Water cannon: policing by consent?

On 10 June, the Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) announced that it had given the Metropolitan Police Service permission to purchase three second-hand water cannon, preempting the Home Secretary’s authority for the weapons to be used on the British mainland.

Since that announcement, debate has raged about the safety of the weapons and their capacity to kill or to maim, culminating in Boris Johnson’s offer to be ‘blasted’ by water cannon to ‘prove’ their safety.

This is the wrong debate.  As with all weapons, water cannon are neither ‘safe’ nor intended to be ‘safe’.  Water cannon are not garden hoses but ‘less lethal’ weapons for use in dangerous, violent situations.

The Association of Chief Police Officers’ own, somewhat ambiguous, briefing paper notes that “the term ‘less lethal’ (as opposed to non-lethal) accepts that water cannon are capable of causing serious injury or even death”. Although not designed to be aimed directly at humans, it is inevitable that humans will be caught in the line of fire and equally inevitable that some of those humans will be hurt, injured and possibly killed.

Rather than quibble about the relative ‘safety’ of a weapon, the questions we should ask are:

  • What is the intended purpose of water cannon?
  • Do we, the people, consent to that purpose?
  • Are water cannon the right tool for their intended purpose?
  • Have both purpose and tool been given democratic legitimacy?

MOPAC has employed no little sleight of hand in respect of the intended purpose of water cannon, with their spokesman referencing “learning from the riots of 2011”  when commenting on the purchase of the weapon.

Water cannon are not designed for use in the agile protests which characterised the 2011 riots. They can, however, be used to separate rival crowds or separate a protesting crowd from the object of that protest.  In the words of a police officer, water cannon “provide reach, which provides distance, which provides protection for static police lines” and they in turn need re-arming and protecting, thus tying resources to a static point.  So the purpose of the purchase of water cannon is not to deal with fast-moving riots similar to those of 2011 but to cope with another kind of protest entirely.

Do we, the people, consent to that purpose? The second of the Peelian principles states that “the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour”.  Do we approve of and consent to the purchase of a weapon, the very presence of which may prove inflammatory, which contributes to an increasing mechanisation and militarisation of policing, which further and physically distances the police from the public? Richard Seymour believes that the use of water cannon is a move towards “treating protest as something to be crushed and thus tilting the balance of power further away from citizens and toward the state.” Do we consent to that imbalance?

Are water cannon the right tool for their intended purpose?   Now we stray into the realm of crowd psychology and evidence-based policing. In his scholarly and well-evidenced report for MOPAC’s public consultation into the proposed introduction of water cannon, Dr Chris Cocking explains that:

 “crowds may initially scatter briefly once water cannon is deployed and used[but] any such scattering would be momentary, and rather than dispersing from the area, crowd members would quickly re-group, with increased collective militancy more likely. Therefore, water cannon’s effectiveness in quelling disorder would be minimal, and possibly even counter-productive, in that I believe its use would be more likely to increase any such disorder. It is also possible that the very appearance of water cannon could generate increased crowd militancy and result in the crowd attacking such a visible and symbolic target.” (p 5)

Similarly, Dr Clifford Stott’s 2009 submission to HMIC notes that “indiscriminate use of force can [ ] somewhat ironically contribute to a widespread escalation in the levels of public disorder.” (p 10).

Dr Cocking is an expert in crowd behaviour while Dr Stott’s research focuses on the social psychology of crowd conflict and its relationship to public order policing.  One would hope that expert evidence which so compellingly indicates that use of water cannon might exacerbate disorder would militate against the purchase of said weapons but it seems that compelling, expert evidence is insufficient.  When these papers were recommended to a Police and Crime Commissioner who was previously a police officer, his response was simply “I disagree”.

Finally, have both purpose and tool been given democratic legitimacy? The apparent purpose of the weapons has been allowed to become enmeshed in the public mind with the desire to avoid a repeat of the events of 2011, even though the tool is wholly inappropriate for that apparent purpose.  Meanwhile, the Mayor’s decision appears to have outmanoeuvred the Home Secretary, who has not yet sanctioned the use of water cannon on mainland soil. Is it likely that, once the weapons are purchased, the Home Secretary will refuse to authorise their use?  Would MOPAC have approved the purchase of the weapons without a least a tacit assurance that their use would be legitimised?  And once the weapons are in the hands of the MPS, how long will it be before a reason is found for their use?

