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What's behind meaningful cultural change in policing?



Phil Kay, Senior Policing Associate

Friday 2 July 2021

Over the past year, there’s been intense debate about creating a more ethnically diverse police service. Our senior policing associate, Phil Kay, a former assistant chief constable, argues that making forces more representative of the communities they serve is important - but changing the culture of policing is vital too.

The latest Home Office figures on the police ‘uplift’ programme, the unprecedented government-funded drive to hire an extra 20,000 officers by 2023, shows it is well on track, with 8,771 new recruits in post by the end of March.

That is really good news for our overstretched police officers and their forces - but it should be so much more than a numbers game. The influx of thousands of new officers represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the police service in England and Wales to embrace meaningful cultural change.

The need for representation

I believe there are two main reasons behind the need for cultural change. The first is connected to the principle of policing by consent. A service that requires legitimacy to police by consent needs cultural awareness and diversity in background and thought to operate effectively. It helps officers combat crime and protect communities.

But at present, the police service is not reflective of the communities it serves, with only 7.6% of officers identifying as Black, Asian or from another ethnic minority group, about half the proportion in the population. The percentage of ethnic minority new joiners is 10.6%, according to the latest data - a little better, but not enough. I wrote for Crest last year about the importance of improving on these figures and suggested a way of achieving it. Diversity is not about being politically correct or virtue signalling - it’s an operational imperative.

Allegations of police misconduct

I’ve also become increasingly convinced of the need for cultural change following a series of disturbing allegations of police misconduct. Some cases have yet to be resolved, so I won’t comment on them. But one which has concluded, involving Hampshire Police’s Serious and Organised Crime Unit in Basingstoke, was particularly shocking. A misconduct panel heard about a “toxic, abhorrent culture” in the department with officers using offensive terms for women, Black people, immigrants, disabled, gay and transgender people and foreign nationals. A number of staff in the force apparently referred to the unit as a “lads’ pad”.

This kind of disgusting behaviour is linked to machismo, a sort-of ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’ attitude. Of course, police units have to stick together, work as a team, watch each other’s backs - but there’s a clear dividing line between that and an approach which is obnoxious, closed-minded and prejudiced.

The approach of West Midlands Police

Police leaders need to recognise that within the service, which employs over 216,000 officers and staff, there are parts where the culture still leaves a lot to be desired - where people put themselves first, to the detriment of others. In 2010, while I was working at West Midlands Police (WMP), we carried out a major restructuring, moving from 21 operational command units to ten local policing units. I conducted a survey to gauge the views of those affected by the changes. When we asked neighbourhood officers what they were most concerned about, 100% said it was the impact on the communities they served. Response teams, on the other hand, said they were most concerned about the impact on them.

Changing that mindset, that culture, isn’t easy. We approached it at WMP by rotating officers between roles more, bringing fresh people into specialist squads, getting outsiders in - people who had a different perspective. At a time of austerity, as jobs were being cut, it was even more challenging, and for a lot of forces I suspect that it moved down the agenda: when training budgets are being slashed it’s hard to make a case for transferring a fully trained firearms officer into a different role, to make way for somebody who needs more training.

But these are the types of decisions that can’t be ducked now we’re in a period when the workforce is expanding. For example, when police officers are selected to work for a specialist team, they need to be chosen not just because they have the right specialist skills, but because they demonstrate the right values and behaviour. An officer shouldn’t be transferred to a surveillance team simply because they’re great at surveillance, but also because they want to serve the public, they work in a collaborative way and they’re emotionally aware.

I’m proud of the progress we made at WMP. I remember one officer, a sergeant, who was deeply resistant to change and was a real thorn in my side. Two years later, after we’d completed the reorganisation, freshening up teams, bringing in new faces, making them more diverse, he came up to me and, in fairness to him, demonstrated real humility.

“You know what,” he said, “I was wrong, cultural change was needed - it’s a better place to work now.”

And crucially, he said, it was more operationally effective.


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