Chief Superintendent Gavin Thomas
What was your last work email about?
Maybe you requested a report; said thanks; or provided figures for a budget update.
Ever considered that it could spark a 12-month investigation for gross misconduct that might get you sacked?
Because just that happened to one of my members for politely questioning a colleague’s decision.
The finding? Not gross misconduct; or even misconduct. The decision was no case to answer. But the investigation took more than a year to reach this conclusion.
The officer had done absolutely nothing wrong, but lived under a cloud of stress, worry and anxiety the entire time.
This is all too often what constitutes the police misconduct process in England and Wales. It is far from an isolated incident.
Blame, suspicion and finger-pointing pervade.
In my role as President of Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales, I represent the senior operational leaders in policing; men and women who undertake critical roles protecting the public.
In 2015, 38 separate serious misconduct cases were opened against Superintendents and Chief Superintendents. Almost half of these cases are still ongoing, up to two years later.
Of those completed, 70 per cent resulted in no further action – not even words of advice were required. All that effort; all that angst – to find nothing had been done wrong. This cannot be a sensible way forward.
The recent Reform report, Work In Progress, highlighted the culture of blame that permeates throughout public services. Nowhere is this culture more acute and apparent than policing.
Every day, police officers and staff face situations where there are no easy or clear-cut answers. They rely on personal judgement and common sense.
80 per cent of police spending is on staffing: policing is people. There are times when these people get things wrong – because they are human. Not because they are bad or negligent.
These are honest mistakes.
This is not wilful negligence or corruption which is, and must be always be, dealt with robustly: the type of acts that the misconduct process was intended to address.
But right now the process sweeps up simple, honest mistakes as well. Errors are simply not allowed.
And the service we give the public, and how we support our officers and staff, is the poorer because of it.
Work In Progress cited Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking approach, where the culture shifts from one of blame to one of understanding and learning. My Association champions this approach and Matthew spoke at our annual conference last year.
The police service desperately needs its leaders to set this tone and to say that it is OK to make mistakes. More importantly, they need to mean it. It needs them to be brave.
Without encouraging complacency, leaders need to recognise how complex the police working environment is and acknowledge honest mistakes for what they are: inevitable, expected, and opportunities to learn.
Our current approach, treating everything as misconduct, is corrosive. It suffocates improvement. Where a culture of blame exists, nothing can be learnt . Fear drives inhibition.
Policing is reforming. Police and Crime Commissioners establish local priorities and provide accountability. Strategic alliances and collaborations abound. There are fewer officers and a lot less money. I pay tribute to police leaders who have kept delivering high quality policing services against this rapidly changing and extremely challenging backdrop.
More reform is required. For example, we cannot accurately measure online fraud and cyber crime – let alone adopt the skills and technologies needed to tackle it effectively.
But the most transformational reform policing could undertake right now would be to change its culture so that police officers and staff can hold up their hands and admit to making mistakes. And to stop treating performance issues, such as lack of training or development, as misconduct.
Encourage your staff to learn from mistakes – and they will benefit. More importantly, the public will benefit too because policing will improve.
The sooner the police service get its head around this, the better.
This article first appeared on 17.2.2017 on The Guardian’s Public Leaders Network.