Austerity and trauma in policing

On Wednesday, we hosted a @WeCops chat on how austerity had affected policing. We set the questions looking at how it was affecting the service, the organisation and finally, the police officers and staff themselves. It was a busy chat, with many practitioners getting involved, and it was even joined by some partners and members of the public who had experienced changes in the way we police.

The chat is recorded here, listed with all the participants, the tweets themselves, and some of the bio details of who got involved. You can click into the tweets and find practitioners who took part, along with their views just below in all the tweets collected via the WeCops hashtag #WeCops. All of our chats are recorded this way, so if you want to have a look through the archive they are all there and accessible for reading, study or even academic analysis. It’s really a potted history of how practitioners feel about a particular subject, at a moment of time, and can clearly illustrate both strong feelings and operational understanding or perspective.

There were distinct themes that came out of the chat. The first two questions discussed changes in demand, with greater exposure to work involving mental health. This was discussed in the context of ‘catching’ work from other services, who are also clearly suffering the effects of austerity themselves. As pointed out by one tweeter, this is a far-cry from the ‘single minded crime fighter’ discussed by Theresa May in 2011. It also sets the scene for what is – for some – a somewhat unwelcome shift in police identity. If officers join to catch bad guys and send offenders to jail, what starts to happen when that which genuinely made up a significant proportion of the work is replaced by spending hours on end waiting in A&E departments?

This concern was also given some support as practitioners discussed rising difficulty when it comes to staff retention. Great officers are leaving the service, and although it’s very difficult to directly point the finger at austerity, it’s very clear that there has been a huge effect on working conditions and the level of workload carried over the last eight years.

When deciding on the questions, it was clear that the content of the chat was going to be quite negative, but it is always necessary to look at both sides of the argument in any case. Sharing these tweets tries to ensure there is some critical thought about what austerity has achieved, however out of balance the results have been. Practitioners did discuss how some technical innovation had been forced by austerity, as less patrols had meant smarter deployment and technology to be used by officers at scene. There are tangible benefits of better technology for frontline officers – these aren’t just gadgets. They are tools that can help reduce stress and anxiety, also reducing waste as officers are usually constantly shifted from station to scene to victim. Ultimately, mobile tech can mean the difference between going home on time, and losing those vital hours with family at the end of your tour.

Volunteers were also discussed as having been afforded far more organisational time for better appreciation and deployment. Officers will always argue that they may take the place of full time employed alternatives, and whilst this may be case, it is difficult to state that the service made best use of those willing to give up their free time for public service prior to austerity.

The final question asked how austerity had affected officers personally. This drew a whole range of answers from higher stress through to a general need for better quality leadership and greater autonomy and empowerment. I love questions like this, as they force reflection, and this came out from participant’s tweets. Some officers stated that although there may be a higher workload, it was still the ‘best job in the world,’ or that it is the public service ethic that keeps them going, despite all the external changes:

Moving from the chat and into the next part of this blog that discusses trauma relies nicely on the content of the above quoted tweet. Our service relies heavily on that ’emotional investment’ that officers and staff provide. In academia it can be discussed as ‘discretionary effort.’ The term itself has been discussed critically on social media, as it assumes that putting more in than you ‘should’ leads to a reliance on essentially what could be considered as ‘overwork.’ This isn’t quite what is meant from the term, but as there is a lack of information out there about what it means it is easy to see how it can be construed that way.

Discretionary effort is effort that is applied because you want to apply it. It is the difference between taking on a crime and doing what is necessary by policy, and doing what you feel is right. A good example may be an officer encountering a vulnerable victim in the course of their duty who has been clearly deeply affected by their brush with crime. The system says the officer should ring them every thirty days, the officer thinks they need very regular contact and support to get them through their experience. Discretionary effort is that extra visit to see them, those extra returned calls to reassure them, or the odd note to let them know what is going on: it is the difference between a required service, and a caring one.

If you have ever worked in public service, you will see this effort everywhere, the problem is that as the environment changes, leadership doesn’t adapt, and busyness overtakes that space that we once had, it is far, far harder to bring that effort to the fore. Even more so, if trauma exists in practitioners.

