A Perfect Storm – politics, policing and participation

“A member of a police force shall at all times abstain from any activity which is likely to interfere with the impartial discharge of his duties or which is likely to give rise to the impression amongst members of the public that it may so interfere; and in particular a member of a police force shall not take any active part in politics.” Schedule 1 Police Regulations 2003

One of the great British administrative traditions is the impartiality of our public servants.  No matter the colour or hue of our political masters, those who are charged with serving and protecting the public are expected to carry out their duties in dignity and silence.  

 

As a civil servant in Her Majesty’s Prison Service I accepted this condition without question or hesitation.  I exercised my function to the best of my ability regardless of the political alignment of the governmentof the day but with my own core values guiding my conscience.  

 

When the political agenda began to compromise those values, when my conscience started to wake me in the night, when I started to feel nauseous at the impact of my enforced decisions, when I could no longer look my staff in the eye, I chose to leave.  It was only at this point that I joined the political party which most closely reflected those previously mentioned core values.  

 

However, at no stage of my public service did I feel unable to participate in the broader aspects of politicallife either by discussing with others the issues at stakeor by carrying out the definitively political act of voting.  Indeed I encouraged others to participate in the democratic process without suggesting where they should mark their X and worked to promote remand prisoner voting in the 1997 General Election.

 

There are others, however, who face a very different situation.  Police officers today face dramatic changes to the way in which they work.  The Winsor Report will change their terms and conditions; budget cuts are decimating their numbers; direct entry will impact on their promotion prospects; their pension compact has been destroyed; and the highly contentious introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners ischallenging their identity. The prospective sale of iconic institutions such as New Scotland Yard and Bramshill Police Staff College is creating a sense of rootlessness and the recent decision of the Police Arbitration Tribunal to delay a decision on compulsory severance until after the forthcoming Industrial Rights ballot has added an element of coercion to the mix.  All this has served to lower morale and to destabilise an unusually close-knit community on whom we depend for our own stability and security.

 

But police officers are officially mute.  Their voices have been stifled.  Despite working in a highly politically-charged environment, they are unable to comment on the political aspect of their role and,indeed, some continue blindly to claim that politics has no place in policing.  

 

In a breathtaking act of control, ACPO regulationsprevented police officers from talking to candidates for the Police and Crime Commissioner posts, from telling the people who will in future pull their strings what they think, how they feel, what’s important to them, whattheir hopes and fears are, what motivates them and what might cause that motivation to wane. Not only were they not permitted to speak to candidates, they were not allowed to encourage others – officers,civilians, even their families – to vote, to exercise their hard-won franchise, to participate in the democratic process that would have such an impact on their futures. Nor even to discourage them from voting.  Sounds incredible?  Check paragraphs 13.2 and 13.3 of this document:http://www.acpo.police.uk/documents/futures/2012/201207FBAGfIwPCCs.pdf

 

This suffocating approach had two different but symbiotic effects:  

 

Candidates stood for election who had never spoken at length to a serving police officer, who had little idea of the day-to-day challenges of the job, of the delicate balancing of work and home, of service and self-preservation;

At the same time, police officers – particularly those who have not been politically stunted by the restrictions imposed upon them – became filled with unspoken frustration, the words burning in their brains and gagging in their mouths with no channel, no vent, no release.

Peel told us from the outset that the police are the public and the public are the police.  It therefore seems to me ironic that the regulations surrounding the introduction of a post which aims to increase public participation and accountability were, at this embryonic stage, restricting the participation of those whose lives would most immediately be affected by its introduction.This restriction reached ludicrous proportions when police officers were unable to participate in an online debate about police morale because a PCC candidate was on the official panel:http://www.guardian.co.uk/public-leaders-network/2012/oct/08/round-up-boost-police-morale

Like many large and largely sluggish organisations in the 21st century, police forces across the country struggle to cope with the impact of social media and the opportunities that social media affords to staff to express their opinions in a public forum. Many forces appear to fear the impact of those opportunities and are tempted to restrict them whenever they challenge the orthodox approach.

 

DCC Gordon Scobbie (@DCCTayside), who speaks for the police on social media, has previously pointed out that forces need to avoid looking out of touch and heavy handed and has suggested that if officers are trusted with taking away someone’s liberty, they should be trusted with a twitter account.  

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/oct/02/police-warned-treat-tweeters-with-care  

 

On 12 December, he also tweeted a promise that soon“more senior people will have strategic understanding of SM”.  This is an admirable ambition and it is to be hoped that the “round table” planned for January will continue this much-needed work.