If  the Home Secretary or the Mayor or the Deputy Mayor with Responsibility for Policing and Crime really wish to reduce the risk of unrest, rather than using the indiscriminate threat of water cannon to cow a disaffected populous, they might be better advised to link that disaffection to the increasing levels of inequality and social injustice and with the cuts which have decimated the pro-active and protective nature of neighbourhood policing and then to listen to the expert voices which are so clearly warning of pitfalls ahead.  Otherwise, the introduction of water cannon onto the British mainland may prove to be the beginning of the end for policing by consent

 

This blog was originally written for The Justice Gap.

LibDem Leadership

Weymouth borough councillor Ryan Hope was suspended by Liberal Democrat HQ on Monday 27 January 2014.

Clearly, I welcome this decision. which has to be in the best interests of the electorate. However, I am astonished that it has taken four months to take the action which should have been evident from the outset. With such serious charges there should have been an urgent consideration of a without-prejudice suspension. What does it say about the internal structures and communications of the Liberal Democrats that they ignore all calls for action from local people and only respond to intervention at a national level? Irrespective of the outcome of Cllr Hope’s criminal trial, these are serious allegations which must impact on his ability to carry out his public duties. South Dorset Labour group raised this issue at least twice with the Liberal Democrat group leadership. Cllr Roebuck, the leader of that group, dismissed these concerns out of hand and instead chose to sweep what are very serious allegations under the carpet. It is hard to believe that he didn’t know that there were explicit rules covering situations of this kind. Cllr Roebuck says he told LibDem HQ: they say he didn’t: people deserve more transparency and responsibility. In the light of concerns surrounding both Lord Rennard and Mike Hancock, this refusal to act shows poor judgement, a failure to comprehend the severity of the situation and contempt for the electorate and speaks volumes about a party which appears to be characterised by a lack of communication and accountability.

I was interviewed about this matter on BBC South Today on Tuesday 28 January and Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg discussed his dissatisfaction with the situation on LBC Radio on Thursday 30 January (at 13:00).

On 1 March the Dorset Echo revealed that the local Liberal Democrat group had formed a Coalition of Liberal Democrats and Allies which it had invited Cllr Hope to join, with the stated aim of protecting his place on council committees.

I find this move quite astonishing.  Nick Clegg gave a clear direction on this matter, both in removing the mantle of Liberal Democrat membership from Cllr Hope and in his LBC interview.  It seems that, in an attempt to shore up his party’s fortunes, Cllr Roebuck has chosen to circumnavigate the wishes of his party leader, showing an absolute disregard for public opinion and Cllr Hope’s own well-being.  The affair is nothing more than a shambles.

 

Mental Health Cop: a PR catastrophe

On the afternoon of Friday 14 February a twitter account run by Inspector Michael Brown and entitled @MentalHealthCop was suspended by West Midlands Police. Later that day, the associated award-winning blog was closed down. A social media storm ensued, a storm which later migrated to mainstream media.

This incident comprises two separate issues, which must not to be conflated.

The first is the reason behind the suspension of Inspector Brown’s @MentalHealthCop twitter account (I understand that the blog was later taken down by Inspector Brown himself in order to protect its contents). I doubt that the concerns which lie behind suspension are straightforward. This investigative process will be dealt with by West Midlands’ Police’s internal disciplinary team. Clearly, I cannot comment on this matter and nor should anyone who isn’t directly involved.

The second issue is the public relations catastrophe that WMP have managed to create for themselves by a failure of communications which I have criticised publicly via Twitter, addressing my comments to both WMP @WMPolice and ACC Garry Forsyth @GarryForsythWMP, who was put in the unenviable position of having to rectify the situation on Saturday morning.

I understand that the twitter account, with its 16000+ followers, was suspended on Friday lunchtime. Certainly, I noticed it had gone at 1315h. WMP issued no statement until Saturday morning, and then included in that statement this somewhat chilling phrase: “I also can’t imagine any organisation that would want its employees to be openly critical of it – or indeed allow it”, a phrase which sums up the eternal organisational tension between rank and expertise. However, in the temporal space between the suspension and the statement, the information vacuum was filled by a Twitter frenzy, speculation leading to Chinese Whispers, a situation most unhelpful both to WMP and to Inspector Brown himself, whose position has almost certainly been misrepresented.