This week, Lancashire Constabulary held host to their first trauma event for first and second line managers. Dr. Noreen Tehrani discussed with practitioners how to see post traumatic stress disorder in their staff and themselves, how to begin to offer support and some help, and what level of support is needed from the organisation. I shared some of the slides in this thread if you want to take a look.

 

So how does austerity and PTSD mix? This is an important question, and it’s one which is often not discussed.

Austerity has caused individual workload to rise, the nature of work to change, and the general level of work based support to drop (most forces have been forced to cut back office support functions). This creates a cauldron of negative pressures for frontline officers. Not only do they have to cope with increased work, but they are also faced with a switch in their mission and lower levels of organisational support.

Forces have had to cope with changes in training need (the huge volume of mental health incidents for example) with fewer training resources. Forces have also had to cope with higher levels of stress in officers and staff, with lower levels of funding to assist them. And forces have had to cope with officers and staff struggling to motivate themselves as the reason that they joined is slowly becoming a poor relative to what is essentially a strange mix of coercive social work and raised personal safety risk from changes in terrorist tactics. As @iofiv put it, a form of ‘Paramilitary social work.’

 

 

Fighting against this switch in demand is far from easy. The other agencies who were first port of call for much of this work have been cut to the quick, and we have legislative responsibility, on top of morale responsibility to act upon. If we are to preserve life, how can we with good conscience state, ‘That’s a job for the Crisis Team,’ knowing full well that the ‘Crisis Team‘ is one member of staff on county cover? It is a job for those in senior positions in the service to push back hard against this ‘gap’ in service provision, but whilst the gap exists, servicing it may be painful but necessary.

This doesn’t mean that we become a service that doesn’t say no, we just say no in the right place, with the right information, and to the right people. It’s important that we don’t say no to victims or sufferers; they aren’t the people that created this situation, just those that are unfortunately reaping the outcomes of it 😦

Aside from the demand shift, the repeated, increased exposure to higher workloads becomes a ticking time bomb. The service has always hidden trauma within its ranks. It is not rational to discuss trauma as something that is ‘new.’ In the past, when there was capacity in the service, those suffering were probably found a role to alleviate its affect, or shifted because they had become to ‘difficult to manage.’ There was space for these people, and we could accommodate support in many places of the organisation, even if it often wasn’t viewed as ‘good value for money’ by those counting the beans. There were also some slightly unsavoury practices that probably counted as coping mechanisms such as officers frequenting the bar after work for ‘two or three‘, or forming immensely strong social bonds with the teams in which they work. As those social provisions have lessened or disappeared completely, so have the opportunities for social ‘defusing’, a vital part of coping with trauma.

Chief Constable Andy Rhodes believes that we are comparatively late to begin to address trauma in our organisations, and made a point of discussing the military’s approach in contrast. He was vocal about policing needing to up its game.

So, how do officers cope now? Some literature points towards higher levels of self-medicating (drinking alcohol, poor food choices, prescription medication), others towards rising levels of debt amongst police officers. It goes without saying that there is probably rising levels of Leavism (taking leave instead of time off sick) and Presenteeism (coming into work despite being ill), sleep deprivation, and this is on top of rising levels of long term sickness across the service. Throw in recent surveys on morale from the Police Federation and mental health from the Police Dependents Trust and the content of this story becomes very, very challenging.

If forces do not grasp the nettle, austerity will continue to cause the steady build of trauma, higher workloads will remain, and lower organisational/social support will be the result of necessary budget constraint. It becomes a recipe with horrific ramifications. Discretionary effort may keep the wheel on that little bit longer than it should, but without decision making that seeks to actively address workforce wellbeing, and investment that isn’t just in officer and staff numbers, what will begin to put a halt to the development of growing threat to the health of emergency service workers?

The responsibility to stem this tide doesn’t just come from outside the service. We all hold some personal responsibility for our mental health, and understanding what is happening to us and around us is something we can never outsource. Despite austerity, trust in the service remains high, and this is testament to the amazing people that make up our organisations all around the country. But, as austerity continues, the risk continues to rise within our service, and individuals will be the casualties. These people are our colleagues, our supervisors, our team. In the face of this threat, we must do what the police force is good at, and that is rise to the challenge.

