Maintaining a Culture of Common Good: Police, community and leadership during the Covid-19 crisis

This blog was triggered by this weeks’ @wecops debate about the police and Covid-19 with Rob Flanagan and Mike Cunningham from the College of Policing. It received the highest ever views for us at over two million and this included members of the public, police, partners and academics. Thank you to all who took part!
Terminology about lockdowns and quarantines have invoked a level of fear in many of us. Not just fear about the level of risk the current situation presents to all of us but also the fear of having our own freedoms limited and monitored as we are told to stay in, only go out once a day and see no one but the people we live with. The outcome of the lockdown is that the government is asking people to put themselves out for the safety of others. The fact that nearly a million of us have signed up to volunteer with the NHS is evidence of a wider community buy in and agreement to do this – perhaps it is simply a need to ‘do something’ in this unprecedented period of history. Indeed, we are ALL in this together. Clearly an absence of selfishness is required at this time as we are asked to protect, particularly our vulnerable by staying at home and limiting our personal freedom. As a nation we have not felt like this for a while, we have become focused on difference, othering, individualism and them and us mentalities where social cohesion and communitarianism has decayed significantly. Indeed, this disease does not discriminate.
However there clearly will be some noncompliance to the governments restrictions and those who will remain resolute to get on with their lives. This is where the police have now been given the legitimate authority to respond accordingly to protect public health. Whilst this power is now in the hands of the police, there needs to be a tight balance between proportionate enforcement as a last resort and the perception of a dystopian police state which could have fatal implications on the legitimacy of the police in the longer term. I have had a collection of thoughts about the impact of the current Covid-19 crisis on the criminal justice system and, more specifically, the police – both in the short and longer term. My thoughts have been focused on internal issues such as organisational health and the impact of the risks to officers’ physical and mental well-being and external perceptions of the police as the public consider their legitimate role as enforcers of social distancing measures and self-isolation. Of course we all think about how we, as a country, will handle the risk of police officers catching the virus on mass, crime rates, hidden crimes such as domestic abuse (in all contexts) and exactly what the police role and tactics will be when ensuring social distancing and others’ safety.
Reinvigorating motivation?

When I think about my own ethnographic research conducted with officers over a number of years, I often ask officers as a starting question, ‘why did you join the police?’ The responses are overwhelmingly: ‘I wanted to make a difference’ or ‘I wanted to make places safer’. Over recent years, contrary to this, particularly over a time of severe austerity, the police have felt more and more limited in their individual and organisational capability to fulfil this motivation. Violence has, without doubt, risen and the UK has witnessed an increase in our most vulnerable communities being seriously wounded and killed; gang violence becoming more organised, sustained and, dare I say it, normalised amongst young people. Furthermore, such links have spilled out into the suburban counties through county lines and organised crime groups. Therefore, is it any wonder that the police have felt more and more demoralised. They have received ongoing criticism about their effectiveness not just to ‘fight crime’ but to support the vulnerable, deal with child sexual exploitation and provide a visible presence in their communities. For an occupation primarily made up of individuals who joined the ‘job’ to keep people safe, this has become increasingly harder to achieve in reality. Such challenges to the police purpose has left many officers frustrated in their role.
If you look at social media accounts of key workers in the public sector who are, without question, putting their lives on the line for those of us locked away in ‘safety’ from the pandemic, I repeatedly see people who are going to work to make a difference for the majority. ‘I am doing something for the greater good’, ‘keeping people safe’, ‘I would rather be at work than doing nothing’, ‘helping colleagues and team working’, ‘feeling like you are part of a bigger picture’, ‘helping the vulnerable’ are all terms I have heard and seen written on a number of social media forums. This extends to NHS workers, shop workers, police, teachers, drivers and more – everyone involved in making people’s lives easier at this strange and catastrophic time. In a sense it is giving these people a critical sense of purpose to help other people and in differing contexts, keep them safe.
The definition of safety in the context of Covid-19 is different from keeping people safe from crime and disorder, it is about protecting the safety of peoples’ health. Risk factors are different, responses will be different and indeed the police culture which is still seeped in notions of crime fighting will encounter challenges to this new role in public health. As Dr Sara Grace said in a recent blog ‘there is no blueprint for policing the lockdown’. Engagement and negotiation will be key and yes, heavy handed approaches are likely to exacerbate difficult situations. Subsequently, where experiences and processes are considered unfair there will likely be a negative impact on police legitimacy and longer term relationships with the public. However, if we consider the above statements about the greater good, purpose and feeling part of something maybe we can see this new notion of safety as a rare positive in the terrible place, we find ourselves in.
A really hard job.
As we have seen over the past two weeks, noncompliance around social distancing isn’t falling into neat categories. Individuals of all ages and social economic situation are defying the recommendations and leaving their homes more than they should. They may not be the majority but they are there. Dr Sara Grace states that ‘voice’ will be key in police interactions with the public’ and she is right. There needs to be an equity of voice in this process. Regardless of who people are and where they are stopped, the police must listen when they describe their reasoning for being out. There will be a fine line between the consideration of these reasons and individuals feeling like they are criminals and it will be the discretion of the officer involved that will impact on the outcome of that encounter. The principles of procedural justice will be paramount to maintaining the consent of the public and mistakes will no doubt be made. Whilst officers often deal with ambiguity, this situation feels different. The subjectivity of events and actions are paramount and boundaries of what is right and wrong are less clear.

