I am not a police officer but I am genuinely interested in policing and criminal justice matters – it has become my working world. Therefore as someone slightly removed from the reality of police work I can only imagine the conflicting feelings officers must feel today. On the one hand we have witnessed an overwhelming support for the police from the public, the media and many politicians in the UK this week. Whilst this support is linked to the amazing response by Greater Manchester Police, British Transport Police and the Metropolitan Police Service particularly, following the horrendous attacks in Manchester and London, I am sure the positive words and recognition has been welcomed by many officers across the country.
Conversely however there must also be a sense of frustration for some as we see questions being asked to the Prime Minister about the impact the cuts she made as Home Secretary might have had on recent events. I don’t wish to speculate about any direct impact the cuts to policing may or may not have had on the recent terrorist activity, however it is clear to see that resources in specific and very relevant areas of the police world have been reduced and officers themselves have questioned their impact in a number of ways.
Numbers of local neighbourhood officers are significantly less than they were in 2010, this not only reduces the amount of intelligence coming in from the community about such issues but also can impact on the relationships more broadly. There has been a vast reduction in school liaison officers who had a key role in the identification of radicalisation in school arenas, the intelligence services have been overwhelmed with work generally and recent interviews in the media with senior officers have, over and over again, evidenced the extreme difficultly officers sometimes face when making decisions about what to prioritise first on a daily basis – this means that sometimes things might get missed.
The most frustrating factor when reflecting on this, alongside the type of language we are hearing today in support of the police (and all emergency services) is that officers predicted this would happen. Let me give just a few examples of this:
- The brilliantly orchestrated #cutshaveconsequences campaign, which should have received more press coverage than it did, was driven locally in a number of forces to highlight in a very transparent way, the potential impact that reduced resources might have in their local area.
- The anonymous pieces in various broad sheet newspapers by officers describing their despair about the current situation both on them personally as officers and the community they joined the job to protect.
- Research evidence that clearly highlighted the growing stress levels amongst police officers and subsequent absenteeism resulting from it.
- The use of social media as a safe way of sharing concerns about what was happening both nationally and locally. Brave decisions made to publicise in these forums the reality that young people with serious mental health issues were being held in custody suites and being dealt with by unqualified officers who feared that they would do the wrong thing at any given moment.
And yet no one really listened. The voice of the officers got lost, they were accused of being scaremongering and the government refused to take seriously the impact of what they had done.
Today this has been reversed and people are listening – I would argue not necessarily the government themselves but many others – including the media. The PM has faced difficult questions about her decisions as Home Secretary by the media this week and has broadly refused to answer many of them. What must really be a huge disappointment and frustration to many officers is the way in which the government have suggested to the public that police numbers are up as a result of the recent atrocities. This is not true – there is not a sudden surge in police numbers – what has happened in reality is that officers have been removed from other roles (putting other areas at risk), have been expected to work extra hours and cancel their annual leave. This is the reality for them. So it seems to me that this praise and support is desperately needed yes, and yet somehow it is undermined by the untruths being spouted by May and her team about the reality of the current situation. We see no plans to reverse cuts, to increase police numbers or to review how the police are currently really feeling. In fact we have no promise that we will not see more cuts should they win the election on Thursday.
Over the past few years officers have been stretched to the limit with unmanageable caseloads, increased working demands which often challenge their capability and a new professionalisation agenda which many feel has been enforced on them with very limited engagement and communications. Let’s face it, mixing these ingredients up and reflecting on the ramifications of them as a whole, you can see how many serving officers feel threatened and are questioning their perceived worth from the outside world. Survey upon survey by the Federation, the PD Trust, Mind Charity plus other academic works have clearly illustrated and evidenced that officers are more stressed than ever and that many are leaving because they consider it to be entirely removed from the job they joined.
There is now a wealth of work ongoing around police well-being and mental ill health, largely because officers are starting to disclose their feelings and admit that they are not coping. Ian Hesketh the College of Policing lead for this area has been involved in various national agendas to improve well-being in the police and strives continuously to make senior leaders understand how such factors will impact on productivity and service provision in the longer term.
This last few weeks we have witnessed very clearly, the dedication the police have to protect the public and keep us safe. How often do I hear “it’s more than just a job?” Well this week this has been more than clear. Officers, with no questions asked, abandoning their annual leave and rare rest days to go and assist their colleagues, protect the public and provide a symbolic face of security in our cities.
I for one would like to say thank you to all of them for this dedication. Morale may be at its lowest for a number of reasons but still these officers respond quickly and efficiently, risking their lives to protect us. They warned the public and the government of their fears about security, risks and protection and they were not listened to. We need to move on from paying lip service to officers and start to listen to what they have to say.