PCC Blog 55

When the Manchester terrorist attack became ‘breaking news’ in May 2017, staff in my office were immediately alarmed. We knew that one of our number had taken her two daughters to the Ariana Grande concert that night.

They were lucky. They left just before Salman Abedi exploded his bomb, taking the lives of twenty two people and injuring hundreds of others. But they still witnessed something of the panic and mayhem that followed.

Last week, the chair of the inquiry into the outrage, Sir John Saunders, published the first of three reports. In it he writes about the security provided at the venue, and points to shortcomings and lost opportunities on the part of both organisations and individuals.

Among other things, he highlighted the way a member of the public, Christopher Wild, was ‘fobbed off’ by a steward when he reported Abedi fifteen minutes before the explosion. He drew attention to the failure of other stewards to patrol as the concert came to an end – which could have led to Abedi being spotted. He noted that several British Transport Police, who had some responsibility for patrolling the foyer area, were instead standing together on Victoria Station as people began to leave.

What struck me about much of this was that these failings were about what we might call ‘the basics’. They were not about failing to go above and beyond what people were paid to do: this was the job – ordinary, routine, and, yes, quite possibly, rather boring.

Sometimes a report picks up on things that no one has thought about before – better ways of proceeding, better systems or means of communication, and so on – and no doubt that will feature in Sir John’s reports. That is all about hindsight – closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. But at least the same mistakes will not occur again. But when it is a case of individuals not doing the basic tasks they were employed to do, to prevent things that were foreseen, it is harder to see what lessons could be learnt and who would learn them.

Perhaps the message for all those involved in security, including the police, is in the end very simple. Managers and supervisors need to understand that it is not enough just to task people to do things. They must contextualise those basic tasks so that those performing them have the imagination to realise why they matter. Otherwise, what they are asked to do will never seem anything other than insignificant in the great scheme of things, with nothing much hinging on whether they are done or not done. That is the great enemy which leads to complacency. And then, if you don’t perform the basics well every time, there could be that one time where the consequences are catastrophic.

As they were four years ago in Manchester.

Is it all black and white?

A chance encounter with a young man – I guess in his mid-20s – at our local garage made me think. He half recognised me and said, ‘You’ve got something to do with the police.’ I explained the PCC role. Whereupon he began something of a tirade about the number of times he had been stopped and searched. He was not happy. ‘I don’t do drugs. I’m not a criminal. Why are the police always picking on me?’

What he didn’t say was, ‘Is it because I’m black?’ He couldn’t do that because he wasn’t black. He was white.

This was what made me stop and think.

Looking back, I have been to numerous meetings about the impact that stop and search has on minority ethnic males and the communities they live in. They were important meetings raising important questions. But I can’t recall a single meeting at which white young men spoke about their experience. Yet they are the majority of those who are stopped and searched. In Sheffield they account for just over 50% of stops, though in the other districts the figure can be as high as 70%.* If these are the majority of stops, presumably – given what the young man at the garage told me – some of them must be stopped and searched many times. So what does that do to them and their relationship to the police? And what does that tell us about those who are stopped?

I think part of what it tells us is that if we were not ethnically plural in South Yorkshire, the focus of concern around stop and search would not be on race but on social class. Those who are stopped are predominantly from more working class communities. And perhaps in turn that tells us something about why minority ethnic males figure disproportionately: they are already disproportionately present in the age groups and places where stop and search happens. Racism may or may not be a factor in stop and search, but social class certainly is.

* Percentages of those stopped and searched who gave their ethnic identity across South Yorkshire, April-June 2020: white 68%, Asian 8%, black 4%, mixed 2%, other 1%

The hardest lesson of all

Last week was another bad one for the Metropolitan Police when the Inquiry into the unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan published its report. It looked back over five police investigations and an inquest and found that the force had repeatedly concealed or denied its failings in attempts to safeguard its reputation. Its ‘first objective’ each time, it said, was ‘to protect itself’. At a press conference, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, the chair, summarised this as ‘a form of institutional corruption’ – a phrase that deliberately echoed the finding of the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Macpherson accused the Met of ‘institutional racism’.

But whatever similarities Baroness O’Loan saw between what her panel found and what Sir William Macpherson found, there is an important difference as well. And we need to be clear about it because using the term ‘institutional corruption’ to echo Macpherson blurs that difference.

Racism is always wrong. But having a concern for an organisation’s reputation is not.

An organisation like the police knows that its reputation is crucial for doing its job. If the public start to lose confidence in the police, they will not co-operate with them in the fight against crime. This is serious because our policing is by consent, and that depends on maintaining public trust. This is why the police have a risk register in which they set out those things that could impact on their effectiveness and so their reputation and what, therefore, they need to do to mitigate against that.

It is not wrong to be concerned about reputation. What is wrong – and we don’t need to be told this in South Yorkshire – is any attempt to hide or deny any failings. Making mistakes is not the most corrosive way of damaging your reputation – we all make mistakes – but concealing or denying them is. That is often the hardest lesson of all to learn.

Perhaps it should be number one in the risk register of every public institution.

Stay safe and well.