As Reicher and Stott stated in a publication this week ‘if quarantining measures (e.g. self-isolation) are seen as disproportionately penalising poorer groups in society (who are less able to afford time off work), then there is a real potential for social division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. The risk may be amplified when agencies who then enforce such measures (i.e. police, army, etc.) are then seen as agents of privileged groups rather than neutral guardians of law and order. In such circumstances there is a danger of these enforcement agencies becoming seen as the illegitimate agent of the ‘other’ and for a loss of trust and conflict to emerge’. To reduce the impact in the longer term both on individual police themselves and wider legitimacy issues, how these situated contexts are negotiated and managed need to be transparent and proportionate.
What are officers saying and how can we learn from these positives?

Let’s think about some factors raised in the @wecops debate last night that relate to these points about a common purpose. When considered alongside police officers’ motives for joining (as mentioned above), it is clear from the debate that officers, despite the risks to themselves and their families, want to help. In a sense it seems to be bringing people together.

Last night’s chat was in part, aimed at exploring innovation and new ways of supporting officers through the risks this situation presents. However, what was evident in the chat was a simple need for support, authenticity, kindness and legitimacy from leaders (at all ranks). As @TVPAmyClem states ‘I’ve seen a real “one team” approach. We’re not local policing / CID / DA etc. at the moment. We’re police officers & staff with an even more focused common goal than usual. In it together, there for each other and the public’. Moreover, this from @UBJennings is key, ‘everything old is new again” I/we won’t forget this – a game changer’. This is a really powerful statement and indicates that there may be a return to something that has been lost in policing as a result of this crisis. It is how we foster that and maintain it that is vital – both the sense of purpose it provides officers and the potential change it could bring to leadership within the police.

Mike Cunningham from the College of Policing stated that ‘the important thing is that leaders create the opportunities to listen to what is concerning their staff and create the environment where people are prepared to tell them’. @Davehannah6 ‘it’s a goldmine of opportunities to make change now. As you say appetite is there. Not just in policing but from partners who want to assist. Never been a better opportunity to innovate’.

The positivity coming from the debate this week was clear and it reinforces messages being seen across the country about this need to feel part of something which supports a wider eco-system of public care, health and inclusion. Indeed, the reflections being made about life in the community seem to parallel with what is happening in the micro system of the police. Genuinely, reviewing previous chats over recent years this is not common and as was pointed out by many commentators this week we need to nurture it, sustain it and keep it with us.
As @consultantgary pointed out ‘Authentic leadership needs to be the new norm; it is amazing what people do when we all pull together with genuine, authentic drivers’. Officers talked of higher morale, receiving notes of care, support and being able to talk through their concerns and worries which is key during this time. As @gorillaojustice positively reminded us, ‘morale is sky high they’re happy, laughing, getting stuck in daily and moaning a lot if they’re held in reserve and prevented from working. I work with some amazing people’. In the context of what this might be doing for wellbeing this is worth reflecting on. As Ian Hesketh has found in his research productivity and wider organisational health is influenced by individual officers’ sense of wellbeing and we must find ways to maintain this feeling which has, perhaps been lost in policing for some time.
‘When all this is over we all need to ask ourselves what did we do before and analyse why it was important. It is time to reset expectations, commitments and heaven forbid avoid another target culture. This could be our finest hour’ stated @walkthetalk999. However, that is not to say that the police will not make mistakes and the way these are dealt with locally and nationally will be key for the police going forward. ‘We are doing it, certainly in Lancs but let’s be clear, we’re going to make mistakes. We are interpreting brand new legislation at break neck speed. We’re trying very hard. Let’s also be clear; we are doing it for absolutely the right reason-to save lives & #ProtectTheNHS’ (@johntobertMc). ‘I think we have been given an unprecedented role in #ProtectTheNHS , enforcement is the 4th step of 4Es, but too often the first focus in headlines’ (@ccgilesyork).
This is new ground for police and where there is a reinvigoration of morale and a sense of worth there is also unknown. As @jophnrobertMc tweeted, ‘it’s the uncertainty. We often in our profession have control and don’t often like not having this control. We face our enemies with powers and training. This is an enemy that we simply have no control over’.
Doing the right thing during the next few months will be vital as will an organisational acceptance that mistakes will happen. Police discretion will be key here, beyond perhaps standard policy and procedures that officers have to work so tightly to. This time should build on trusteeship, authentic leadership at all levels, support and reflection. It could offer a time where the perceived rise in morale being seen in officers at this time might be maintained by the building of a reflective culture which supports, accepts mistakes more willingly and learns from them. ‘We have to be honest with our staff and public as this is new territory mistakes will be made but we trust our folk to exercise discretion on serious decisions e.g. arrests’ (@ccAndyRhodes).
It is clear that on a macro and micro level individuals are dealing with this crisis with kindness and a desire to help. Indeed, in both contexts it is providing a sense of togetherness and a sense of community. Reicher and Stott ( sum it up here perfectly when they argue that ‘with careful management both at a general policy level and in terms of sensitive community-based and dialogue led policing, it will be possible to maintain a sense of common endeavour and hence to draw on the community as a key resource in dealing with the crisis’.
In the longer term therefore how police leaders deal with and apply this new legislation is not simply important for the community and the long term impact on police and community relations but also for the officers whose sense of commitment to policing is being reignited at this time. Whilst we talk a lot about the common good in the community we need to see this in the police. The @wecops debate highlighted the need for police leaders to embrace this morale and maintain it by supporting, trusting and communicating with their teams and when mistakes arise (which they will) allow them to learn from it. This is new territory for us all and togetherness over othering and blame is not the way forward either inside or outside of the organisation. What we need to do is listen.

Emma Williams



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1 Response to Maintaining a Culture of Common Good: Police, community and leadership during the Covid-19 crisis

  1. Pingback: The rise of technologically-mediated police contact: the potential consequences of ‘socially-distanced policing’ – BSC Policing Network

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