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…