Jon Burrows: New PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher faces huge challenges – and opportunities
However, in this article I will explain why Jon Boutcher’s primary focus ought to be on rebuilding morale, transforming the senior leadership culture and having frank conversations with statutory partners.
Morale amongst the rank and file is at rock bottom, officers feel overworked and under supported and they don’t trust their leaders to have their backs.
Policing is difficult, dangerous and dynamic, so officers and staff need to know that so long as they are honest and hardworking, they will be supported if things go wrong - including from clamouring politicians.
As in any organisation where staff do not trust their leaders to support them, a culture of risk aversion and self-protection takes root.
An atmosphere of fear depletes officers' resilience and makes them more susceptible to stress and ill health.
It’s no surprise that the morale crisis correlates with rising sickness levels and a crisis in retention as probationers resign in record numbers, medical retirements soar and experienced officers' countdown to retirement.
Of course, when an organisation shrinks due to a broken budget and an increasingly unwell workforce, the workload on those still at work increases.
Unfortunately, a management cult gripped UK policing in the last decade and the response to having less people and less money has typically been salami slicing neighbourhood and proactive policing, instead of cutting waste and focussing on core policing.
The PSNI spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with gaps in the mental health and social care system and frankly the leadership has failed to tackle this issue.
I know of one area recently where six of the eight police crews for the shift were tied up at emergency departments. Go to any hospital and observe how many police cars are there.
Huge resources are also engaged in looking for the same children who go absent without leave from the same care homes night after night.
Of course, policing is about more than just crime, but other agencies have for too long been shifting risk onto the shoulders of police officers, who in turn are fearful of saying no because their organisation doesn’t support them.
Supervisors don’t trust the Ombudsman to treat them fairly if anything goes wrong, so the safest thing is to devote police resources to other agencies’ problems and tell victims of a crime that they can wait.
This is not only a criminal waste of resources, but a root cause of low morale. Police officers join to fight crime, not sit in emergency departments all night awaiting a mental health professional to assess someone in crisis.
The same efficiency draining, morale sapping waste is found in the criminal justice system.
Thousands of hours are wasted annually because officers spend all day at court in cases where the PPS should have agreed in advance non-contentious evidence with the defence.
This is bread and butter case management, but it isn’t done and is a relatively straightforward fix with good leadership.
The chief constable made a good start when he said he supported the rank and file and wanted to replace the blame culture with a learning one.
However, he needs to operationalise that and inculcate it into his commanders who have been role modelled something very different.
This includes instilling clear boundaries between his leaders and lobbying politicians, reforming the internal misconduct system and having hard conversations with the Police Ombudsman about their punitive and painstakingly slow investigations.
Misconduct should be focused on the few officers who aren’t fit to wear the uniform, not the honest officers who are too often an easier target.
The chief constable needs to decisively grip the mission creep that has beset policing and require other agencies to work collaboratively to find solutions to what are their primary responsibilities.
It’s not a matter of policing withdrawing from partnership, but rather playing its proper role.
Such leadership would be a major boost to community safety as well as morale, freeing up tens of thousands of policing hours that would create capacity for officer respite as well as more visible patrolling, crime fighting and problem solving.
The PSNI could then get back on the front foot on the media, showcasing its successes and telling the stories of everyday excellence.
There are unrivalled opportunities for telling good news via social media and in so doing boost police pride and public confidence. It’s time to start making the headlines again for the right reasons.
So, whilst the PSNI has many problems, the best leaders see opportunities in crisis.
A supported work force, properly led and better focused on core policing would be happier, less stressed, more resilient and better equipped to deliver the service the public expects.
The PSNI needs more officers and a bigger budget, but better senior leadership is equally as important.
Jon Burrows is a retired senior PSNI officer. Jon’s free to view blog - afaircopuk.wordpress.com