The cultural rabbit hole…

As part of my current role I had the opportunity to look into the cultural challenges that may face the cops in the coming years. I won’t lie, it was immersive and fascinating stuff, and if you work in the police and have access to academia, a quick search and you will be off down the rabbit hole.

And a rabbit hole it is. Some of the things that I read made my stomach turn, not least because it was so insightful that I had experienced half of them myself. The worst thing was, it was probably the first authentic experience of reading and finally understanding a really good analysis of cop behaviour by an ‘outsider’…

You know all those little behaviours cops do every day that are normal? Well, they aren’t normal.

There are a number of themes around the behaviours that pop up again and again, these mainly being:

Hierarchical – power and decision making/control originates from the top – lower levels provide the function, info passes down but not often up – people connect with the levels they are closest to and often distrust those furthest away.

Insular – cops retreat into their teams and create close bubbles – inherent suspicion of outsiders and a protected feeling of the job being completely unique – struggle to integrate with other agencies properly, – through entrenchment, opinions become completely different to those outside the profession – institutionalised cynicism.

Command centric Ritualistic status in policing – Heroic Leadership revered – command applied to all situations instead of appropriately when needed – problems solved in the ‘now’ rather than where they begin to originate – disempowers lower ranks but makes life easier for them – incompatible with culture of challenge/candour.

Reactive – significant status attached to a good thieftaker – catching bad guys, carrying tech/weapons also seen as higher status – use of force and ability to fight also seen as higher status – low status attached to soft skills/problem solving/collaborative practice/emotional intelligence.

Culture of numbers – heavy reliance on numerical data – low weighing on evaluation of qualitative information – success/failure culture, large area of grey often ignored – utilise very simple outlooks upon complex problems.

Mgmt Culture/Street culture – Large separation between what is discussed in meetings and what happens on the streets – cops think mgmt don’t understand their job and vice versa – often difference in method between command centric lower ranks and slower burning problem solving upper ranks.

Now all these facets are pretty ingrained. It was amazing how similar some of the problems encountered in 1970’s America have hardly changed over time, and persist in a slightly altered state. Some would say, ‘Well, that’s common sense, we do almost the same job, but a few years on.’ That’s true actually, we aren’t far off doing the same job, but think about that for a second… The reactive status of policing, the insular nature of the teams, and suspicion and cynical nature of the staff has tempered slightly, but it’s still there. The Gene Hunt characters immortalised by Life on Mars enjoy popular acclaim even now as people discuss the ‘Golden Age’ of policing in fond terms, before the bureaucratic ‘evil’ of PACE hitting the profession in 1984.

So what do these cultural facets mean? They mean lots. You will read many commentators discussing the fact that the Police are the last unreformed public service. Reform for what? Reform how? What’s so bad about the cops now, that needs to change? I talk about this stuff a lot, because although it is aspirational to be future facing, how long is that journey ahead? We may know where we want to go, but how far away is it? More importantly, plotting way markers in any period of change is difficult if you don’t even know where you are starting.

I think the truth is that there is no ‘crisis’ in leadership. It’s a word that’s misapplied, and funnily enough it is turning one of the worst facets of cop culture on its head, and throwing it straight back at them.

The reactive/command centric/hierarchical nature of the culture means that there is a tendency to apply command behaviours and leadership, to problems that require anything but. Everything is treated like a crisis and action needs to happen now, and we need to address immediate safeguarding, and we need to make an arrest, and we need to gather the evidence, and we need…

And the list goes on. The supervision apply the basic command led process and ensure that ‘minimum standards’ are met, and if there’s risk, the cavalry comes out. But they come out for the ‘then.’ They come out when the incident rears its head, when it all gets too much. When the tipping point has come and the parties involve reach a point of no return and contact the police. And then, well it’s a crisis isn’t it, and command leadership sits well with crisis. It’s how the police get through them. Pats on the back ensue now everyone is immediately safe, and we’ve done a fantastic job etc. but what happens next?

Well this is where the culture balks. Prevention needed soft skills and community awareness, it needed boots on the ground listening to people and hearing the neighbours and friends. It needed multi agency information sharing and slow-burning problem solving that may be time intensive. And do you know what is the worst thing about all this? You can’t measure what doesn’t happen. You can’t measure the quality of relationships between the police and the community, and you can’t measure the differences that the police are making to other people’s lives. You can’t measure the person that leaves their violent partner before they get murdered, and you can’t measure that smile that you put on child’s face when they needed it most.

So what happens when the purse strings tighten? Well the reactive side remains, because it’s what we do. The culture has to maintain the reactive side and protect it like a hallowed ground of infallibility. We have to ‘keep people safe.’ But there’s the rub, when the emergency calls come in, you probably have around 30 minutes to utilise command based behaviour and resolve the there and then. You safeguard the victim for the there and then and probably never see them again. What happens afterwards, and for the next victim who is waiting?

Command based behaviour is the bit that the culture likes and supports. It is 100% necessary and a vital part of policing. It’s also the part that is needed when the wheel comes off. We do however spend the vast majority of our time with the wheel on, wobbly maybe, but still in place. It is the activity during the time of ‘wheel on,’ that prevents ‘wheel off’, but it doesn’t carry the cultural capital of a good ‘thief-taker.’ You know those cups of tea and ‘feet up’ home visits of victims, that is where the smart money lies, because it makes less victims in the future. It changes lives and pulls in other vital services to offer much needed support. It is the time in the run up to crisis, that prevents crisis.

The smart money goes into prevention, because that means less victims.

So where does the cultural rabbit hole lead? Well, the cops still retain a function of command, so it must stay. But what about the other bits? A leader good at command holds good status thanks to our culture, but they use that skill appropriately sparingly. When they start applying command behaviours to far more complex (wicked) problems, all sorts of perverse outcomes begin to rear their head. It stand to reason therefore, that commanders need to be in roles where they use command a lot. What about the other roles? Well here’s a conundrum, because the other styles of leadership don’t quite gel with the culture. The collective leader, the distributive leader, the transformational leader, the participative leader… I could go on. The culture doesn’t quite like them as much, they don’t hold the same status and times can be tough, especially when reactive policing is slowly becoming the only ‘safe’ place left. As the preventative funding drops away and troops are reallocated to frontline policing, where command culture is at its strongest, how does that bode well for the future of a diverse leadership?

It may just be the case that austerity keeps the leaders best suited to a complex future culture, away from positions of leadership.

I’m not sure I like this rabbit hole…