 

If you took part in the @WeCops chat then thank you, and please continue contributing. If not, make sure that you follow the account and keep an eye out for subjects that interest you. It may even be the case that social media begins to fill some of that ‘social’ hole that has become so vastly reduced following eight years of sustained cuts. Twitter may not be the most accepting of places sometimes, but it may have become a depository of officer’s feelings, insights and interactions. It may just have become the new ‘canteen…’ (as discussed by @IanHesky and @EmWilliamsCCCU) In times of austerity, being kind has never been more important. That tweet that cuts, have a thought, that person may be using social media to cope.

 

If anything discussed in this blog raises concern, or the connected tweets discussing trauma have raised feelings or possibly helped you identify some feelings/experiences in your life, please make sure that you reach out and get some help. Mind is a wonderful charity for advice, as is the Police Dependent Trust , just don’t suffer in silence. If you represent an organisation seeking to up its game in wellbeing, please check out Oscar Kilo here

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Braveheart Leadership: “Freedom” or shackle?

I’ve been working in the police leadership arena for several years now. It’s been an interesting time, and mixed in with several jobs at the College of Policing and now HMIC. I’ve had the privilege to look at what the future of leadership for the police may look like, and that’s from a structural, developmental and behavioural point of view. I must have had hundreds of conversations with frontline officers, academics, and senior leaders about what leadership means to them, and there’s a common theme: Leadership in the police conjures up a very specific image in people’s heads, and this image presents both challenges and opportunities.

I have had the chance to take several training sessions over the previous weeks, and I asked the attendees:

“When I say ‘Police Leadership’ to you, what image does it create?”

The answers were as follows:

  • Male
  • Late 40’s, early 50’s
  • White
  • Has ‘presence’
  • Authoritative
  • Imposing
  • Commanding
  • Confident
  • Makes decisions quickly
  • Tall
  • Athletic build

There were some more, but these formed the general themes across most of the sessions. Now, the interesting thing to me, was the level of consistency that these answers seemed to generate. It suggests that we all may have a very strong image of what a police leader is in our heads.

A good friend who also works as an Insp in a county force discusses this as ‘Braveheart Leadership,’ and he allies it with strong command, charisma, and courage. He also talks about going, ‘over the top,’ showing some dash and some daring. He’s an introvert, and often points out the war stories that people tell, pointing out that it is often those with loud, authoritative voices and quick decision making that seem to find favour, whilst those more thoughtful and quiet seem to be given the back seat repeatedly. You could say that the media has a pretty strong hand in developing this idea too, and if you look at the content of most ‘fly on the wall’ police documentaries, there’s a type of work that seems to grab the headlines and the camera – and it’s not being sat with a vulnerable 15 year old in hospital awaiting a mental health assessment.

As an officer who has sat through many ‘refs’ (that’s a meal break for those not in the police) breaks with my team, the amount of ‘war stories’ that officers tell increase over level of service. Discussions of big public order incidents, or frightening confrontation and fighting feature regularly, as do discussions of how particular incidents containing conflict shape the way that we view the world. ‘Us vs. Them,’ ‘Holding the Line,’ and being ‘up for it‘ or ‘handy’ in terms of handling conflict are common references/ideas, drawing influence from the military and times of war.

I don’t think this is too much of a suprise though, it’s very emotional when you’re in a physical fight. It’s scary, it can obviously affect your ability to work, and the thought of how close your back up is, is always at the forefront of your mind. If I could guess (and I worked Blackpool Central on Response for many years and have seen my own fair share of conflict), I’d say that these incidents build up a fairly solid veneer of trauma in most officers, so it doesn’t surprise me that this veneer shapes the way that we view and see the world – and leadership in particular.

