Everyone who cares about an organisation would want it to have the very best leaders. I am responsible, as director of the Police National Assessment Centre , for the selection of both high flyers and chief officers, and personally think we have many great leaders in the police service who have delivered significant reductions in crime and significant increases in public confidence. However, I am open to any suggestion that would enhance the leadership of policing further.
There are few more important institutions in a democracy than the police, and we all want the service to have the right leadership, culture and values.
The controversy surrounding illegal activity by News International and its relationship with politicians and the Met has caused questions to be asked about police leadership and culture. The prime minister’s statement to the Commons last week, saying he wanted to see “how we can open up our police force and bring in fresh leadership”, is prompting debate in the service. It was the first time I had heard the government voice this concern, and I remain unclear whether the proposal has been carefully considered or whether it was an expedient response to events. But before it gets a head of steam, a few things must be said.
Firstly, most forces are shedding senior police posts and many are not recruiting new officers. In my own force I have removed a management layer to focus on the frontline.
We also need to be clear about the roles carried out by police leaders. My chief officer team in Thames Valley is seven strong – five police officers and two police staff. All the officers are graduates and four were on the high flyer scheme. The two members of police staff have both worked outside policing and bring their particular expertise in finance, HR and technology to the table.
I assume the proposal is that senior managers could be brought into police officer roles. I am not opposed in principle, but would insist on competence for the role, which involves authorising covert operations and the use of firearms and being available 24/7 to provide leadership with critical incidents such as murders or multiple fatal incidents.
It is not good enough for our public to have mere administrators as their chief police officers. In life or death situations, where would that leave accountability? Management functions could be carried out by a generalist, but there are also specific risk-based responsibilities that require expertise in policing.
We have a national high flyer scheme and there are some fantastic young officers on it. Nearly 500 have applied for the scheme this year and about 50 will be selected – competition is tough. These are individuals who would flourish in any organisation but have the substantial advantage of having exercised the powers of a constable at first hand.
Decision-making and discretion in the office of constable really are the bedrock of policing, because it is the level at which most public and policing interactions take place. In leaders, an understanding of these situations is critical. Accelerated promotion has generally served us well – we have nurtured the brightest and the best, but ensured that opportunity is open to all.
In 2009 I sat on the government inquiry into Fair Access to the Professions. What struck me was that the opportunity-hoarding by the middle classes so evident in the traditional professions was not true for the police service. In the police there was intragenerational social mobility. Most of my middle-ranking officers had degrees, but many had studied in their own time, having joined with few qualifications. Sir Robert Peel didn’t want gentlemen in his newly formed Metropolitan Police because he sought to make it a meritocracy – in 1829, a gentleman would have bought a senior role.
However, the leadership is still overwhelmingly white and male. One advantage of bringing in people from outside is that you can change the mix far more quickly. We have pursued numerous initiatives and while progress is being made with women it is far too slow in respect of ethnic minorities, partly because it takes at least 20 years to become a chief officer. Lateral entry holds some attraction for this reason alone, but “battle-hardened colonels” will hardly change the mix.
Traditionally, all officers start at the bottom and work their way up. However, policing has never been more challenging and it is right to consider new ways of providing the best leaders. But we must ensure the debate is informed by a good understanding of current arrangements – strengths as well as weaknesses. It is far from clear that the benefits of such changes outweigh the potential cost.
Sara Thornton is Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police and vice-president of the Association of Chief Police Officers.