WMP, which has a history of good engagement and which employs many excellent users of police social media, should have predicted this crisis.  If they wanted to avoid it, they should have advised Inspector Brown to tweet that he was taking half-term off, which would have given them ten days to come to a decision or they should have had a statement ready prepared for immediate issue. It would be interesting to find out whether WMP (or indeed, any other force) ever does desk-top exercises to establish a procedure for preventing and dealing with crises in corporate and social media communications.

Inspector Brown is in the business of social media. Social media is 24/7 and the response needs to be 24/7 too, because where there is a vacuum, Twitter will fill it, with fiction and fantasy if not with fact.  But no: another case of a classic Friday afternoon syndrome, carelessness to the point of negligence. Yet again the police failed to appreciate the nature of social media or to control their own story.

Over the weekend, the story escalated, with articles about Inspector Brown and his blog appearing in national mainstream media, including in the Independent and on the BBC website.  However, it was a piece in the Birmingham Mail which gave me most cause for concern.

This piece included screenshots of two tweets in which Inspector Brown appears to have made comments about stretched resources and “poor choices”.  The newspaper assumes the choices to be political and the comment in general to be critical of the government and its cuts to the policing budget.

I would be interested to know who screenshot the tweets and why and how the Birmingham Mail got hold of them but also how the paper has come to the conclusion that the comments relate to police cuts when, as an ex-practitioner, it seems clear to me that the comment about “poor choices” relates to the choices that the public make and the consequences thereof and the impact of those poor choices on the always-limited resources of public services: it is interesting to note that the comments were made in conversation with a paramedic. As an aside, I am curious about how the Birmingham Mail has reached the conclusion that these tweets are the reason for the suspension of MHC’s twitter account when, at the time of writing, no reason for the decision has been made public. As I intimated previously, an information vacuum leads inevitably to dangerous assumptions and wild speculation.

It seems important to conclude by saying that it is evident from the numerous people clamouring for its return that Inspector Brown’s blog was providing a vital service to police and other professionals dealing with mental health. A cursory look at, amongst others, @TheCustodySgt’s twitter feed over the weekend shows that its absence has left a gaping chasm. It is something of an indictment on police forces around the country and on the College of Policing (and its predecessor, the NPIA) that it is has been left to an Inspector (who, I understand, has worked largely in his own time) to provide an information resource of such value. I would urge the College of Policing to remedy this situation as soon as possible. I fear that, if this is not done, there is a risk that the recent speculation may lead to a hardening of positions, an entrenching of views, the inevitable rise of hubris, all to the detriment of Inspector Brown and to the many, many people – police, lawyers, health and social care professionals and the interested public – who have grown to rely on his insight, his learning and his unrivalled expertise.

 

This blog originated as a series of replies to a blog by @CllrJonSHarvey.  You can read the original blog here.

 

All For One

Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper included an editorial entitled “Plebgate: stop digging” .  This editorial contains two recommendations, both directed at the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW):

  • that the Federation should drop its challenge aimed at preventing the IPCC from reopening the investigation into the meeting between Andrew Mitchell and his local PFEW representatives;
  • and that it should stop funding PC Toby Rowland’s libel action against Mr Mitchell.

On twitter I said that, in terms of political awareness, I considered this to be good advice, adding the caveat that “if I were a member of @PFEW_HQ, I would disagree”.

I said this from a non-policing perspective but with some appreciation of the pain that the chain of plebgate-related incidents has caused to the vast majority of police officers.  It seems to me that the public have had their fill of plebgate, that the position espoused by aggrieved politicians is in the ascendency and that the press laps up every opportunity to criticise this most high-profile of public services.  The front page of this morning’s The Times would appear to support the third point.

The decision to take the IPCC to judicial review in respect of the Midlands-based Federation representatives seems to me to be fraught with reputational danger.  Moreover, I was unconvinced whether the funding of PC Rowland’s actions, which is neither an investigation nor a disciplinary matter, was in the interests of the membership at large.

