We are not far into 2013 but already some themes for the year ahead are emerging. One such is the role and place of police leadership.
It seems timely to offer some reflections on this for a number of reasons. First, I want to take a moment to pay tribute to Police Federation chairman Paul McKeever, who sadly passed away last week. Paul and I began as Constables in the Met in the same year and our paths crossed many times thereafter. Our views in our respective leadership roles did not always coincide, but far more united us than divided us. As do so many in our profession, we shared a passion for policing and serving the public. His untimely loss is a great sadness to the service.
Policing needs leaders at all ranks and roles but there is a particular media focus on the top echelons of the service right now. For one thing, several forces are appointing new chiefs under their Police and Crime Commissioners, while the Home Affairs Select Committee is holding an inquiry into leadership and standards. Meanwhile in the weekend’s papers we learned of Home Office plans to consult on Tom Winsor’s proposals to open up Chief Constable appointments to those with experience of ‘common law jurisdictions’ - understood in the main to be Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.
It is quite difficult to have an informed debate about these issues without sounding defensive or insular, both of which are not and have never been characteristics of British policing. Essentially, Britain has exported its own much-admired model of policing by consent across the world - by the same principle of course we should be willing to learn from international comparisons ourselves. There are always new ideas in policing and we should embrace them wherever they come from.
In my own experience I have gained hugely from involvement in the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a group which brings together representatives of US big city law enforcement and on whose board I sit. I’ve learnt much from the experience and know full well that there are some exceptional leaders in US policing in particular.
Latterly PERF’s work on policing in a downturn has provided insights for British chiefs - many US forces have had to make swingeing cuts and faced the challenge of doing that without halting innovation and development in the fight against crime. Conversely, British chiefs have been in regular demand on the other side of the Atlantic to share experiences on issues such as public order policing, developing police ethics and fighting gangs.
So while we need to wait to see the Home Secretary’s proposals in full and give them a considered response, we have to knock back the implication that British police leaders are reactionary, complacent or worse. And without being defensive, we also want to assert our self-confidence. Crime is down, public confidence remains broadly stable, in spite of some highly-public challenges to policing, from which we will learn. The debate around standards and leadership goes on and is hugely important because it goes to the heart of confidence in our service. But equally, in communities up and down the country the police service is getting on with the job in challenging times, and very largely, it is delivering. In many respects, those daily debates our officers and staff are engaged in, around how we tackle crime and keep people safe, are far more urgent.
The Prime Minister recently remarked that the Chief Constables he sees are ‘extremely capable and competent people’ and we’re confident that the next generation of talent coming through the service is stronger than ever. This year sees the launch of the new College of Policing - an outstanding opportunity to recognise and further develop our professionalism, at every level, underpinned by a solid academic evidence base. That is a tremendously exciting prospect.
We need to continually respond constructively to challenges on our leadership and standards but we also need to keep our focus on the service we deliver. I am also absolutely convinced that it is the daily efforts of our people on the frontline - well led and supported, showing outstanding leadership themselves - in their daily interactions with people, which underpin and lie at the heart of our relationship with the public.