need a brave public conversation with the many parts of society involved. This brings me to my second issue.

Politicians, the media, other public services and all of us as citizens have to reconsider and settle what policing is really for

The requirements of policing have been in flux for decades but the development of the service has lagged behind and it has felt like a long time since there was a coherent guiding mission for policing. Instead, it feels like the motivations and behaviours we expect from police officers form a Frankenstein’s monster of stitched together parts. Is it any wonder, then, that everything from recruitment to strategy to morale is subject to too many ideas and not enough direction? Our political and public conversation about what policing is for and what it can do is dishonest, refusing to accept that no service or organisation can be all things to all people.

I’m really looking forward to being part of the Police Foundation team and its work. Modern policing needs calm, thoughtful development that officers, staff and the public can get behind. Only if we improve clarity of purpose can we expect police officers to continue to run towards danger. And only if we mend trust and confidence can the vital contract between us all, policed and police, be restored.