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…


5 thoughts on “The cultural rabbit hole…

  1. As ever, hit the nail on the head.
    Talking of nails, one danger we have is if we treat all our problems with hammers, all the problems will look like nails! Policing has, and probably always will face enormous change, some of the soloutions may include:
    1. Accepting the unpalatable truth that we have organisational myopia, what the strategist intended to happen at three in the morning does not happen, there is a huge disconnect.
    2. The emporer is not wearng new clothes, so stop telling him he is, tell him he is naked, help him dress then you can both get on with the honest, focused business of keeping people safe.
    3. Plan, tomorrow is a different day and will come, compare ambulances and police cars 20 yeaes ago and now. 20 years ago the ambulance was a meat wagon, it collected you and took you to hospital, hopefully before you died, the police car was just a car to move officers about in, take the lights and the decal off and it was a normal car. Now ambulances have the facilities to house minor operations, full triage and truly connects with the health care process; the police car of today is mainly the same, a normal car with lights, the point being the NHS have planned and evolved for their future, they are in no means perfect, but they are better.
    4. Accept that you cannot positively change culture with compliance. Trusting the people you have may just reap unimaginable rewards, like some priveate companies do!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a perfect explanation of the current position UK policing is in. The behaviours of police officers described is very accurate.

    The mistrust of senior police is often like the mistrust of police by the public. We sort of know that they do a good job as we keep plodding on and nothing majorly serious happens but we all like to pick at them and think we could do a better job. Replace “we” with public and “they” us and the same analogy applies.

    It’s only when we get to work with senior police we see they are not to be feared but actually just like us and give a PC the responsibility for 250 staff in a local policing unit and they would be considering the same issues.

    The big dilemma I think is coming is the value of neighbourhood policing and how to measure it’s performance (I don’t like that word however!) The preventative work, the trust, and the partnership working are so valuable and we need to invest in this but without evidence of success will we convince senior leaders? Meanwhile as we try to reduce demand and prevent crime and importantly the fear of crime we are still needing to be reactive. A balance to strike but one I am pleased to be part of.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent article from a personal perspective which encompasses what the majority think. Great insight into the complex relationships & hierarchy of Policing but simplified to make easy reading. Spot on analysis, well structured & developed, excellent.


  4. Great read and pretty much nailed the issues. As a retired version of those further up the rank structure it is especially interesting, particularly since it does not seem to have changed a lot. It is fascinating to realise that cops distrust those up the rank ladder. They have their job to do balancing all the issues you have so clearly highlighted and are themselves looking upwards wondering why ACPO and the pokticians don’t “get it”. The way forward is softer skills, problem solving and the harder job is in that arena too. Taking responsibility and shouldering accountability to residents to fundamentally improve the quality of their lives, and working an area consistently leaves no hiding place if you fail to address their issues. Nothing too hard about turning up in a wheels off moment and wrestling someone into a van when it’s all come to a head ( well there is!) but the next day you are long gone when the offender is back out on bail and the estate is smouldering again and the response cop was just a faceless uniform in the night. Great read but I hVe to agree that austerity will push everything back to the reactive aspects of the culture, but not necessarily because the hierarchy want it that way. It’s because there is a no option aspect to this job which has to be done. Unfortunately, that bit is the easy and enjoyable bit that in truth we all feel comfortable with. As for it not changing much, I think the understanding of it has moved on, but culture moves at glacier pace at the best of times and every excuse and financial condition has currently aligned to slow it down even more right now.

    Liked by 1 person

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