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Sunday, 8 May 2011

Police Accountability - Part One

I am sat typing this blog at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) conference on Learning and Development.  The main speaker is Peter Neyroud, a retired Chief Constable and former head of National Policing Improvement Agency and author of a recent review of police leadership. This is the end of a week that has seen the media deliver a great deal of bad news about policing in the UK and I am hoping that the speakers today will bring some clarity to where police leadership is going in the UK.

The first of the bad news came with the verdict from Coroners Court in relation to the death of Mr. Ian Tomlinson.  Mr. Tomlinson walked in front of a line of police officers who were dealing with public disorder at the G20 conference two years ago.  As he walked past the officers Constable Harwood struck Mr. Tomlinson with his baton and pushed him the ground.  All of this was caught on camera.  Mr. Tomlinson got up and walked off only to collapse and die a short distance away.  A Home Office post mortem suggested that Mr. Tomlinson died of natural causes, however, independent examinations suggest that he died from internal bleeding caused by the police officers’ actions.  A result of unlawful death was the verdict of the jury which has resulted in the case being re referred to the Crown Prosecution Service to see whether the Constable should face any charges.

As a former police officer I have been involved in many large scale disturbances and it is fair to say that there is a great deal of stress involved as you deal with people who are predominantly intent on causing anti-social behaviour and damage.  The problem with this case is that CCTV evidence did not seem to support the officer’s evidence. The bigger question however relates to accountability and responsibility.  Police officers are sworn to uphold the peace and will at times have to put their public order training into practice.  However, they are accountable for their own actions.  What will happen when police officers refuse to deal with large scale disorder because of the threat of prosecution if something goes wrong?  A silly question?  Well maybe not as some police forces in the UK are unable to attract officers into Armed Response roles as they fear prosecution should they use their weapon and injure or kill someone.  Unfortunately precedents have been set with the arrest and attempted prosecution of two officers who shot and killed a man who they believed was armed with a sawn off shotgun that turned out to be a table leg. However, this is another story.

I would argue that this situation is a leadership issue in terms of the direct supervision of Constable Harwood and strategic leadership.  What level of support, control and supervision is in place during events such as this? I have previously blogged about the fact that the police cannot win in large scale public order situations; however, there is an element of control of resources and visible leadership that seems to have been missing.

Let's move on to another police force who hit the headlines this week.  Merseyside Police have suspended a number of officers from their Matrix Unit (a group of officers who work reactively and proactively to reduce crime, especially gun crime) following photographs being released of them posing with property during a house search.  Three of the officers are being investigated following an allegation that they stole property during a search and attempted to sell it on E-bay.  The photographs were taken with one of the officers own mobile phone and appear to have been circulated within the department.

Once again this is a leadership issue.  What encouraged the officers to even contemplate being photographed with the property let alone removing anything from the house?  Where was the discipline and leadership that made the officers understand that their actions were wholly inappropriate and breached misconduct regulations? The only good tuning to come from this story is that it seems that another officer may have 'blown the whistle' believing that tube officers’ actions could not be justified.  However, the negative publicity will not do the public confidence rating of Merseyside Police any good with questions being asked 'what's next?'

I believe that there are two answers to this.  There is ample evidence that people working as part of a close team, which the Matrix are and police officers work in units in public order situations, succumb to peer pressure, machismo and over exuberance which leads officers to do things that they would not normally do.  Peer pressure, pack mentality, group culture, call it what you will, but it exists.   The second issue is the paucity of police leadership at the first and second line supervisory level.  Sergeants have become senior constables and both they and Inspectors rarely get time to supervise officers on the streets.  Couple this with young men in their twenties egging each other on and pushing the boundaries without someone saying STOP! THAT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE and you are likely to have problems. 

This is not something that occurs only in the UK.  In the USA recently a force identified over 15 officers who were attending role call and then going to play golf or build houses for the rest of their tour of duty. Another force identified a number of officers who were having sex with a prostitute whilst they were on duty.

Returing to todays conference, Peter Neyroud's review proposes a new leadership model for the police and top of the list are democratic accountability and legitimacy. At the ACPO conference Neyroud stated that leadership is about groups and not individuals.  I can see where he is coming from here, but good leadership at the sergeant and inspector level is essential and there must be clear messages about integrity and ethics if the police are to maintain its legitimacy.

Neyroud also said that 'history matters when you are trying to make change' and I could not agree more.  In building his police force in 1829 Peel chose his Commissioners stating that they had to be men of high integrity, the constables selected men whom were of 'high moral character'.  In 1960 the Royal Commission identified that the police cannot undertake their task without the confidence and support of the people.  This was re iterated in 1993 when The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) stated that the police service relies on the confidence of the community if it is to function effectively.  However, acts such as those above service to damage this confidence.

In 1990 ACPO introduced a Statement of Common Purpose which said 'The purpose of the police service is to uphold the law fairly and firmly; to pursue and bring to justice those whom break the law; to keep the Queen's peace; to protect, help, and reassure the community; and to be seen to do this with integrity, common sense and sound judgment.  We must be compassionate, fours us and patient, acting without fear or favour or prejudice to the rights of others. We need to be professional, calm and restrained in the face of violence and only apply that force which is necessary to accomplish a lawful duty.'

Emphasis added

This Statement of Common Purpose applies to the circumstances mentioned above and would seem on the face of it to be a logical and necessary mantra for police officers to follow. Maybe when we swear our oath to the Queen, we should also take an oath to follow this guidance.  

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