It is also worth thinking about how the work that officers do has shaped their idea of leadership over the last few decades. We have had a mixture of New Public Management Leaders who discuss ‘the business,’ our ‘resources,’ and lots of things to do with ‘demand management.’ These terms have been reinforced by ‘war cabinet’ meetings that are sometimes still ongoing daily in some forces, where how many burglaries we had the night before need an immediate ‘action plan‘ and ‘diversion of resources‘ to ‘maximise potential detection probability…

This type of work lends itself to command based leadership. Operational decisions are made in the short term, to short term spikes in crime. Long term decision making takes a back burner, as do strategic infrastructure things like IT and our estates. The end result is an environment where a particular ‘kind’ of leader can thrive. It’s group think at its best:

groupthink-400x280

credit: http://leaderslab.co.uk/

So, as we speculate on what may ’cause’ our idea of leadership to emerge, it’s time to put that idea into the current context of what’s going on around us.

The Police are seeing huge changes in demand, facilitated by an external environment that is changing so rapidly that even experts in technology can’t keep up. The internet is changing the way that we investigate even the most basic of crimes, not because it is an ‘essential part of any investigation,’ but simply because it is now an essential part of life. Across the Western world, crime types are changing. Traditional property based crime is falling, and we are seeing the way we view and deal with vulnerability revolutionised. These changes are causing huge pressure on the frontline, and in the context of austerity, they are compounded to the point of making officers feel almost left behind.

If I were to point towards where the police need significant development, I wouldn’t be pointing towards places that other people can’t see or feel when they are involved in police work. We will still face public disorder, burglary and assaults as a matter of course, but these will be inter-mixed with child protection, mental health and social deprivation. No matter how much these areas of work present as alien to officers long in the tooth or favouring traditional types of police work, they are here, and we must adapt – because the police do not dictate the requests that the public/society make of them.

Now I’m not saying that drawing a defining line defining what we do isn’t useful, I’m just saying that that line will not be where we may prefer it to be. The problems facing police are complicated, and they require fundamental changes in infrastructure of forces and re-investment in areas previously left untouched. I remember being sat around a table at a conference with a chief officer, who stated, ‘We don’t have the resources, I’m not even turning that stone over…‘ Now whilst this may be admirable in terms of protecting current levels of service, it presents an awful strategic approach, mired in the short term. Basically, ignoring hidden demand will only bite you in places like officer wellbeing and the ability to respond to 999 calls within a few years – ignore it and the short term benefit will be greatly outweighed by the long term cost – especially in terms of looking after our officers.

So what does all this mean for police leadership?

Whilst we may still need our police leaders to protect the ability to respond to public disorder and traditional crime, we also need leaders who will look to the future and make difficult decisions about what a force actually looks like and how it responds to varying calls demanding lots of differing levels of service. Demanding omni-competence of our officers may mean that we create a perfect storm of pressure, where every officer has to be everything, to everyone. This is not sustainable, and we have to recognise that our people have strengths in particular areas, where they may serve the public at their best. Not everyone on a team can be a digital investigation whizz or a vulnerability expert, just as not everyone can be public order die hard or a ‘handy‘ thief catcher. This is the start of acknowledging that we need to be more sophisticated in the way that we send our officers to jobs, and ensure that we have high levels of skill in particular people, rather than average levels of skill across the board.

We need a selection of leaders with different strengths, some of whom can manage difficult partnerships with IT companies over time, developing tools that mix operational need with managing public value. We need leaders who can work in long term collaborations, developing approaches to vulnerability that concentrate on prevention and protection, not just catch and convict. We need leaders who can spot the changes on the horizon and put in places long term plans to transform police organisations into something that roll with the times, rather than respond in atrophy to demand that we saw coming a long time ago. And, we need leaders who can confidently lead large incidents of public disorder, and command critical incidents with skill and care.

If you can find me a leader that can do all that with equal skill and ability, I shall eat my hat at 2am refs… So if we bear the difference that we need in mind, it makes sense that we consider how we select and develop our leaders now?

We still need command based leadership. We still need levels of process and management. We still need leaders who can work with others and plan for the long term, chipping away at entrenched societal problems. The trick – and not just for constabularies – is to recognise that the stories that we tell, and the stories that we hear, may not be the stories that we need. The romantic idea of the police leader, isn’t in kilter with the forces that we now need, and at its basest level this is abundantly clear just from a diversity point of view. Taking it past protected characteristics though, and into diversity of thought, what we really need is an acknowledgement that the ‘stories’ that create our idea of what a leader is may actually be creating issues for our organisations long term.