As I had anticipated, my comment was immediately met with a barrage of disagreement from prospective, serving and retired police officers. Every comment related not to the decision to go to judicial review but to the funding of PC Rowland’s defence and all but one comment was in favour of the decision to fund.  Here are some examples:

@j0annepsi stated: “The Fed must not back down on this. PC Rowland is entitled to legal funding for workplace incidents. He has been slandered by Mitchell for over a year now – I can understand why he needs to set the record straight.”

@BriW74 added “I believe PC Rowland has the right to defend his reputation not only from AM but his [AM’s] friends.”

And @Njg28 (an ex-Inspector and ex-Federation representative) explained “If Feds back down from supporting & funding PC Rowland there will be a huge backlash by members. Can’t have disgraceful AM press conf go unchallenged.”

 The sole dissenting view came from an officer who didn’t disagree with these principles but was extremely concerned about the possibilities of further public relations catastrophes and for that reason felt that PFEW should desist.

The press conference to which Mr Gunn is referring is that of 26 November 2013 in which Mr Mitchell said: “Police Constable Toby Rowland, who was responsible for writing these toxic phrases into his notebook, was not telling the truth.” (6:29) A written resumé of this press conference can be found here.

I was then contacted directly by a serving officer who told me:

“The editorial omits to recall that Mitchell called Rowland a liar on national television, no doubt conflating Rowland as an individual with the acknowledged stuff-ups of other officers and the sheer awfulness of the whole affair. There seems to be no proof whatsoever that Rowland acted dishonourably, yet his character has been publicly impugned. 

 Why should he drop his action and why should the Federation not fund it? Mitchell could just issue a public apology and that would probably be that, but he seems to have lumped everyone together and lost the plot.

 The Guardian editorial, taking a lot of time to specify certain details, misses this important fact in order to make the whole thing look like a stitch-up that is all police wrongdoing.  Mitchell doesn’t emerge from any of this smelling of roses: it seems to me he should be held accountable for his shortcomings in this whole affair, which he has now whipped up into a condition of victimhood.”

 My initial support of the Guardian editorial was from the stance of political and media awareness and a concern about the PR aspect of both the judicial review and the libel action. However, I am also a staunch supporter of trade unions and of the rights of employees.  The very recent Independent Review of the Police Federation, chaired by Sir David Normington, highlighted that that police officers “need a highly effective representative organisation to be their safeguard” and that the Federation should aim to be an organisation that “genuinely serves … its members’ interests”.

So the question is whether the funding of PC Rowland’s libel action by the Federation “genuinely serves… its members’ interests” and it seems that police officers believe that it does. Despite the waning public interest, despite the scorn of politicians and despite the scepticism of the press, it seems that, in funding PC Rowland’s defence, the Police Federation is doing what is right.  Not for the press.  And not for the politicians.  But for the constables, sergeants, inspectors and chief inspectors who comprise its membership and who rely on the Federation to safeguard their interests.

 

This article was first posted on ManyVoicesBlog, courtesy of @Cate_A_Moore, and has been extensively commented on.

Localism: not all it’s cracked up to be (a poll-tax for the poor)

This Government is cutting into local government funding more deeply and more quickly than any other part of public service.  All local authorities have suffered to a greater or lesser degree. Weymouth and Portland Borough Council’s funding has been slashed, its government grant cut by 38.62 % over the past three years, projected to increase to a cumulative total of 56.89% by 2016, a reduction in grant from £5.145m in 2010/11 to £2.218m in 2015/16. (At time of writing the settlement for the financial year 2014/15 has not been finalised: the Government may say we are open for business but this is hardly the way to run one).

These cuts, which formed the backbone of the speech made by the Conservative Sir Merrick Cockell to the Local Government Association conference last July, are not only damaging the essential services that the council provides but are also having a direct and negative impact on the local economy. And things are likely to get worse not better.

Even local Conservative MP Richard Drax complained about the funding of Dorset Councils and made special mention of the difficulties being experienced by WPBC.

One of the Government’s most divisive cuts has been to reduce the funding allocated for Council Tax Support.  This has lead many councils, including Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, to abandon 100% Council Tax Support for the least wealthy members of the community.

At WPBC’S Full Council meeting on 24 January 2013 I requested an amendment to the Council Tax element of the 2013/14 budget proposal to maintain 100% relief in order to protect the most vulnerable residents of Weymouth and Portland. You can see the summary of the debate about the amendment in the minutes of the Full Council meeting paragraphs 155-161 and read more about in my first “Localism” blog.

