Policing: misconduct and wholesale culture change

We welcome the new guidance from the College of Policing on misconduct in policing and hope this is a step towards a more comprehensive, strategic approach to supporting and challenging policing

Policing in England and Wales is currently going through a period of huge change, sometimes supported and sometimes not, by the infrastructure that surrounds it. The UK Government has had a very public target on taking officer numbers back to their 2010 levels, but has said less about the strategic direction of policing, or acknowledged how the fundamental job of policing has changed. There have been persistent, severe instances of misconduct within forces around England and Wales – public reporting concentrates on the Met, but the London force is far from alone in problems of misogyny and racism that have been discovered.

In that context, it’s really welcome that today the College of Policing has published new guidance on misconduct in policing, and what proper process should look like. We hope that this will just be one step in a more comprehensive, strategic approach to supporting and challenging policing to create the change people are looking for.

For many victims of domestic abuse, what destabilises their sense of security, even after the situation is long past, is that the person or people they should have been able to rely on above all others were the ones causing harm. People who use abuse and controlling behaviour often seek out positions of power and trust to enable them to cause harm without fear of retribution.

As new entrants flood into policing, vetting mechanisms need to take account of this risk. Chief Constable Andy Marsh, CEO of the College of Policing, noted this morning that because of attrition, ~50,000 new officers and staff will join policing in England and Wales in the next few years. The police inspectorate, HMICFRS, is warning that this high turnover also risks stripping out levels of skill, experience and oversight that are desperately needed in a job that’s inevitably contentious and subject to serious levels of ‘compassion fatigue’ and vicarious trauma, alongside outright unacceptable behaviour.

Significant reform is needed to bring about a wholesale culture change, which reduces the motivation and opportunity for different types of power to be abused. Victims of domestic abuse whose perpetrators work for the police – including those who are themselves police officers and staff – should have trust and confidence that their cases will be investigated fairly and sensitively, and that they will be protected from harm.

Within the context of today’s new guidance, a few questions were still left hanging:

  • College of Policing figures note that 80% of misconduct hearings are chaired by an independent expert, usually a lawyer. But it would be valuable to hear more about i) who is chairing the other 20% ii) what additional expertise chairs are able to bring in, for eg where the guidance refers to misogyny being treated as an aggravating factor iii) what monitoring is in place to check the competence and consistency of the hearings?
  • There’s reference in the guidance to checking whether a warning/other sanction is already in place before reaching a misconduct decision. What assurance is there about individuals who move between different police forces to disguise the concerns their colleagues have about them? This is something Steve Watson, now Chief Constable at Greater Manchester Police, has been concerned about in his counter corruption role for the National Police Chiefs Council
  • The guidance notes that former officers can only have a ‘found or not found’ outcome registered, rather than any other sanction, but what does this mean about former officers who rejoin the police, or who join eg major police training organisations and other bodies with significant influence over policing?
  • The CoP list of criteria for vulnerability doesn’t include insecure immigration status, which is an important gap. Any further iteration of the guidance will usefully add this in, if it can’t be added straight away

Policing is a difficult job. Many of us would not step in to do it. For those who do, comprehensive systems of support and challenge are vital in creating and sustaining a system in which all members of the public can have trust and confidence. We hope today’s misconduct announcement ends up being part of a much bigger picture.

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