I spoke with an officer during a lecture several weeks ago, and the discussion captured some of the risks around the impact of our ‘idea’ of leadership:

I met one of those Direct Entry Supers the other day. They just… didn’t come across as a leader. She was small, not imposing, there was no… gravitas...” (paraphrased)

We spoke about this comment in the lecture, and as we delve under the surface of ‘gravitas’, we arrived at the current ‘idea’ of policing leadership. That idea had caused a judgement to be made in a moment of interaction – something that we cops are very good at. It illustrates how our ‘idea’ of leadership informs our judgements about what we are looking for – whether the organisation physically needs it or not.

Each constabulary will have its own idea of what a leader is. This is fine, as long as that idea is sufficiently wide enough to meet the service that we propose to provide. It’s no longer good enough to rely on a ‘type’ or an ‘idea’ of leadership that only fits times of crisis – mainly because over 95% of what we do doesn’t function in crisis. We have moved on from that, and the service we offer is wider and more complicated than ever envisioned even a decade ago.

It’s time to develop what we think of as leadership within our constabularies. Allowing leadership to become a particular ‘thing,’ or come from a ‘particular pathway’ can cause problems for the way that we approach even the most seemingly insignificant call. In fact, as we delve into many incidents that we haven’t previously considered to be ‘police work,’ we see shoots of warning that indicate on repeat offending – sometimes of the most serious kind. If we really want to get serious about developing our understanding, we need to change the idea of what constitues a police leader, and if you were going to ask me my advice on how to start to ‘open’ the idea up, the first thing I would say, is:

Change the stories. They are more powerful than you think.

Breaches, breaches everywhere…

This blog is about the wider social issues affecting the cops at the moment. It explores the relationship between officers and the College of Policing, and speculates on the relationships now formed via interactions between them over recent preceding years. As usual, I will be discussing research evidence, but I’m hoping that it is still readable and that it gives us some frameworks through which to discuss what is going on.

What is a Psychological Contract?

Everyone uses contracts every day. They are usually tangible, but in many cases you don’t even realise it’s there. When you go into a shop and pick up a mars bar, there are rules governing what happens when you take the mars bar out of the shop – not least of which is the need to pay for it! These contracts are protected by law, and they run through our society from top to bottom. There are lots of other rules that we live by every day, but we often don’t think about them.

A Psychological Contract is the same, but it isn’t governed by tangible rules, it deals with expectations. To give readers a quote that may help:

‘…a series of mutual obligations of which parties to the relationship may not themselves be dimly aware but which nonetheless govern their relationship to each other.’ (Levinson, 1962)

So the rules aren’t written down, we can’t see them, and in many cases we are unaware they are there. If I was to give an example of these, I would say that they are pretty individual and different to everyone, so it is quite difficult. If we put it into a cop context, it would be like discussing your relationship between yourself and your supervision. If you work really hard and constantly work your socks off, you expect your line supervision to support your leave requests. This would be an unwritten rule, and dependent on your relationships obviously, but nonetheless that expectation may develop.

The issue with psychological contracts, is that because they are unwritten and you can’t see them, they develop differently. The line supervision may believe in total fairness when it comes to leave allocation, no matter how hard you work, so although you develop an expectation where you expect reciprocal support if you work really hard, there’s no guarantee that this will be met. This is when something called ‘reciprocity’ kicks in. In this example it would look like this:

Cop works hard –> Cop expects backing for leave –> supervisor sees them working hard, gives them praise –> Cop thinks praise a signal for backing –> cop asks for leave –> supervisor knocks leave back because they see it as unfair to the rest of the team –> cop believes that their hard work isn’t being supported and sees less value in working so hard –>  supervisor sees withdrawal of effort and can’t understand why it’s happening.

Reciprocity is when someone with a psychological contract reciprocates a perceived breach of contract – so basically something happens that doesn’t meet their expectations, so they react accordingly. In the above example, it is a withdrawal of effort, because they aren’t receiving the backing they expect.