The amendment was not supported by the majority of Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors. Councillor Chapman, the brief-holder for Finance, explained that he opposed the amendment largely because of the knock-on effect that such a decision would have on the budgets of the the other precepting authorities and particularly on Dorset County Council’s own budget proposals (see paragraph 159). However, I suspect he may have slanted his opposition rather differently had he known what was to happen next.

On 14 February 2013, Dorset County Council decided not to increase their precept – that is, not to increase their share of council tax. Effectively this decision meant that the least-well-off WPBC residents who were now required to pay a percentage of their council tax (including the county council, police and fire elements) would be subsidising more affluent residents across Dorset.

I suggested at the time that, in future years, it would be sensible for precepting authorities which span the whole shire county (county councils, police and fire services) to set their precepts first so that borough, district and parish councils can take this information and the consequent burden on the tax payer into account when setting their own precepts and when deciding on the percentage of council tax that the very least well-off will have to pay. Unfortunately no steps yet seem to have been taken to try to achieve this outcome.  Certainly such a move may have prevented the débacle which is currently engulfing Portland Town Council, which has attempted to increase its own precept by 1000%.

Let’s be clear: those who were, until April 2013, eligible for 100% council tax benefit are, by definition, the poorest in our society.  Under the new LCTS scheme they have been required to pay a contribution of 8.5% towards their council tax bill.  This is money they simply do not have.

This time last year I said that the outcome of the decision would be two-fold:

  • People who could not afford to pay council tax would be required to do so. Being unable to make the payments would cause them distress and would push them into debt.  Many would default and some might incur convictions as a result.
  • Collecting authorities (borough and district councils and unitary authorities) were already spending significant amounts of money chasing up non-payment of council tax. This change would increase the amount spent chasing non-payment with very little to show as a result.

Essentially we would be pursuing people who have no means of paying.  I found (and still find) this both morally shameful and financially wasteful.

On Thursday 23 January 2014 the issue again appeared on the Full Council agenda.  Councillors were asked to adopt a Local Council Tax Support Scheme for 2014/15 which again “limited the maximum entitlement awarded to non protected cases to 91.5% of the Council Tax liability”.

During the past nine months I have asked on several occasions how much of this projected revenue was being collected and how much it was costing to collect and every time I have been told that the exercise is broadly “cost-neutral”.  That is, the council is making no money from the policy which is placing an additional burden on our most vulnerable residents..

Earlier this week the Institute for Fiscal Studies produced a report which showed clearly that cuts to council tax support increase the number of people seeking debt advice. During the six months from July to December 2013, 364 people approached Weymouth and Portland Citizens’ Advice Bureau for assistance with personal debt: of these, 89 had council tax arrears.

I acknowledge that many councils across the country have set their maximum rate of support at a much lower percentage than Weymouth and Portland’s 91.5%. Equally other have maintained a 100% band. At Thursday night’s Full Council meeting Councillor Chapman admitted that he doesn’t yet know what the full financial impact of the current scheme is locally and clearly this will not be fully known until the end of year accounts are produced.  However, local anecdotal evidence suggests that the scheme is only breaking even while nationally the evidence suggests that we are pushing residents into debt for no noticeable financial gain.

I do not find this in any way justifiable.  I was therefore pleased when Councillor Huckle proposed an amendment to reintroduce a scheme which would enable the least-well-off to claim 100% council tax support, was happy to speak in support of that amendment and was disappointed when the amendment was defeated by a margin of 18-13 and the motion itself was passed by the same.  I would however like to pay tribute to the one Tory and two LibDem councillors who defied orthdoxy and voted against what is, as Councillor Hodder so pithily stated,”a poll-tax for the poor”.

Turn Turn Turn

During an appearance at yesterday’s House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, which was supposed to focus on the alleged manipulation of crime statistics, Tom Winsor, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, uttered a controversial statement which caused my twitter feed to quiver with outrage and which spawned the hash-tag #timeonmyhands.

The statement was nothing to do with the #crimestats debate: in response to a question about an online-poll into police confidence in crime recording, Mr Winsor replied that “those who participate on social media and blogs and so on are people who have got time on their hands.” (2:04:30 – 2:06:10)  The transcript contains this same quote at Q458.

