Lack of trust in the police – a massive reputation crisis to be tackled shift by shift

I’ve been collecting press cuttings on police misdemeanours for three or so years. They stack up quickly – and I don’t mean those about its huge failings (Hillsborough; Stephen Lawrence; Ian Tomlinson; Milly Dowler and phone hacking; leaking or selling information to the News of the World; Andrew Mitchell MP and Plebgate/Plodgate;) but many more smaller injustices meted out by the police in response, or not, to pleas of help from ordinary, law-abiding citizens in everyday situations.

They build a very clear picture. Trust in the police has been eroding over decades – unsurprisingly.

I’ve expressed my feelings of lack of trust – indeed, mistrust – to several friends and been rebuffed. “Oh, no. You’ve got it wrong,” they said. “The police do a great job in very difficult circumstances. This (whichever misdeed I’ve mentioned) is just a one-off.” I agree with the difficult circumstances bit (but that is presumably where training comes in, followed by experience and good leadership) but the rest is complacent piffle. And it is complacent piffle, from the public and politicians, that has allowed the police’s record to drift into disgrace.

The last time I was forced into silence before I’d even got into my stride was with two friends, both ex-Army or similar (and let’s not start a debate about the Army and trust … I live not far from Deep Cut), whose views were bucolic, and I mean that precisely. Living in small rural parishes surrounded by farmland, where even domestic burglary doesn’t happen often if at all, their experience of the police is of the local bobby on the beat, or dropping in on the local fête, plodding or clip-clopping past with a cheery smile and nothing much else to do all day and certainly nothing to do with the urban world many more of us live in – with experience of the police letting us down.

Laziness

It started when I was a teenager. Strolling with a friend in open doggy walkland, my handbag was snatched. The police did nothing beyond taking information and saying it wasn’t worth pursuing. To a girl, a handbag means two things: the contents (a little cash, bits and pieces of no consequence) and the bag itself (expensive and very of-the-time-cool). The bag mattered most. A few days later, another stroller found the handbag, took it to our then local grocer (this was in the days when grocers were a part of daily life and the community) who rang to let me know. Only the cash was gone. The bag was a bit soggy but dried out. The stroller and the grocer were appropriately thanked.  One happy girl – with a very clear first impression of the police.

Finders’ not keepers

I’ll spare you the details of the incident of the extremely valuable gold watch I found in the gutter outside Harvey Nichols which I was told, on taking it to the police station, would be mine if it wasn’t claimed within six weeks – which was then “claimed” between me ringing to ask if it had been claimed (and being told it hadn’t) and arriving at the police station to collect it five minutes later. There was no message of thanks from, or signature of, the apparent claimant mysteriously emerging five minutes before the deadline to prove it was honestly claimed. I reckoned I knew where it went.

Disbelieved and unbelievable

Then there was the time I lived above a restaurant which repeatedly breached its license causing massive disruption long into the night even before the noisy closing up process began. After weeks of this, and having tried the friendly neighbour approach, I called the police who claimed to be outside the restaurant while telling me it was closed with no customers in it or noise coming from it. Looking out of my window there was no policeman to be seen; the restaurant was in full swing. I wondered whether cases of wine regularly turned up at the police station to keep them on side. If this were the US, this would be the third strike with me and the police force’s reputation would be out; it was certainly on borrowed time in my world.

Lies, damned lies and misrepresentation

Worst of all was during my two stints at jury service. It was clear during one case that the policeman giving evidence was lying. His contemporaneous notes were written in such good prose (perfectly crafted sentences, not a record taken quickly while in the middle of an incident, and vividly unlikely) that the whole jury recognised he was not telling the truth. Didn’t his sergeant, the whole station, know he had fabricated his story? In a separate case, I noticed a policewoman supporting her colleague in court was engrossed in reading the Police Review while the case proceeded. Rather too engrossed, it seemed to me. When we, the jurors, were sent out mid-trial we passed this WPC and, glancing sideways, I noticed that the Police Review was merely a front; it was hiding a woman’s magazine. She was being paid to be there and pretending to be professional; we jurors, unpaid, were taking our role seriously.

Complacent

Finally … the theft of irreplaceable and valuable architectural features from 13 neighbouring houses – to which the police response was wholly inadequate; the local desk officer did not grasp the architectural, financial and community significance of the incident and did nothing; follow up calls went nowhere. Who in the local police hierarchy decided it wasn’t worth the bother and why?

The small stuff matters

The problem is that the police didn’t, unlike me, sweat the small stuff, which is what you will be thinking my anecdotes are all about. Yes, they are, but it is the small stuff that builds trust. Grand gestures – breakthroughs in major crimes, flushing out dangerous criminals, exposing civilians who lie about their involvement in a crime – are important, of course, but if individuals in their thousands, perhaps millions, are on the receiving end of a shoddy service – of laziness, lies, misrepresentation, lack of interest, self-interest … as evidenced in my cuttings file – it doesn’t matter how many big successes there are. We, the masses, have little or no trust.

