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Year review: so long 2020

Gary Mason selects some highs and lows from an unprecedented year for UK policing.

Year review: so long 2020

Date - 31st December 2020
By - Gary Mason

2020 started as the year of the Officer Uplift and the official end to austerity policing. It also marked a refreshed partnership between the service and a new government with a healthy majority and a big “to do list”. This included, among other things, a review of the policing of serious and organised crime, the botched changes to police bail, the complaints system and the IOPC and a tighter grip on some long standing and overdue Government-led law enforcement technology projects. Then came that other thing…..but more of that later.

Cause for complaint

It has been a big year for the IOPC. A new system was augured in whereby a culture of “reflective learning” among officers and forces who face criticism for their actions would replace the need to place blame on individuals in every case. In-force resolution as opposed to lengthy and costly external investigations for lower level complaints was the preferred option.

Among the rhetoric were some interesting statistics. Internal investigations into complaints against officers supervised by the IOPC took an average of more than two years (863 days) to complete compared to just over five months for unsupervised ones.

There were 13 supervised investigations and 19,739 local investigations between 1 April 2019 and 31 January 2020.

The IOPC also scored some significant legal decisions this year. Its successful appeal against a decision that a firearms officer who shot a man who he believed to be reaching for a weapon in an operation to stop a prisoner escape was acting in self defence based on an ‘honestly held belief’, will have AFOs up and down the country seriously considering their current line of work

Honestly held beliefs about the threat posed to firearms officers on operations and their right to defend themselves using the criminal definition of what constitutes self defence are two cornerstones of the viability of the role.

A further appeal by the officer involved in the case is pending.

WhatsApp doc?

Has it reached the point where officers would be wiser to delete social media accounts they share with colleagues? And does the College of Policing need to update its guidance on the issue as well as a new definition as to what constitutes an “inappropriate relationship” within policing (given that in many walks of life people meet their partners at work)?

Police Oracle’s columns have been filled this year with reports of people who have come to grief on their phones. This includes officers up to the rank of Superintendent and at least two Police and Crime Commissioners.

They used to say that as a serving officer “you are never off duty”. This now needs to include the clause “work phones are for work only….”

Retiring chiefs we will miss

Bill Skelly (BSc maths and physics, Edinburgh; Dip Criminology, Cambridge) put his head well and truly above the parapet in opposing the College of Policing’s introduction of degrees for all new recruits.

This included taking on CoP in two legal reviews this year which he lost. We don’t think he is the only senior officer who has doubts about the changes and there are those in the service who still regard the old IPLDP programme as the gold standard for recruit training.

It is not gone yet and our guess is that the ‘Transition Period’ will be subject to some last minute extensions.

Retiring Lancashire chief Andy Rhodes put officer welfare on the map and used every opportunity this year to hammer home the message that the job needs to look after its workforce better.

He also gave one of the best speeches of the year to the British Association of Women Police.

We loved his story of going up for a promotion board as a chief inspector in front of the UK’s first woman chief constable Pauline Clare who had set the cat among the pigeons by introducing  psychometric testing. A group of baffled promotion hungry candidates started to panic wondering if they could copy each others’ tests.

Gone but not forgotten

Met Sgt Matt Ratana whose murder on 25 September provoked an outpouring of grief among the many officers who worked with him during a long and distinguished career. His shift colleagues leaving a takeaway breakfast on his empty chair was one of the many moving tributes that showed the depth of feeling at his loss. A very dark day in policing.

The delayed trial of the three people who killed Thames Valley PC Andrew Harper reached a conclusion on 31 July when they were found guilty of the newlywed officer’s manslaughter almost a year after his death.

PC Harper’s widow Lissie, continues her fight for Harper’s Law which would introduce mandatory life sentences to those found guilty of taking the life of an emergency service worker.

The retirement of Wiltshire DS Nick Bailey who made three brave attempts to return to the job after nearly losing his life in the Salisbury Novichok poisoning incident highlighted what can happen to officers during what starts as a routine shift.