Unsurprisingly, the incident was swiftly reported in the Evening Standard. I say “unsurprisingly” because it was an astonishing statement which seems to show a lack of awareness of the growing power and value of social media to connect people and ideas, not just in policing but across sectors and industries.

Official police twitter accounts and facebook pages give us an idea of both the everyday and the more extraordinary challenges faced by our own local police forces while unofficial (sometimes anonymous) police social media accounts and blogs give us an at times cynical, at times humorous but always valuable insight into public-service work that would otherwise be hidden from view.

Mr Winsor’s dismissive attitude to this transparent public engagement  is startling.  Although social media is now part of everyday life, he appears to believe that the tax-paying public don’t have the right to engage with the police or with other emergency services on equal terms. He certainly seems to have overlooked the core Peelian Principle that “the police are the public and the public are the police”.

Mr Winsor’s words also show a failure to appreciate the contribution of officers such as @MentalHealthCop and @SimonJGuilfoyle, who give so much of their own time to raise both police and public awareness of key issues such as policing and mental health and the inherent dangers of arbitrary numerical targets and whose work is starting to be publicly recognised.  Similarly, other police-led ventures, such as @Running4Refuge, have used the connective power of social media to raise huge amounts of money for charity.

@DCCIanHopkins, the National Police Lead for Digital Engagement, swiftly made this statement on the value of social media for policing:

“Social media is part of modern life. Police forces and individual officers have conversations with the public about many issues using all forms of social media. We aim to be the voice of authority in relation to policing matters being discussed on social media.”

“There are some hugely productive uses of social media that support crime reduction and detection. The speed and reach it gives us is a very powerful tool. As with all aspects of media, not all things that are discussed are representative of the wider view but it does stimulate debate and give insight.”

Some months ago, the police inspector who tweets as @NathanConstable, and who has blogged extensively about the value of social media to policing, curated an evening’s cross-disciplinary twitter engagement about Mental Health and policing which the Orwell-prize-winning @iofiv described as “as useful a thing as I have seen on Twitter”.  The Storified version of that conversation, which used the hashtag #MHPolChat to collate the many different contributions, is here.

After hearing Mr Winsor’s words @NathanConstable pithily observed “#TimeOnMyHands?  #TimeWellSpent” while @SussexPolice’s @CISimonNelson commented  “The number of tweets I send in a day is a mere fraction of the number of e-mails but achieve greater engagement” and @GMPolice’s @AccIanWiggett explained that ”Social media is an essential element of our operations these days, incl major events and n/hood policing.”

Using social media should be like talking to people on the street or on the telephone.  Writing a blog is little different to giving a lecture.  Far more people will hear what their neighbourhood officer says via a twitter account than at a PACT meeting so, with so many senior officers now involved in digital engagement, Mr Winsor’s words seem wildly out-of-touch. Indeed, it begs the question of whether he is in fact aware that HMIC has its own twitter account @HMICGov.  Does he think that they too have time on their hands?

Mr Winsor may wish to reflect a while on what might happen if police were now to withdraw from social media.  Would this result in an improvement in public confidence, the kind of improvement that London’s Deputy Mayor  for Policing, Stephen Greenhalgh, was talking about in the first half of the @CommonsPASC session?  I suspect quite the opposite: in every sector, organisations which fail to engage digitally are finding themselves increasingly marginalised.

In Ecclesiastes, Koheleth writes “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”.   Despite Mr Winsor’s evident distaste, the seasons are turning and that of social media is now upon us.  Turn turn turn…

 

Footnote added at 16:51 on Thursday 9 January:

This morning Tom Winsor issued this “clarification” about yesterday’s controversial comment:

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Whilst this may to some seem more like a U-turn than a clarification, it is heartening to learn that Mr Winsor is so supportive of the use of social media for public engagement purposes by the police and, by extension, by other emergency services.

Meanwhile, “iSulk or iUnderstand” by @Huxley06 gives a welcome insight into how leaders respond to social media; i empathise entirely with the views expressed in the final two paragraphs

 

Labour selects candidate to challenge Letwin

“At a recent meeting of the West Dorset Constituency Labour Party (CLP), Rachel Rogers was selected as the candidate to challenge Oliver Letwin in the 2015 General Election.

