This is the first in a series of three blogs which, together, launch a new project, the #TrueBlueLineUK.
In this blog, “The #CrisisInPolicing” (published on the evening of 1.8.17), I set out the background to the project.
In the second, “Going Viral” (published on the evening of 2.8.17), I explain the inspiration for the project.
And in the third, “The #TrueBlueLineUK” (published on the evening of 3.8.17), I set out the details of the project itself, and how you can help.
Those of you who have followed me for some time will know that I am a fairly regular commentator on policing issues in the mainstream media. Initially my aim was simply to provide an explanation of what the police can and can’t do, and of how they go about doing it, to the public. Over the last seven years, however, I have become increasingly concerned about the cuts being made to the police service in England and Wales. With others, I have warned that they are going too far for several years now…but our warnings have been dismissed by the Government, especially by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary who dismissed our concerns as “crying wolf” and “scaremongering”.
THE CRISIS IN POLICING:
The situation has now degenerated to the point where there is a full-blown #CrisisInPolicing which is deepening by the day. There actually WAS a “wolf” and it is now right at the door. Policing in England and Wales faces a perfect storm:
- Police numbers are down by 20,000 (around 15% of the total) since 2010
- Current police officer numbers were last seen around 1985
- Police staff and PCSO numbers have seen even greater cuts
- Crime is now rising – around a 10% rise year on year from 2015-16 to 2016-17
- There is now very little proactive police activity on the street
- Stop and search (due to May’s directives) has fallen off a cliff
- Police officers are actively discouraged from carrying out stop and search or pursuing vehicles (especially mopeds) which fail to stop
- As a result the streets have been “lost” to the criminals and thugs
- There is now a steady stream of experienced police officers leaving in mid-service
- Stress-related ill-health is through the roof
- Officers (and their families) are being burned out by ridiculous workloads and hours
In short, we were #NotCryingWolf.
THE DOGS WHICH DIDN’T BARK:
The situation is dire, and is crying out for someone – anyone – to challenge the Government and to bring the #CrisisInPolicing to the attention of the public. But no-one is doing that. The National Police Chief’s Council say little, other than to reassure the public that they are “doing everything we can to keep you safe”. The Superintendent’s Association of England and Wales have pretty much disappeared without trace. And, most disgracefully, the Police Federation of England and Wales have, at a national level, decided to pursue a policy of appeasing the Government rather than challenging their cuts and other attacks on policing.
Local Police Federation branches have done some sterling work, most notably the brilliant #CutsHaveConsequences campaign which I believe was started by Essex Police Federation and which was then taken up by several other branches. The outstanding features of that campaign were the exceptionally high quality, and hard hitting, short films which vividly illustrated that police officers were disappearing from communities. Good examples come from the West Midlands Police Federation, the West Yorkshire Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police Federation. The campaign really needed to be taken up nationally by the Police Federation of England and Wales so that a national awareness raising campaign could be undertaken. For some reason that never happened.
Some of the Federation National Lead officers with responsibility for particular areas of business have also done sterling work bringing particular issues to the attention of the public: I am thinking here of the likes of John Apter and Che Donald. John has massively raised awareness of the plight of police drivers who are currently (and disgracefully) not afforded the protection of the law when engaged in pursuits or even in ordinary response driving. Che Donald continues to highlight the vulnerability of armed police officers if they are faced with a situation in which they need to pull the trigger. The work done by them, and others, is great but each of them is dealing with one aspect of the #CrisisInPolicing and not the whole issue.
Other policing bodies have been actively supportive of the May’s changes. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), under the direction of Sir Tom Winsor, the first non-police officer (albeit one with a penchant for opening the “dressing up box“) in the post of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary in living memory, have been changed into a “Regulator” of police and produce report after report after report criticising the police for not doing this, that and the other with absolutely no consideration of the impact of the cuts at all. This is hardly a surprise as Winsor was the author of two Reports which form the basis of most of May’s changes to the police service. The College of Policing have enthusiastically pursued May’s desires to make policing a degree-level entry profession, something which it is feared will prevent make potentially excellent, but non-academic, recruits joining.
With very, very few exceptions, the national media have failed to raise the issue of the cuts to policing, let alone the fact that #CutsHaveConsequences for local communities. They have increasingly carried stories about levels of policing service deteriorating in various ways – response times rising, investigations being cut back, insufficient officers available to deal with local “rave” parties and similar incidents – but they have failed to make the connection with the cuts.
