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Chief constable experience: A cause for concern?

Dr Tim Brain looks at the current crop of chief officers' experience and compares it to those of the past

The 2017 New Year’s Honours list was at first sight notable for the record number of junior ranks recognised for their distinguished service with the award of the Queen’s Police Medal.

From forces in England and Wales there were five constables, one each of sergeant, inspector and chief inspector and three chief superintendents. There were five at chief officer rank, but only one serving chief constable, David Jones of North Yorkshire, in post since June 2013.

All are to be congratulated on this recognition for their distinguished service, but this total of 17 might be considered a meagre return for a public service with 200,000 members, especially when the number of officers and staff receiving other honours is taken into account.

There were just 15 other recipients of honours ranging from BEM to damehood. Only one chief constable received a ‘higher’ honour, Alf Hitchcock of the Ministry of Defence with a CBE. There were no knighthoods or damehoods for police officers. In a sign of the times a damehood went to Vera Baird, Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, albeit for services to ‘women and equality’ rather than to policing.

With Sir Jon Murphy’s retirement last year that leaves just one chief officer with a knighthood, the soon-to-retire Metropolitan Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, two if, more controversially, Chief HMI Sir Tom Winsor is counted.

There never have been many police knights, but history suggests that in addition to the Metropolitan Commissioner there might be a handful of others – such as Sir James Anderton (Greater Manchester 1976-91), Sir Kenneth Oxford (Merseyside 1976-89), Sir Ron Hadfield (Nottinghamshire 1987-90 and West Midlands 1990-96), and Sir John Hoddinott (Hampshire 1988-99), or Sir George Terry, who served as chief constable from 1958 to 1983 in four forces, Pembrokeshire, East Sussex, Lincolnshire, and Sussex, while Elizabeth Neville (Wiltshire 1997-2004) became a dame.

However, the number of police knights has been in decline for some years. No City of London Commissioner has been a knight since Sir Arthur Young retired in 1971, while all West Midlands chiefs since formation in 1974 to 2009 received a knighthood but none since. As for other chief officers receiving a knighthood, the last deputy commissioner to receive such an honour was Sir Ian (later Lord) Blair in 2003, while it is necessary to go back to 1966 for an assistant commissioner, Sir John Waldron, to have received one for his handling of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral. 

The machination of the honours system, who gets what and why, is, of course, a closely guarded secret, but even allowing for this it does seem that the police service is under represented in the honours system. How so?

Applying conspiracy theory, it might be that that ‘the powers that be’ simply do not value the service, or more specifically its most senior officers.

There is probably, however, another, more mundane explanation, but one which in turn reveals a profoundly worrying underlying trend.

Current chief constables simply have not had the chance to build up the service profile that would make them eligible for the highest honours.

Police knights in the past, even the recent past, have been long serving with distinguished records of contribution not only to their own forces but also at a national level. For example, Sir James Anderton became a knight in 1990 after fourteen years as chief constable, and when he had already served as president of ACPO; the late Sir John Hoddinott had served 10 years as chief of Hampshire and had been ACPO’s chair of Crime Committee and its president when he was knighted in 1998; Sir John Evans had been a long serving chief constable of Devon and Cornwall, chair of ACPO terrorism committee and ACPO president before he was knighted.

The common threads between these various police knights have been length of service in the rank and a high level contribution to policing nationally.

These chief officers, however, served in a profoundly different environment than the current generation of chief constables.

The differences are measurable. In 1985 the average length of service at the top rank for the 43 chief constables of England and Wales was five years. However, the average does not tell the whole story. There were four chief constables with over 10 years of service in the rank (the longest serving were Alan Goodson and Sir Philip Knights both with 13 years), and 17 with between five and 10 years of service.

In 1990 the average was 4.4 years, with seven over 10 years and 11 between five and 10. By 2000 the average dropped to 3.8 years, with two having over ten years and 11 between five and 10 years. In 2010 the average had dropped to 2.9 years in the rank with just one with over 10 years, but 12 between five and 10 years.

Currently average length of service in the rank is three years, but just one, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has over 10 years’ while only two others, Steve Finnigan and Mick Creedon have not quite 10 years’ service. The remaining 40 chiefs have less than five years service in the rank. This is to some extent counterbalanced by the average length of general service, which is 31 years.

The principal reason must be the attritional effect of fixed term appointments, which have been around since the mid-1990s. The second, and more proximate reason is probably the impact of police and crime commissioners, with chiefs either not seeking or not being given extensions to their FTAs.

Whatever the cause, or causes, the bottom-line, therefore, is that the current chief constable cadre is collectively the most inexperienced for at least 30 years, and probably more. With the pending retirements of Sir Bernard and Steve Finnigan (and either or both may be replaced by someone who has no direct experience of UK policing at all) it is set to get collectively even more inexperienced.

Now that is a cause for concern.

Dr Tim Brain is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Cardiff University.

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