The truth is that the above example could actually be sorted out with a quick conversation.

“What’s going on, you seem to have lost a little motivation? Is something bothering you?”

“Well, it has actually as I couldn’t get leave last week and I missed my best friend’s wedding.”

“Oh, I didn’t think it was that important, you should have said.”

“You didn’t know?”

“I didn’t, sorry. I like to make sure we meet the minimum turn out for shift and your request took us below. I didn’t want to leave the rest of the team short and I’m really fair with how I process leave. I’m really sorry, it won’t happen again. Would you mind letting me know in the future if it’s important, as you are a brilliant cop and I want to look after you.”

This all looks fluffy, but what is actually going on is an exchange of expectations. They are talking to each other and defining how to meet each other’s needs. At the end of this conversation, both leave with a clearer idea of how the relationship works and how things can be managed better in the future. As many will know, conversations like this often don’t happen for many reasons. The cop won’t ask as they feel the solution was imposed by hierarchy and many bosses don’t like being questioned. If the question does happen, the answer is usually: “Because I followed policy. It’s fairer that way.”

I could talk about how we can improve this all day, and a great example would be for that leave request to be put to the team.

“Guys, XXXXX needs leave next week for his best friend’s wedding. It takes us below. What do you think?”

“We’re OK with that and can cope.” Or, “I know YYYY from Neighbourhoods can cover.” Or, “It’s Saturday night, can we deviate one from lates?”

Again, this example looks simple, but you are removing decision making from hierarchy and that can be quite against the established culture. It also takes more effort, and when you have a lot of ‘important’ leave requests it can become impractical. The truth is that a simple request can create big issues and start off a chain of events that stops people working for the organisation. Managing the expectations is a complicated job, and supervisors need to put some real effort into finding out what their staff expect from them and vice versa. When you get it right, it’s awesome. When there are clashes, it can break people.

So what does any of this have to do with the College of Policing?
I may have digressed slightly, but I’m hoping you’re with me 
If I were to ask a frontline cop what the College of Policing is for, the answer is usually: “No idea.” Because the word ‘College’ is in there, many assume it is an accrediting body for academia (not true). Many officers have also seen recent changes that are legacies of Home Office intervention, and because they are being implemented via the College, there is an implicit association with the Conservative Government, and by proxy, Tom Winsor and the Winsor reforms.

Let’s have a look at the potential state of the psychological contract with the College of Policing for a frontline officer:

image

Above the iceberg you have the tangible contract of work and pay. Even this has been recently affected and changed, so the visible top may have some damage. But look at what is beneath the surface of the water… There have been significant changes announced to training and development, recognition, qualifications, status, and importantly pensions. What is the reciprocal effect of these changes to tacit expectations? Look at the left side of the iceberg. Loyalty, commitment, time/hours, effort/ideas, the driving of change, and tolerance are all on that list.

If we look at Twitter over the last week, we have seen a significant uplift in communications by the College. This means an increase in volume of data around the changes, but does it really deal with the expectations of officers? I have seen so many examples of tweets where people ask:

“Isn’t the College meant to be there for officers?”

“What happened to our input?”
“I don’t feel consulted.”

“The College is just an arm of the Home Office.”

Now, I’m not saying that Twitter is the panacea of engagement, but it offers important insights into the psychological contracts of Officers with regards to the College. The above examples tell us:

“Isn’t the College meant to be there for officers?” – I expect the College to represent officers and I don’t feel that it is at the minute.

“What happened to our input?” – I expect to be able to input into policy making and I have no idea how to do that. I don’t feel it has happened.

“I don’t feel consulted.” – If consultation has taken place, it certainly hasn’t included me, and I wanted it to.

“The College is just an arm of the Home Office.” – I don’t think that the College represents me.
These are all Psychological Contract breaches, and if we accept that the theory is robust and pretty much does what it says on the tin, then there will be reciprocity. What will this reciprocity look like? It is likely to be intolerance, disengagement, a lack of trust, reduced loyalty (if there is any) and a lack of motivation to contribute ideas. In short, the landscape is not healthy.