The cuts have been led by the Tory Party, first whilst in coalition Government with the Lib-Dems between 2010 and 2015 and then in Government alone from 2015. Because of the fact that they were in coalition with the Tories for the first five years, the Lib-Dems have been largely silent on the impact of the cuts. The Labour Party under Ed Miliband chose not to ask and #QuestionsOnPolicing during the 2015 General Election campaign. Under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 they did eventually address the issue. They intended to put the Tories on the back foot with an announcement that they would reinstate some 10,000 of the cut police officers. Sadly the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, failed to properly prepare for her media interviews and the launch of that policy was a total embarrassment. As a result they didn’t raise the issue again.
Despite this failure of any of the main Parties to ask #QuestionsOnPolicing, it is right that I should mention the sterling work done by Holly Lynch, MP. Single-handedly she has dragged the issue of the safety of police officers on patrol to the attention of Parliament. She has organised debates and persisted in asking questions of the Government. With the assistance and support of Chris Bryant, MP who secured an opportunity to bring forward a Private Member’s Bill in this Parliament she now has a very real chance of significantly strengthening the substantive law relating to the assault of police officers and other emergency workers in the course of their duties. Although her work is commendable, however, it doesn’t address the core issue: the #CrisisInPolicing.
THE GOVERNMENT ATTACK ON POLICING AND POLICE OFFICERS:
In Government, the Tory Party (primarily in the person of Theresa May, Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016) has maintained a relentless anti-police narrative for seven long years They have repeatedly stereotyped all officer as racist thugs, personally responsible for every policing issue going back decades, such as the failed investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence (which happened in 1993) and the Hillsborough tragedy (which happened in 1989). The average frontline officer today wasn’t even a teenager when those things happened – many weren’t even born! But that has not stopped the Government rolling out the list at every opportunity.
It is not clear why Theresa May has set out to destroy the police in this way, but set out to destroy them she most definitely has. It is not just that she has made the cuts that she has, it is how she has gone about it. There was, at least for the first couple of years, a legitimate argument for why the police needed to take their share of the cuts which were having to be applied across the board to deal with the financial situation in which the country found itself. The police service (at all levels) accepted the need to make some cuts but they have continued far, far beyond what can properly be sustained. She hasn’t engaged with the police in any meaningful way at any level to try to manage the cuts in such a way as to minimise the impact on their ability to deliver policing to the public. And she has launched tirade after tirade at the police service as a whole, most notably at Police Federation conferences in 2014 and 2016.
What IS clear, however, is that she has not uttered a single word in public in support of the police, in acknowledgement of their efforts or in gratitude for their exceptional dedication to duty which has been the only thing keeping policing going in many areas.
Unsurprisingly, Theresa May’s anti-police narrative has been gleefully taken up by the media who, at the best of times, are not exactly supportive of the police. They have taken to the task of repeating and amplifying the Government narrative with relish – frequently exaggerating, misrepresenting or even totally lying about stories in order to damage and undermine the police. Wherever a negative spin can be put on a story, they have gone for it. BBC News and Channel 4 News have been particularly persistent in this regard, aided and abetted by The Daily Mail, The Sun and most of the other national newspapers.
With the advent of Freedom of Information requests, the media routinely gather statistics from police forces across the country and then, when they’ve gone back enough years to come up with a sufficiently scary number, they splash a headline such as “Police hold closed hearing to sack 477 officers for misconduct” which is quite deliberately intended to make readers think “OMG! That’s awful!”. Only when you read the detail in the article do you realise it is for all 43 forces. Across three years…. so “Police forces hold closed hearings to sack on average 3 officers for misconduct per force per year”… Not quite so scary, eh? Another variation is to present an FoI based story as if it has revealed something the police are hiding: “Police forces confess 944 officers have a criminal record” being an example of this type. Again the casual reader, scanning the headline in print or online (and most readers DO only scan the headlines) would at first glance be quite horrified by that scary number. Again, it is only when you read into the detail that you find that it is across 33 forces and includes Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) as well as police officers. This time the headline should have read something like “0.9% of police officers and PCSOs have minor and / or ancient criminal convictions”. FoI based stories have become a hugely popular stick with which the anti-police media can beat the police service.
