Wednesday 5 January 2011

Banned on the Run

Incredible. An over-used word but completely accurate of my reaction to Avon & Somerset Police banning ITN from their Joanna Yeates press conference this morning. I really could not believe it. The last thing any Senior Investigating Officer ought to want is to prevent a large section of the community from hearing the message - even when that message is, seemingly, quite short and merely releases something that might have been expected to have been in the public domain days ago.

Whoever imposed the ban was certainly acting robustly, swiftly and decisively; whether this is one of those situations where the wrong decision is better than no decision remains to be seen. I have my doubts.

When presenting on the Amelie Delagrange case to the national 'Media Management' course at Bramshill, my rule number one was simple. Police must always engage with the media, if for no other reason than that if there is a dearth of information released then the journalists will find it from other sources of probably dubious origin. Engagement and dialogue means influence - even a degree of control, at least of the quality of the information received by the media if not of what they do with it. Though that too, as we know, is perfectly possible if the relationship is sound.

I saw the ITN report which angered the force so much. It was obviously critical, but thankfully we exist in a state where criticism of the Police is allowed. Unless they banned that while I was worrying about hunting and smoking, and somehow I missed it. Was it unfair, as the complaint alleged? I think it might have been, but probably wasn't. Let me explain. Mark Williams Thomas made some reasonable points; at least he raised a few questions which were worth asking. But for none of them was a perfectly reasonable answer impossible. For example, the drink-bottles and cardboard coffee cups at the body deposition site. Yes, of course one would expect that area to have been thoroughly searched and everything retained. But Joanna was found 9 days ago; that area was cordoned off for some time while searches were conducted, and then re-opened. Since then journalists, film crews, photographers, well-wishers and presumably the odd ghoul or two have spent many hours there. Might they have dropped a piece of litter or two?

I know those who deal with crime on ITN well enough to know they are absolutely professional and keen to support rather than attack the Police. They want Joanna's killer caught as much as anyone, and want to play their part if they can. Once reasonable queries were raised by their pundit, I am sure they will have raised them in turn with Avon & Somerset, to get their views or their explanation. I would be completely amazed if this were not the case.

Which puts the ball back firmly in the A&S court. If these questions were asked of them, and they gave up the opportunity to engage and give their side, then they can't complain when the piece runs as it did. Alternatively, if ITN went ahead either failing to put the questions, or having put them then ignoring the responses, then of course the Police should be cross. Of course they should have words with ITN, robustly, swiftly and decisively. And make sure that ITN give the opportunity to put things right, clear up the misunderstanding and then move on.

But banning a mainstream national broadcaster from a conference? Whether it is a stupid, childish, 'take-my-ball-home' reaction, or high-handed arrogance is in many ways irrelevant - though it may be either or both. Quite simply, the success or otherwise of difficult, Category A+, stranger murder investigations such as this may hinge on maintenance of media interest with the mass communication opportunities that brings. Why effectively switch off half the nation's TV sets to your message? Why risk your media strategy becoming the story rather than a terrible murder? Avon and Somerset must accept that while their primary duty is to solve the murder and protect the public, these high-profile cases bring another responsibility - to enable proper public interest and discussion. It is completely unrealistic to expect to conduct a Category A+ murder investigation from within a bubble.

I fear, indeed am certain though, that this will not be the last time I am agitated by a refusal of Police to engage in a sensible way with the media over a high profile case. It will arise again much closer to home, before the Summer comes, you mark my words..............

Tuesday 4 January 2011

If you can't take a joke.......

Freed from the inhibition of being a Police Officer (which is inhibiting of expression, not of thought) I intend to make this blog a vehicle for my oft-disconnected jottings and musings. Until something new comes along to stimulate my thoughts, here's a piece I wrote around two years ago, just to give an idea of what to expect in the future:

I am a Police Officer, and immensely proud of it. I have achieved a reasonably senior rank, and some success in my chosen specialism, which is the investigation of major crime. On successive evenings recently I have sat at home as a helpless onlooker whilst the organisation - the calling - I have followed so passionately for the last 28 years was assassinated on prime-time TV. And the Police, not the broadcaster, were to blame.