We know that if ordinary PCs and WPCs can get away with this sort of bad behaviour, it is being endorsed by those higher up the ranks. It is leaders who set the culture; if they are weak, others will misbehave; if they bend the rules, others will break them; if they don’t set, monitor, nurture and reward an appropriate and professional culture, anarchy will overrule.

Disagree but don’t deny

There will be some who read this shaking their heads in disagreement. Of course the police do get it right some of the time but that doesn’t mean that it never gets anything wrong. To deny that the police force’s reputation isn’t seriously damaged – and in crisis – is to deny the facts. Just like the police.

No ringing endorsement

The post Plebgate/Plodgate ComRes survey for the BBC has been reported widely – in selective snapshot. So here’s another. The most significant results that the police should focus on are not just that one in four (25 per cent) of us is now less likely to trust the police (that is in addition to those of us who didn’t trust them anyway); but also that two in five of us (40 per cent) believe that the police try to cover up wrongdoings by those in the ranks; and that, even more significantly, roughly two thirds of us do not know what we feel about the police – we don’t know whether we trust them; we don’t know if we think they are open and honest or cover up wrongdoings – which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

One more chance?

In any organisation, it takes one wrong’un, and one weak manager, for the culture of a team or a shift to shift unacceptably. From there, one impressionable junior or a manager seeking approval can ensure the temporary shift becomes a permanent switch; it doesn’t take much more for the switch to spread. Police leaders now need to work on a major culture change – shift by shift, team by team not by grandstanding alone, though setting the tone is of course essential. It will take years, perhaps a generation or more, to change its culture and build trust – and I mean build, not rebuild, because, for many of us, it missed its first chance to make a good impression. Unbelievably, there seem to be enough civilians who believe the unbelievable and want to give the police a second chance – for the nth time. For many innocent civilians let down by the police, it is already living on borrowed time.

No comment »

Crisis management and the importance of consultation

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo)’s knee-jerk objection to the news that the prime minister has invited a US expert to give advice on tackling gang culture raises an important aspect of good crisis management – the need to consult specialists.

The police force and its leaders are, inevitably, feeling sensitive and demoralised. They have had to cope with two significant resignations over phone hacking at the News of the World; the pressure of responding to the recent riots; the IPCC’s initial findings during its review of their actions in relation to the death of Mark Duggan (which led to the riots); and being attacked verbally, physically and reputationally. No wonder they feel vulnerable.

But this is no time to let your emotions get the better of you, personally or corporately. Like any organisation in good times, the police force is not perfect. There is scope for improvement and retreating into a bunker of self-protection is not good enough. Like any organisation in crisis, it has a choice: fight or flight. Objecting to gaining information from another country’s experience is the equivalent of flight.

As for Sir Hugh Orde’s criticism that seeking advice from US police expert Bill Bratton can be discredited because the US still has 400 gangs, this not only sounds desperately defensive; it also illustrates the danger of playing the numbers game. What is the proportion of US gangs in relation to its size, compared with the number of gangs here in relation to our size?  And how do you count the number of gangs anyway – when they seem to merge, disband or reform in a somewhat fluid way depending on the charisma of their leaders, the opportunities, the reasons, the motives, the mood, the triggers. The US is bound to have more gangs than us but it doesn’t necessarily show that the US police is ineffective; it could just as easily show how much more experience the US police has of tackling gang culture.

In short, the police force should have invited advice from others in similar situations – not left it to the government to take action. It should now welcome that move.

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, it is very easy for any organisation, business or individual to retreat from potential criticism, to hide from the spotlight and to look inwards for ideas and direction. Discussion must take place internally (about what went right, what went wrong and what could have been done better – against your crisis management plan and the options you considered as the crisis unfolded) but if you only consult internally, you will only gain a narrow, limited – and potentially over-cautious, self-interested, self-supporting and self-serving – perspective. You need to look broadly and consider numerous options – for urgent or immediate actions, for ways of minimising and mitigating risks, and for devising a longer-term strategy. You must look at it in relation to others’ crises – as experienced by those others.

Let’s remember that the benchmark-setting Chilean government consulted NASA not on how to get the miners out of a tight spot – but how to help them survive for a long time in one. NASA, which has been dealing with that challenge since the late 1950s, was bound to have some valuable insights and experiences. Consulting it was both inspired and expedient. Consulting Bratton is more obvious than inspired – but just as expedient.

A word of warning: it is just as important not to over-consult. It is tempting to ask everyone for a view but, in the early phase of a crisis, you need to make good decisions fast. Consult a small core group – those essential to running the crisis and protecting the organisation’s reputation plus involved specialists. Leave wider consultation, particularly internally, till later. Yes, someone must listen to the ground to gauge opinion – and report on it – but during the initial phase of a crisis leaders must assume a command and control approach. As the organisation moves into recovery – and reviewing its crisis plan – consulting more widely makes sense. At that point, if not earlier, it never makes sense to turn down the chance to benefit from others’ experiences and hindsight.

Comments (3) »