Rachel Rogers was Labour’s candidate in the Dorset Police and Crime Commissioner elections last year and is the Labour Councillor representing Littlemoor on Weymouth and Portland Borough Council.

“I am very pleased that West Dorset Labour Party has put its faith in me,” said Rachel, “West Dorset residents need a candidate to represent them in Parliament; one who understands key local issues such as housing, transport and employment.”

Karen Ellis, spokesperson for the CLP, added, “Rachel will be an outstanding Parliamentary Candidate. She was selected because she knows the issues that affect people. She will run an effective campaign and she has great support from across Dorset.”

Rachel Rogers was closely involved with Labour’s previous MP in Dorset, Jim Knight, where she worked as his caseworker.

Simon Bowkett, Labour’s Parliamentary candidate in South Dorset said: “I am delighted Rachel has been selected for the neighbouring constituency of West Dorset. Anyone who knows her from her work in advocacy will know that she cares passionately about people and communities. The people of West Dorset have an outstanding candidate to fight on their behalf, and to hold the coalition to account for the stagnation and division they have brought to our local communities.”

Clare Moody, who heads the list of South West Labour candidates for the European elections in 2014 said “I am delighted that Rachel been has chosen as the Labour candidate for West Dorset and I am looking forward to working with her in the run-up to the European elections next year and in the General Election in 2015.”

You can follow Rachel on twitter: @DorsetRachel

Playing the Ball: the real risks of Direct Entry into the Police

In January, the Government went out to consultation on their proposals to introduce Direct Entry into the police.  The consultation closed at the end of March and the Government’s response to that consultation was published on 14 October.

 

The Government’s response states that the consultation process attracted more than 900 submissions but it is not evident that those submissions have had much effect on the original proposals.

 

The response makes clear that the Government remains committed to implementing fast track (to inspector) and direct entry (to superintendent) schemes which it believes will “offer an opportunity to attract the best talent to the police, bringing in new skills and ideas from other professions”.  There is also a plan to enable Police and Crime Commissioners to employ Chief Constables from overseas.

 

This places the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in something of a bind.  They are unable to contradict openly the Government’s position but that position in itself threatens the promotion prospects not only of existing federated ranks but also of ACPO members themselves, blocking as it may their own access to the jewel in the crown that is the position of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service.

 

ACPO’S National Policing Lead for Workforce Management, Chief Constable Mike Cunningham, said:

 

“As a profession, policing has nothing to fear from being open to these ideas. There is every reason for confidence that the abundant leadership talent within policing can compete with the very best from outside” crucially going on to add thatthe advantages of first hand day to day experience of operational policing to those in command roles is not underestimated.” 

 

The best of the publically available consultation submissions is probably that of Policing for All.  I agree with PfA’s submission almost entirely, though I feel that it is sketchy on two important aspects:

 

•           the relationship between individual police forces and the College of Policing in respect of the management and, more specifically, the funding of fast-track and direct entry officers;

•           the question of the personal and operational credibility of Direct Entry Superintendents.

 

The lack of detail around the relationship between forces and the centre in respect of the management and funding of fast track and direct entry officers threatens to reproduce some of the problems that have dogged the current High Potential Development Scheme.  In researching this piece I spoke to a number of HPDS-experienced officers, most of whom felt that the tension between the NPIA (and now the College of Policing) and their own force needed to be resolved if best use were to be made of scheme members’ skills and abilities.  One officer told me “My Chief hated being told what to do by the centre”.  Another told me: “I’m fortunate as I work for a metropolitan force where there is still movement for HPDS members. I genuinely feel for those from smaller forces, as most will get no chance.”   Whatever fast-tracking scheme is adopted, it seems to me that it is vital for it to be run and funded from the “centre”, be that the College of Policing or an alternative, to ensure equality of access and opportunity for all participants.

 

The issue of credibility is less tangible.  All the submissions and comments that I have read focus on operational competence:  the ability of an inspector or superintendent to carry out their tasks, to exercise their authorities, and the consequential risk to public safety.  Some commentators have gone so far as to refer to operational credibility but I have seen no commentator unpick this concept and that of personal credibility to a satisfactory level, though @NathanConstable came close in this excellent blog.