Now the College is in a tough place. It does want to be there for officers, but it is also answerable to the Home Office. I would like to think (in a Utopia!) that the College will eventually be wholly owned by its members, and any changes will come as a result of bottom up feedback from its membership. To be fair, having worked on the leadership review, I did a huge amount of consultation with officers and staff, as well as external organisations. But if you look at the policing family, I would have been lucky to interact with 1% over the course of a year.
Using the methods that we have historically used, how can consultations of 1% lead to acceptance? I imagine that will be very hard. I also think that perceived breaches will continue, especially as further reform (on the right of the iceberg) lands. As these breaches continue, it is highly likely that reciprocity will too, and officers will continue to be disengaged and feel uninvolved. How do we rectify and deal with this?
Well, as given in the conversation above, understanding the expectations of both parties is key. This is a two-way relationship where both sides pro-actively engage in order to find out what each expect from each other. Right now, I think officers are confused as to who the College represents, what its agenda is, and how consultations with officers take place. Engagement therefore, may actually begin with some clarification on both sides, and this can be done in full view and publicised on social media. The more visible this communication, the less likely it is that ambiguity will exist, and ambiguity just leads to lots of breaches.
In the current climate, how can both begin to repair the relationship?

The truth may lie in an exploration of methods; as current methods are clearly not working. The forthcoming membership platform will help, as it is a reason for officers to interact with the College, but what it does not do is clear the mess of differing expectations that currently populate the divide. I for one would love to hear what Officers want from their professional body, and whilst the new layers of reform land over the coming years, that can form a program of work that begins to develop some positive relationships.

One thing I would wish to make clear, is that a professional body is not a Union. It exists to further the development of the Profession. This means that changes will not always be popular. I think that many officers would accept that far more readily, if there was a sufficient understanding and trust around both officer’s and the College’s expectations. Leaving this gap, without filling it pro-actively and positively, will compound breaches and drive wedges between the parties.

I think these last few days have been an indication that things are changing and new methods are being explored, but there is a lot of catching up to do in order to garner the support of an increasingly disenfranchised frontline. We really need that conversation to take place:

“What’s going on, you seem to have lost a little motivation? Is something bothering you..?”

So what are the consequences?

You may have read about the #cutshaveconsequences campaign. If you haven’t, where have you been? It has been well publicised on social media and many are now using it to illustrate the effect upon daily business at all levels of the police and other public services. The message is a stark one: cut the funding, and these cuts will be reciprocated in the service that is provided. This isn’t through malice, or laziness, or spite, it is a simple equation of supply and demand. Cutting the ‘low hanging fruit’ from police budgets have supposedly resulted in ‘efficiency savings’, but savings in which bit of ‘efficiency’ are we talking about?

Well, it transpires that the ‘low hanging fruit’ was often back office function. Frontline cops will tell you that these people are rarely seen, but that is – of course – not surprising. It isn’t their job to attend calls, and the vast majority of their work deals with invisible demands like file preparation, community engagement, HR processes, communications and training. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but ask any business how they would feel to lose a portion of their training/PR/Admin staff and they will tell you that they play an intrinsic role in making the business run properly. What happens to the work that they were doing, when they aren’t doing it anymore?

Well some of it will just be lost, other parts of it will be passed on, and a classic example of this would be back office case file preparation. Maintain the numbers on the frontline, yet move work previously placed in back office function on to their toes. Remove some call handlers and the response time/call answered time rises. Train cops face-to-face less, pile up the NCALT packages in their place, and you will have officers making more mistakes. Add the extra paperwork on top of the mistake, the higher level of injuries caused through increased response time, and the lack of reassurance function and it all starts to look a little more complex.

Calls to the police haven’t fallen, and failure demand from similarly cut other public services is on the rise. Failure demand is where the problems raised can not be dealt with properly via the system that is in place, and it continues to create often worsening calls to service as the problem is compounded. A classic is mental health, where police are feeling the brunt of another system which is really struggling. As local authorities can’t finance anti-social behaviour interventions or problem tenancies the police again often catch the fall out. This risk grows through a very stretched social services, who are attempting to deal with complex family problems with similarly reduced resources. Fallout? The cops again. 