Perhaps even more damagingly, mobile phone footage taken by onlookers or even suspects has become ubiquitous. ANY use of force by police is portrayed as “police brutality” by those filming it and it is uploaded to YouTube and rapidly goes viral on social media. The mainstream media then pick up on it and show it to a FAR wider audience, again amplifying its impact and frequently sensationalising the nature of the incident. They ALWAYS focus on the account of the “victims” and NEVER provide the officer’s account. The officers, and their force, CAN’T comment in these circumstances (because they respect the rule of law and (rightly) believe that all parties are entitled to have a fair hearing once ALL the facts are known, not just a clip of video with little or no context). Usually the media not only fail to explain this to their readers and viewers but, by saying “We contacted the police but they have refused to comment”, they imply the police are covering something up. This utterly dishonest coverage of policing issues is not routinely challenged by anyone in authority. It has become absolutely the norm. The result is that officers are being tried in the court of public opinion and held to be guilty no matter what later happens in the official investigation and hearing (as the media NEVER give similar prominence to the eventual findings if they show the officers did little or nothing wrong).
AND YET THE OFFICERS STILL KEEP GOING:
Against this background, the vast majority of officers are STILL working their socks off, doing their absolute best to continue to deliver policing to the public they serve. They are doing so at great personal cost – they are working unpaid overtime with no prospect of ever being paid, they are taking work home with them, they are cutting corners and boxing and coxing, knowing that if something goes wrong with that case the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will come gunning for them, looking for any excuse at all to get them sacked and taking absolutely no notice whatsoever of the insane workloads the officers were trying to manage. And, as I have said, they are missing out on time with their families (often leading to their relationships collapsing), they are suffering stress, they are making themselves ill and, tragically, ever more are committing suicide. They REGULARLY do things which are absolutely outstandingly #GoodPoliceWork but these successes are never reported in the national media and the hundreds of thousands of successful interactions every day are never mentioned when they report the latest example of the police allegedly doing wrong.
Every day police officers are keeping vast swathes of the police service going with their goodwill. It is absolutely amazing that, despite everything, they are still doing this, something that is to their enormous credit. The public owe them a massive debt of gratitude.
It can’t go on though. The current levels of workload are not sustainable in even the medium term. Officers, especially specialist officers, are working 12, 14 or even 16 hour shifts back to back for days on end. They are getting just one or two rest days a month (if they are not cancelled). After the terrorist attacks in Westminster, London Bridge, Manchester and Finsbury Park, and the horrendous fire at Grenfell Tower it looked for a moment like the police service would collapse, but through the dedication of tens of thousands of police officers across the country they (just about) kept things going.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture: there is a #CrisisInPolicing and the police, both as an organisation and as individual officers are being routinely defamed, demeaned and disparaged by the Government and in the mainstream media. No-one is coming to their defence in the public discourse. The situation is spiralling out of control and if you were to watch the TV News on any day of the week now you would conclude that the police are entirely out of control, failing entirely in their duty to investigate serious crime and bring offenders to justice and routinely beating and shooting suspects – especially black and Asian suspects – to death.
(When you look at the actual statistics, nothing could be further from the truth – out of some 15,000 armed operations each year only a handful result in shots being fired and Tasers are actually fired in only around 10% of the occasions in which they are drawn. The media and the politicians don’t let the facts get in the way of a good anti-police story though!)
I believe this needs to stop. It has gone on FAR too long and it is simply wrong on multiple levels.
Those of us outside the police service and Government can’t do much about the cuts themselves, but we can raise the issues and challenge the lies. In the UK we have a policing model which has been the envy of the world: policing by consent. Since 1829 the police have been of the public and the public have made up the police. They police are not an arm of the State – constitutionally they are entirely independent of the Government and the Government cannot direct them in their operational duties. Year in, year out, the vast majority of the public show their support for, and confidence in, their police service. If they knew what the Government had done to their police service I believe they would be horrified and there would be an outcry, forcing the Government to change course.
I believe that the #TrueBlueLineUK project may go at least some way towards making it stop.
(Thank you for reading. The second part of this three-part blog, “Going Viral”, will be published on 2.8.17)
(NOTE: If you are on Twitter, have a search for the various #Hashtags mentioned in the text of this blog for lots more illustrative examples of the points being made)