What happens to policing in London matters – to all of us and not just Londoners.
The Metropolitan police is the biggest force in the country. It consumes a very large slice of the policing budget. It guards the capital city and its many national institutions, such as Parliament. It has countrywide and not just London responsibilities. As a result, stories about the Met dominate the national media and that can sustain or damage public trust and confidence in policing everywhere not just in London. Recently, there has been one bad story after another.
So it matters to all of us that the Metropolitan police has been put in ‘special measures’ and that public trust and confidence is eroded as a result. (I should say that the Met is not alone. Other forces are in trouble as well: Cleveland, Greater Manchester, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire. But we hear less of them.) There might not be a crisis in policing, but there have been moments recently when it has certainly felt like that. Each new revelation from the Met of poor performance or bad behaviour seemed as if it might trigger a complete breakdown in trust: the murder by a serving officer of Sarah Everard and all that followed, the ‘selfies’ that officers took by the bodies of two murdered sisters, the strip searching of a teenage girl by officers looking for drugs, the sexist and racist remarks about colleagues on the mobile phones of officers at Charing Cross police station. Each time we wondered whether it could get any worse, and each time it did.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) have felt compelled to act. So what happens next? Here I speak with a little experience.
In 2016, South Yorkshire police (SYP) went into ‘special measures’. At that time, a peer review of the force had found it wanting in many respects and in a subsequent inspection by HMI they said it ‘required improvement’. (A peer review is when officers from other forces who have particular expertise sit alongside their colleagues, observe and offer comment and advice.) This was the challenge facing the new chief constable when I appointed him that year. He had to turn the force round. I well remember making trips down to London where he was grilled by the inspectors. It was like taking a viva for your PhD – though with a roomful of interrogators each of whom probably thought they could have done it better than you. But SYP came through, made the changes needed so that eventually the inspectors were able to say that SYP was a ‘good’ performing force.
But it was not a quick or easy fix. The chief constable thought it might take five years – though in the event it was less than that. He said he needed time and space to build a team of good officers at senior level with careful appointments across the organisation. And this is what we saw between 2016 and 2021. We had a very stable, cohesive and collegiate senior command team committed to tackle steadily the challenges the force faced.
The team had an initial advantage. We had the findings of the peer review to work with and that, combined with the report of HM Inspectors, gave a pretty comprehensive idea what the problems were and what had to be done to address them. I am not sure how far anyone fully understands yet what all the issues are at the Met and how extensive they are. Cultural matters will be especially difficult both to diagnose and to turn round.
I thought it would be a disadvantage for the Met that it does not currently have a Commissioner in post. But perhaps, as with SYP in 2016, a fresh eye and new leadership is part of what is now needed. What is troubling is that those two ingredients for success in our situation – time and space – will seem like a luxury for the in-coming Commissioner of the Met. The high profile, the sheer number of shocking incidents still outstanding and the constant media interest will allow little time or space. But it will take some time to make sense of what has happened and some space to think through what needs to be done. Getting the right balance between urgency and patience is a tough call, perhaps the toughest.
But we should be in no doubt that the appointment of a new Commissioner for the Met is crucial not just for London, but for all of us. Whether we will give the new Commissioner the breathing space he or she will need is another matter.
From anecdote to evidence
From time to time a politician or a community activist will tell me that I should condemn the police use of stop and search. ‘Our communities don’t want it’, was how one person put it to me last week. Yet three years ago I met a group of women – mothers and grandmothers – from an ethnic minority community in Burngreave Vestry Hall, Sheffield, who said the opposite. ‘We don’t want our children to carry weapons or take drugs’, one mother said. ‘We want the police to stop and search.’ There was general nodding of agreement around the room, though all insisted it must be done ‘respectfully’ – as one put it – because not everyone stopped and searched would turn out to be carrying drugs or knives.
I subsequently met another group of younger women, mainly older teenagers, in Broomhall who said something similar. One said, ‘I think it might deter my boyfriend from doing something stupid’. But when I asked them whether they would ever say these things publicly they all said no.
So while I have always known what these groups of women and girls thought about stop and search, I have always been a little reluctant about using these anecdotes, especially when the girls and women themselves would not be willing to say these things outside those private meetings.
But now my anecdotes have some empirical evidence to back them up.
New research by Datapoll for the think tank Civitas has found that 80% of black and minority ethnic families support the police using stop and search powers to help remove drugs from the streets. Interestingly, this was higher than support from white families at 70%. More than 50% also supported schools routinely testing for drugs – which is not something I would have guessed.
I am not sure what the result would have been if this poll had been held, say, ten years ago. I would guess we might have had a different outcome. What I think has slowly registered with people is the link between drugs and serious violence. That has become much clearer in the last few years and families don’t want their young men caught up in that.
What is the 20,000 Uplift for?
In my naivety I had assumed that the government’s plan to increase police officer numbers by 20,000 would lead to a restoration of the position before the cuts for each force in the country. I assumed that by 2023 each force would have at least the same number of officers as it had in 2010 – before the years of the locust. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
By 2023, despite increased numbers, some forces will still have fewer officers than in 2010 while others will have many more. To take the two extremes, Northumbria will be down by 11.9% (499 fewer officers) while North Yorkshire will be up by 24.5% (363 more officers). Northumbria and North Yorkshire both have similar rural areas, but whereas North Yorkshire has small towns such as Harrogate and York, Northumbria has big conurbations in Newcastle and Gateshead.
I also notice that of the forces in special measures, by 2023, several will be well behind the number of officers they had in 2010: Cleveland will be -177 (-10.3%), Staffordshire -192 (-8.9%) and Greater Manchester -235 (-2.9%).
Whatever logic lies behind the 20,000 uplift, it escapes me.
Stay safe and well.