The aftermath effect of this act of state- sponsored terrorism on DS Bailey and his family is well documented.

The Federation’s Police Covenant scheme which in September the Home Secretary announced  would be enshrined in law, is designed to provide guaranteed levels of welfare protection for current and retired officers and staff and their families .

While the details of what this will involve are yet to be realised, it is much needed in a service which is only starting to monitor the long term effects of trauma. This month we reported that ONS figures showed that 169 officers have committed suicide between 2011 and 2019  - more than the number who have died while on duty over the same period.

Judge of the year

The Police Oracle award goes to Mr Justice Turner who in September dismissed an action against Merseyside Police brought by a woman who was described as being “covered in vomit” by officers and taken to a Liverpool police station, where four female officers removed her outer clothes and gave her a clean, dry outfit.

Cheryl Pile – who later agreed to pay a £60 fine for being drunk and disorderly – brought a claim against the force, arguing they did not have the right to change her and had breached her human rights.

In a summing up to savour Justice Turner outlined a few problems with her case. He said: “Some members of the public may well have found it to have been a grotesque result if a woman who: has rendered herself insensible through drink; abused an innocent taxi driver; behaved aggressively to police officers trying to do their job and vomited all over herself should then be found to be entitled to compensation because those same officers, as an act of decency, had then changed her into clean and dry clothing at a time when she was too drunk to know or care."

Nicely put your honour.

It’s time to talk about that thing

The pandemic was a huge challenge for UK policing and as ever officers stepped up to the plate and adapted on the hoof to fast changing legislation, very difficult working conditions and concerns about their own safety.

Other world events unrelated to COVID-19 fanned the flames among a locked down public.

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May sparked huge protests by the Black Lives Matter movement bringing people out onto the streets in cities around the UK in the middle of a public health emergency.

The vandalising of monuments to historical figures including Sir Robert Peel brought counter protests and resulted in serious outbreaks of public disorder and accusations that officers had been too hard on some demonstrators and too soft on others, depending on which bulletin you tuned into.

Officers at all ranks faced some difficult decisions both personal and tactical. Should officers have “taken the knee”? Kent chief constable Alan Pughsley (who is national lead for undercover policing) did it at a BLM protest in his own force area. Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, who is often criticised by some of our readers for being too diversity conscious, said publicly that she didn’t think officers on duty should take the knee.

At the beginning of the pandemic there were serious concerns that the police service would be overwhelmed as officers and staff went off sick or needed to self-isolate. That never really happened.

In March the Met put out an appeal for all PCs and Sergeants who had left within the last five years to come back and help with the pandemic. A few answered the call but large numbers were not needed.

Pandemic productivity

Some good outcomes emerged from the lockdown. Merseyside chief Andy Cooke, who was one of the first senior officers to catch the virus, said the lockdown had given his officers the opportunity to do some “real police work” in the detection of serious crime.

He said: “Our productivity has gone through the roof because officers had time to deal with important matters, instead of being tied up at the end of a phone.”

In a similar vein the National Crime Agency scored some major wins following a long running operation to infiltrate the private phone and messaging service used by many UK OCGs. You see, it's those work  phones again....

The urgent need to move to remote working and make better use of technology meant that forces made more progress on setting up ICT projects involving partner agencies in five months than had been achieved in five years. West Midlands delivered 1,000 internal systems ready laptops to staff working at home in a matter of weeks and it was reported that almost all forces can now share digital files with the CPS. The pandemic has reinforced the art of the possible.

Oh and we haven’t mentioned Brexit yet which makes a nice change. But that late, late deal means that the EU has not thrown out the baby with the bathwater on law enforcement co-operation, which is also good news.

But the best news for the UK and its hard working police service is the approval of two vaccines and the promise of a return to normality by the Spring. Let’s all hope it happens.

Police Oracle would like to wish all its readers and the whole service a happy and healthy New Year. Stay safe.

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