But crime is falling!!! You will hear the cry shouted from the rooftops. Not everywhere it’s not. And let’s be honest, the problem here isn’t that simple either. The recording structure is archaic and immensely complicated, new crime profiles (cybercrime) are not even included (!!!), and there are still target based performance cultures in place up and down the country. Where there are targets, there will be perverse behaviours, and right now in the current climate, cops certainly don’t need them (and never should they). The word ‘crime’ is becoming synecdoche (long word roughly meaning it’s far too simple to describe what it represents). Policing is not all about crime anymore (and it never was), and the recent work from the College of Policing proves this.

The next possible policing change is the amalgamation of neighbourhood policing into response teams, or reductions in the numbers of officers working in communities. It has always been described as the jewel in the crown of British policing, and rightly so. It increases legitimacy, forges relationships, creates trust, solves problems, and represents someone to talk to face-to-face. It is heavily linked with preventative work and engagement, the kind of work you can’t measure. Some people may cynically state that it is very hard to ‘prove’ it’s value. It’s actually very easy, go and speak to the communities about the value their beat bobby brings. Other options include workforce modernisation or very risky refusal of response in particular circumstances (which I personally think could be awful).

So, further cuts have been announced, what may happen now? Frontline cops have already fallen, and make no mistake, they are now stretched. Police operate in a high stress environment and the physical effects of the job can be debilitating at the best of times. Because of this high stress level, the resultant recovery needed is higher than most professions. If you want to read about this, check out ‘Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement Officers,’ it’s a great read and it changed the way I understood my job and the effect it had on me. It talks about a syndrome called ‘Magic Chair,’ where a cop finishes work and sits in a particular chair. They can sit for hours and stare, not really taking in or interacting with others, not even really watching the TV. Sleep is physiologically difficult because of the speed that their mind reaches processing what has happened that day. It’s a biological reaction, in answer to the high stress environment that they work in. It causes problems in relationships, and health will often suffer because alcohol is often used to self medicate. It’s a dangerous spiral to get into and it can lead to mental health issues down the line if not checked. (Read the book if this chimes with you!)

The interesting part of the book deals with those people that are experienced cops. It details the first domestic violence incident attended, and discusses the biological reaction of adrenalin release, high heart rate, perspiration, and that anxiety feeling. Older cops will tell you that this lessens with experience, but the research has proven that it still happens… The officers just get much better at dealing with it. It still takes its biological toll, it still causes the anxiety and higher heart rate, and as such your body will need to hit a comparative ‘low’ to balance this out and let you recover. It’s called the ‘Emotional Rollercoaster,’ and if you’re a cop, you are never off it.

So why have I started with cuts and ended up discussing stress? Easy, whilst people speak about increasing legitimacy of the cops, gaining greater trust, making them more accountable, and forging better partnerships, austerity is causing the functions that support these things to be reduced. The reactive policing function is fast becoming the last bastion of the frontline. Stress rises accordingly with reduced support, frontline cops suffer higher workloads and ever more scrutiny. Backup is always that bit further away. That stress ‘high’ causes more and more biological damage, causing mistakes to be made and lower rates of physical health. This results in higher sickness levels, and subsequently a cycle of more stress on colleagues that are already strung out. I don’t think that I need to explain anymore…

So what are the consequences of the cuts? Well, they are human consequences. Strung out officers starting to turn in and roll into tight defensive balls as they feel attacked from all sides. Families of officers who feel the Rollercoaster lows at every end of shift. Victims feel them acutely as preventative work wanes and response times rise. Mistakes are made and otherwise great people are put under huge pressure as their decision making is called into question. And slowly, but ever so surely, a dialogue of ‘us and them’ emerges. Cops have to fight this like hell, because there is only ‘us’, grasp the nettle, and deliver as best they can in spite of these cuts, because that is what cops do. The public rely on them. Head held high, support colleagues as if they were family – because they are family. 

Cuts do have consequences, and they aren’t rooted in response times, log to attendance ratios, or detections. They are rooted in people’s wellbeing. Looking after officers and treating them properly has never been so important as it is now.

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…