First, BBC1’s Crimewatch featured a Police Constable and a Community Support Officer in Newcastle who, waiting outside a Tesco store for an unconnected purpose, were eye-witnesses to a robbery. The Constable was savvy enough to appreciate what she was seeing, and went with her colleague to investigate. The CCTV showed them looking through the store’s main doors, just as the two robbers (armed with a crowbar and a pick-axe handle, but no obvious guns or knife) were relieving the security guards of many thousands of pounds destined for the shop’s cash machine.

They watched too, as a slightly chubby, bespectacled and middle-aged lady employee made a heroic job of grappling with a robber. When her efforts failed and the villains made for the door, what did the cops do? Bar the door armed with baton and CS gas? Rugby tackle the robbers and save the money? Even rush into the store to make sure there were no casualties? No, they ran away. The Constable explained to the cameras (from what might perhaps be her preferred ‘beat’, sitting in the station at a computer) that there were two robbers and she decided they were likely to overpower her so she wouldn’t tackle them.

On Wednesday, ITV showed ‘Cops on Camera’. In it we were treated to the spectacle of a drunken yob who had mouthed off at some Constables. I think he had told an officer “I’m gonna split you”. We were then witness to several minutes of negotiation between three officers and said yobbo. But this was Taunton on a Friday evening, not the Iranian Embassy siege. It can’t just have been old, proud Coppers like me who were cringing at the stand off, with two fit young men frightened to approach an unfit lout who could barely support himself but was making enough noise for ten men.

But worse, they were keeping him at bay with a Taser, the high-voltage electric shock gun which, until relatively recently, was available only to firearms officers in properly authorised operations. What made it the more saddening were the self-satisfied comments they made after he was (finally) arrested. The Taser had made it easy for them, it was ‘fit for purpose’ said one – easily using management-speak like an officer who probably has a bright future. I confess I never realised its purpose was to enable drunks to be bullied into submission, in the name of the Community.

In both cases the worst excesses of the Health & Safety-driven, risk-averse attitudes which pervade our current police force (sorry, Police Service) were plain. The officer in Newcastle may well have been correct in her judgment. She could well have been pushed aside, taken a slap or a punch or, God forbid, even worse. I’m sorry but I expect her – indeed I firmly believe the Community expects her – to take that risk. That is why we have Police, that is why we train and equip them and, yes, why we pay them. Considerably more than Tesco pay their assistants. We expect that they will, occasionally, put themselves at risk for the common good. Is it not completely unacceptable for a Police Officer, on duty and in uniform, to watch a robbery and then run away without even trying to effect an arrest? Unfortunately, anyone who pointed this out to her would, I am sure, be branded a heretic. She had carried out her ‘dynamic risk assessment’ and decided to run away; her flight of course being the only dynamism in her conduct that morning.

What possessed Northumbria Police then to advertise this sorry tale in front of millions on Crimewatch I cannot begin to fathom. Now not only do we do stupid things but we actively seek to put them on the telly. I am pretty confident many of the viewers must have felt similar anger to me; only the Police Officers would have shared the shame.

Then ‘Cops With Cameras’ turned shame to acute embarrassment. It was a drunk, calling Old Bill names just as thousands of drunks have done before him for the last 180 years. The two young officers, having made the decision to act, could have moved in swiftly and effected an arrest in seconds. Instead they chose to threaten the use of a weapon which, while not lethal on its own, is thoroughly unpleasant. It is an excellent tool in the correct circumstances; I have been present at its deployment and support its availability unreservedly. Seeing the Taser-toting PC almost toying with the drunk, playing the laser spot which indicates where it will strike up and down his body, sickened me. It reached a point where the drunk wanted to comply but was also desperate to keep his jacket clean and refused to lie down. I was by now willing him to give in - for the Taser not to be used - with a fervour my TV only usually receives during my team’s away games.