 

It is this very issue which underpins the disappointing if predictable response to today’s announcement from serving officers on social networks such as @Twitter.  As has happened more than once over the past year, many have chosen to “play the man instead of the ball”, criticising those as-yet-fictional Direct Entry Superintendents rather than the Direct Entry scheme itself.  Even the eminently sensible @Boscorelli55 was incensed enough to write that Direct Entry was for “lazy, unmotivated people who want a quick power trip and good money handed to them on a plate” while the generally sanguine @30onfrontline referred scathingly to “direct entry types” being “shuttled off on projects & secondments”.  There is no evidence that those who apply for Direct Entry schemes will be any less committed to public service or policing itself than those who are currently in post and many serving officers may well have taken advantage of such a scheme were it already in existence.  However, these comments adequately validate my chief concerns about the scheme as it is proposed.

 

As Irene Curtis, President of the Superintendents’ Association, regularly points out, superintendents are senior operational leaders, not desk-bound administrators and, in my opinion, the key weakness in the proposed scheme is that, regardless of their competence, Direct Entrants at Superintendent level will have no operational or personal credibility.  They will not have completed the two-year probation period which marks an officer’s rite of passage and as a result staff will have no confidence in them (and their supervisors are likely to be similarly sceptical).  These superintendents will be persistently undermined as inspectors and chief inspectors repeatedly second-guess them, seek second opinions or ridicule decisions made without what is perceived to be an adequate knowledge of either the policing or the community landscape.  This continual undermining will destabilise a system based on mutual trust and respect.  It will also lead to a form of persistent bullying which will in itself have a detrimental effect on the ability of the Direct Entrant to perform his/her task effectively as s/he becomes increasingly reluctant to trust their own judgment and confidence ebbs away.

 

I write with no little knowledge of what I speak.  I joined Her Majesty’s Prison Service on an Accelerated Promotion scheme.  I had a degree and four years’ work experience in three different countries.  The expectation was that I would reach the grade of Prison Governor V within three years and IV within 6 years, which I did.  However, the fundamentals were learned during the two years I spent as a prison officer at HMP Brixton.  I won’t pretend that these were the best years of my life.  Far from it.  But they were the years in which I learned the craft of being a prison officer, knowledge and skills which even today stand me in good stead.

 

I learned the rules and regulations and, more importantly, how easily these could be abused.  I learned how to relate to prisoners, what made officers tick and how to manage upwards.  I learned the tricks of the trade, the Spanish practices and where the skeletons were likely to be buried.  Two years was long enough for officers to occasionally forget that I wasn’t one of them, that my name was written first in the red ink that marked me out as a female officer (in common parlance, a “slit-arse”) in an almost wholly male environment and with asterisks to indicate my much-despised accelerated status.  It was long enough for me to experience the nervous energy of an alarm bell, the boredom of a night shift, the jitteriness of unlock, the endlessness of a day at court, the black humour of a bed-watch, the complexities of the relationships between prisoners, between staff and between staff and prisoners as well as the formal and informal hierarchies that impact so profoundly on institutionalised lives. It was long enough for me to learn how to talk the talk and walk the walk.  It was long enough for me to have to choose between my principles and an easy life and so experience the terror of being “sent to Coventry”.  It was long enough that, when I was promoted not to senior but directly to principal officer, there were very few duties that I had not undertaken and very little wool that could be pulled over my eyes.

 

These are irreplaceable skills and the suggestion that such formative experiences should be ignored is fundamental to my concerns about direct entry.  My fear is that because Direct Entry superintendents will lack familiarity with policing and with police officers, there will be an automatic if unjustified absence of trust and respect, leaving a vacuum that will fill itself with envy and suspicion.  This is where the danger lies, not just for the police but also for the public at large, and it is in no way evident to me that the Government has taken this aspect on board during their consultation.

 

There is still time to change the plans but I have little expectation that this will happen.  The College of Policing is due to report back in five years and it will be interesting to see if this aspect forms part of their re-considerations.  There is the risk that, by then, much corporate wisdom will already have been lost and many promising Direct Entrants will have been quelled into mediocrity but there is still time for those with an interest in good governance and excellent leadership to keep on playing the ball.

 

This blog was first published on Many Voices Blog, where it has attracted several interesting comments.  Many thanks to @Cate_A_Moore, the curator of MVB, for her assistance with this matter.