 

However, national guidance is currently implemented differently in each of the 43 forces and there is little continuity, particularly in relation to what individual forces will tolerate. Many official twitter accounts suffer from lack of structure and support and are sometimes closed down with little reason  Some (eg @DorsetPolice) are relatively dry and bland, tweeting proclamations and pronouncements in the manner of a tannoy with little or no public engagement, something that has been referred to as “vanilla tweeting”.  Others (eg @TVP_Witney, @BridPoliceSNT) are more relaxed and engaging.  A recent BBC study indicated that the latter approach is far more popular with the public  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-20641190  and indeed @SolihullPolice has received particular recognition for its engagement strategyhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/dec/11/huge-amount-of-cannabis-twitter and was the recent winner of the  “Golden Twit” award for public service tweeters.http://www.goldentwits.com/

 

Nevertheless, there is real inconsistency in themanagement of official accounts.  Some, such as@SurreyPolice get away with tweeting Christmas-cracker style jokes while other tweeters appear to beclosed down for similar joviality. This inconsistent approach places an undue burden of responsibility on staff and simultaneously makes it easier for management to apportion blame.

Meanwhile, unofficial or off-duty police tweeters are very often anonymous. The purpose of this anonymityis generally to protect the officer’s privacy (usually from potential disciplinary action by his or her own force)and this is a reasonable step for an officer to take.  However, the impact of that anonymity is often that the officer then feels at liberty to behave in a juvenile or otherwise irresponsible manner and to make comments that they would never make if they wereidentifiable.  This in turn confirms the management view that police tweeters and bloggers are a liability when in fact they should be supporting the increased engagement with the public that could have such a positive impact. This kind of vicious circle needs to be broken and the onus may well be on officers to take the lead. For a serving officer’s perspective on many of these issues, I recommend a recent blog by @NathanConstable:http://nathanconstable.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/to-tweet-or-not-to-tweet/

In a recent Guardian Public Leaders debate, I expressed the hope that the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) might alleviate this situation.  PCCs should be the gateway to better communications, not only within and between policeforces but also between the police and the media;between the police and the community safety sector;between the police and other emergency services; and most importantly between the police and the public. PCCs have the capacity to engender a culture of openness and transparency by listening to and taking on board the views of officers and staff at all levels, by welcoming constructive criticism in a way that existing police leaders would do well to emulate and by encouraging responsible engagement via social and other forms of media.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/public-leaders-network/2012/nov/19/live-discussion-pccs-where-now

 

This hope was uncharacteristically optimistic:unfortunately, it appears that regulations have had and are still having the opposite effect as in recent weeks several official and unofficial tweeters and bloggershave been silenced.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/dec/05/police-whistleblower-inquiry-twitter?CMP=twt_fd  and in a post-Leveson world it seems ever more likely that officers who talk off-the-record to the media will suffer severe consequences.http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/dec/04/police-chief-leveson-whistleblowers

 

Moreover, a recently published HMIC report has recommended further suppression of police use of social media because of concerns about offensive language, comments on police procedure, negativity towards work and extreme opinions on governmenthttp://www.hmic.gov.uk/media/revisiting-police-relationships.pdf (page 23). This controlling approach contrasts with the Director of Public Prosecutions somewhat vague attempt to clarify the law relating to online posting in order to “strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law”.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20777002

 

The HMIC report recommends that forces and PCCs“should assure themselves that there are appropriate mechanisms in place to monitor and manage the reputational risks presented by the inappropriate use of social media”. Such has been the public controversy surrounding the introduction of the post that PCCs, elected on a low turn-out and with little voter engagement, are likely to be feeling vulnerable both to public critique and to internal criticism.  My earlyoptimism has been replaced by a fear that, far from encouraging the responsible use of social media, of supporting staff to make constructive criticism of policy and practice, of trusting officers to use their judgement and their vast experience to improve both public relations and public safety, there is now a risk thatPCCs might view all criticism with extreme suspicion and clamp down hard on any perceived challenge to their authority.

I believe that such an approach would be a hugemistake, one which would serve only to frighten some dissenting voices into silence while driving othersunderground, into subterfuge, into a position where,instead of being a force for openness, for transparency, for accountability, they warp into a malign force at the eye of the perfect storm.

Rachel Rogers

@DorsetRachel / www.rachelrogers.net

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