Yet, I don’t actually blame any of these Constables. Just as liberal thought percolated from local authorities through our schools, the NHS and other public services in the 1980s, it is now entrenched in policing and has not only changed the essential character of the leadership of the organisation, but crucially has also distorted the culture and values of its officers.

During my training, in the early 1980s, a common phrase from the Instructors (to translate for modern cops, that was what Facilitators were called then) was “If you can’t take a joke…….”. It should have been completed by “….. you shouldn’t join the Job”, but the regularity with which it was repeated made the second half unnecessary. In that simple, unofficial and light-hearted idiom was encapsulated a whole raft of expectations and norms. It was expected that sometimes it would be unpleasant, thankless and dangerous. We all knew that, and quite frankly we knew we hadn’t chosen interior design or librarianship as a career.

We joined a disciplined, hierarchical force, where obedience without question was the norm, where pride in the uniform, the ethos of service and a readiness to take action when ‘normal’ people would gape or hide, were desirable and highly-prized characteristics.

I now fear this ethic has disappeared. The long tradition of heroics by our police on and off duty may be nearing its end; indeed what we have seen is not just that. It is a lack of fibre, an unwillingness amongst officers to dirty their hands. Despite their extensive ‘Personal Protective Equipment’ (vest, baton, handcuffs and CS gas) we have a new generation of Bobbies unwilling to get involved in physical confrontation unless they have overwhelming force of numbers, or a hi-tech cattle prod to threaten with. Some, less kind than me, might I am sure describe it in a different way – one which makes their awful modern yellow jackets very appropriate.

Another stark reminder of the new mindset in recent weeks came to me not on television but while I was working. Sitting with a few officers from my specialist investigation team, we were catching up on the case we had been called out to in a local police station. We had all been at work for around 16 hours; it was gone midnight and I knew I wouldn’t even be home for lunch. I eavesdropped in disbelief as a ‘veteran’ (read: 3 years service) Police Constable dictated to her newly-recruited colleague an email to their Sergeant. The content was essentially telling him that, as she had been working overtime until 1am, she would not be in for her 6am start but instead would be appearing at noon.

Intrigued, I asked and found that the practice now is that officers can insist on eleven hours between their shifts. “EU rules”, she added, with the confidence of someone who clearly knew her rights; a manner which I instantly recognised from my time on the beat. I tried in my mind to work out how the Sergeant, coming on duty at 6am to find he was an officer short, would cope. What if the whole team, or half of it even, were late off? Finding it insoluble, I was forced to conclude that I was applying the simple logic of the past to what has become a very different situation.

Is there any way back? Depressingly I don’t believe so. The last three Met Commissioners before Sir Paul Stephenson have all appeared as defendants in Health & Safety Act prosecutions. Whilst the Lords Stevens and Condon were acquitted, their case was in relation to how the organisation looked after its officers, and the decision to prosecute at all prompted a re-think of how we dealt with risk. There are now generic risk assessments and corporate risk assessments in place for every imaginable occurrence in day-to-day policing. Officers who are set to work with but a passing acquaintance with the Theft Act are instructed ad nauseam in conducting dynamic risk assessments for the unimaginable.

All an officer has to do is suggest that his/her dynamic assessment suggested danger, and no supervisor has the courage to challenge it, knowing full well anyway that eventually someone further up the chain would capitulate even if that courage were found. In most cases they do their own risk (to career) assessment, and the H&S Emperor continues his streak down the High Street. There are a few left who are willing to point out the nakedness, but sadly we greatly outnumber those who are listening.

Unless somebody grasps this, soon, and changes the culture, we must become accustomed to Police who are no more likely to act extraordinarily than is the lady on the checkout at the supermarket. And that is not a joke I can take.