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Opinion: where are these “thousands” of corrupt officers?

Former Special Branch officer Chris Hobbs says the recent HMICFRS report on vetting lacks perspective

Officers on the front line must have winced as they viewed the headlines which suggested that thousands of corrupt officers were patrolling our streets. For those who loathe police, these headlines were manna from heaven.

As always, in these reports, there normally is, tucked away, reference to the ‘majority’ of good officers and sections of the report are not unworthy of merit. Far from it. Serving and retired officers have been expressing concern in relation to recruitment, vetting and training for years.

It was bewildering to discover that despite the existence of the omnipotent College of Policing, there were such huge variations between the procedures of the various forces. Further details as to how links between prospective officers and organised crime were missed, remain unexplained. Of course, the fact that a PC’s uncle may be a major drugs dealer or a handler of stolen property doesn’t mean that that officer would not be conscientious and honest.

Those familiar with competent organised crime will tell you that if those crime groups were to use one of their number in an ‘undercover’ capacity he or she would be a completely ‘clean skin’ whose antecedents would stand up to in-depth scrutiny.

Speaking as a former police officer who went through the high level ‘Developed Vetting’ procedure many years ago, in an ideal world, this would be routine for all potential recruits: However, it is prohibitively expensive and time consuming whilst being both intrusive and thorough. 

It goes almost without saying that policing does attract those who wish to abuse those powers given to them. Perhaps, as has been suggested, psychometric testing should be considered as part of the UK’s recruiting procedure.

‘Thousands of corrupt officers?

Yet the real issue here are the headlines across the board which refer to ‘thousands’ of ‘corrupt’ police officers. The report in fact initially suggests ‘hundreds’ but then goes on to comment that it could be ‘thousands,’ but probably, not tens of thousands.

Victims of sexual or domestic assault may well baulk at the prospect of contacting police due to the ‘thousands’ of corrupt police officers. The damage may well be incalculable and there seems little sign of the National Police Chiefs Council or the College of Policing attempting to ameliorate the damage.

There is no attempt at perspective. Over an eight-year period, the Met dismissed some 209 officers and staff for gross misconduct, many of which would have involved criminal convictions. During that period, around 51,000 officers served in the Met. Counting police staff including PCSOs the numbers rise to around 81,000 over those eight years. Of course, one misconduct case is too many but the figures provided suggest that the Met and other forces are not riddled with miscreants.

Nationally over the past five years around 150,000 officers will have served the people of England and Wales. That’s the combined equivalent of both Wembley and Tottenham’s grounds being filled to capacity. When police staff, National Crime Agency and BTP officers are added, the numbers rise to around 240,000. (Wembley, Twickenham and Old Trafford!!!). Eject several thousand ‘rogue’ officers and staff and you are still left with a workforce that is overwhelmingly committed, compassionate and determined.

This rather clumsy analogy shouldn’t encourage complacency or suggest that all is well and a certain amount of poor or criminal behaviour is somehow tolerable. It isn’t and in many respects this report is a wake-up call to forces in terms of getting their act together in relation to issues of recruitment, training and vetting.

Two wrongs don’t make a right but…

The figures relating to those engaged in wrongdoing which includes sexual misconduct, is still too high but in pure percentage of workforce terms they pale into insignificance when compared to sexual misconduct allegations in respect of 56 individuals out of a certain male workforce of 430. This isn’t the department of any police force but male MPs who sit in Parliament.

Events and subsequent reports in respect of maternity units at Shrewsbury, Morecambe, East Kent and Nottingham hospitals show that there were dozens of avoidable deaths amongst mothers and babies. Yet, quite rightly, there is no demonisation of all NHS staff because of failings at those units. Police, however, seem fair game and all officers are collectively smeared sometimes ludicrously when they are accused of being ‘too woke,’ or ‘not woke’ enough.’

Misogyny is clearly an issue within the Met and other forces and clearly there are individuals and pockets of male officers whose behaviour will have been both intimidatory and frightening. I suspect that every female officer who has come or is coming to the end of her service, will have experienced misogyny in one form or another.

That which is not being considered.

However, despite the HMISFRS findings, the acid test in terms of misogyny is surely whether female officers coming to the end of service, would give a positive response to the assertion that they found the overwhelming majority of their male colleagues both professional and trustworthy.

For a force apparently riddled with homophobia and misogyny, there was outrage across the board at the treatment meted out to the Met’s openly gay, female Commissioner, Cressida Dick by both the media and London’s Mayor. Certainly, officers who were supervised by her as she rose from the ranks had nothing but praise and respect for her. This emanates from those who knew her as a sergeant and inspector ‘at the sharp end’ .

Helen Ball, a current Assistant Commissioner, inspired similar loyalty as she rose through the ranks while I personally remember a highly respected senior Special Branch officer, Eileen Eggington Special Branch officers, by the nature of their work, become detached from the realities of policing but, on promotion, had to go back to the ‘front-line’ which can come as a shock to the system. Ms Eggington, as a new inspector speaks warmly of the support given to her at the time, by her team.

Ruby Begum, a Muslim, hijab wearing officer, drew unwelcome attention from racists and misogynists when she was filmed wielding her baton during disorder at Trafalgar Square. She was vigorously defended by her male colleagues and retired officers. Speaking to her colleagues in the aftermath of that incident, it was clear she was very highly thought of. It’s unfortunate that some controversial tweets made five years earlier, have resulted in an internal investigation.

Former officers who state they have been victims of police misogyny are quoted in the media and appear on television news programmes. There appears to be no effort to speak to or obtain quotes from, female officers who have enjoyed, despite possibly experiencing some misogynistic behaviour, rewarding and fulfilling careers in the company of mainly supportive male colleagues.

Mental health considerations

One aspect linked to poor behaviour appears to have been overlooked, namely current implications for the mental health of officers.

The stresses and strains faced by front line officers today are formidable and frankly don’t compare with those of my generation. I attended two fairly minor stabbings during my time in uniform; these days attending stabbings and shootings can often be accompanied by attempting life- saving first aid in the bloodiest of circumstances.

We didn’t face the abuse and level of assaults endured by those today and these very real physical dangers are in tandem with unprecedented public and media scrutiny. Any incident almost inevitably produces a plethora of mobile phones recording the actions of officers. Complaints are made at ‘the drop of a hat’.

PTSD is now acknowledged as a real issue and research has even been carried out into ‘dark humour.’ Perhaps, when examining the behaviour of police officers it’s necessary to consider whether a cumulative effect of trauma could ‘flick a switch’ in respect of the officer’s mental state and result in uncharacteristic and even destructive behaviour.

Amidst the huge body of research, is this telling short sentence from a study into the subject of police mental health carried out by Cambridge University; ‘Relentless filing of horror and human suffering inevitably changes who we are.’ Perhaps that phrase should be framed and placed upon the walls of the Inspectorate and IOPC.

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