The Icarus Paradox
Some observers view recent moves to merge forces, recruit Community Wardens, introduce high level direct entrants and create Police Commissioners as calculated challenges to the autonomy of the British Police Service. Indeed they are. Few things that are new under the sun, and challenges to police autonomy are not amongst them. These developments are recurrent rather than unique.
The 1960s and 1970s saw unprecedented changes to Force boundaries. Counties which had existed since Saxon times fell victim to the ravages of rationalisation. Although they are gone from the map they are alive in the collective memory. The 1960s saw the demise of the, Birkenhead Borough, Southport, St Helens and Bootle constabularies. They were supposed to have been amalgamated but they viewed themselves as taken over by Cheshire, Lancashire and Liverpool City. To add insult to injury changes in the 1970s saw Merseyside formed, swallowing all these borough forces along with bits of Lancashire and Cheshire. Retired St Helens Officers still meet to reminisce about what they regard as a golden age of policing, and they don’t mean their time in Merseyside. The citizens of Southport neither understand nor accept why they are policed by an organisation which has its headquarters in the City of Liverpool. The Wirral thinks it is in Cheshire and Runcorn wants to be in Merseyside, for reasons that are unclear. Still, it could be worse. The West Midlands and Greater Manchester are both too big to either manage or be managed.
The 1960s also saw Wardens recruited to take on duties previously attempted, not very well, by the Police, although at this time they were dedicated to traffic enforcement rather than community relations. This was the decade that saw the creation of the Special Course, an early, relatively gentle and quietly successful attempt to move elite graduates rapidly through the ranks. In the 1970s Sir Robert Mark was so concerned at the formation of an independent body to investigate evidence of misconduct that he resigned as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and advertised car tyres. If he were resurrected he may take a look at the IPCC and say ‘I told you so’ but there is no guarantee that this will happen. Neither Mark nor the police service were alone in their resistance to scrutiny. In the 1960s the Headmaster at Quarry Bank Grammar School in Allerton was the legendary W.E. (William Ernest) Pobjoy. He was and still is the most peaceful of men, loved by all his students, who included a truculent young John Lennon. Pobjoy had banned corporal punishment, well ahead of its time, and so it came as a great surprise to the Deputy Headmaster to find him wrestling on the floor of the school foyer with an unknown male. When the intruder had been ejected the Deputy asked Pobjoy what had happened. The Headmaster straightened his gown and explained that this was a man who had been sent to inspect his school. So, challenges to the autonomy of Police and other agencies are not new, but their intensity is. Why is this?
Some will say that they have been prompted by Police investigations into misconduct by politicians and the press, that they are driven by indignation and revenge, an unfortunate combination. Yet the obvious explanation is seldom a complete one. The issue may be one of a sense of a remote police service, created by autonomy and specialism, an unfortunate combination. Although the Police are seldom viewed as collaborative the last 40 or so years have seen them responding to a series of threats from terrorists, gangs, rioters, protesters and activists. These are groups that do not respect boundaries. Like feudal barons in times of invasion Chief Constables have overcome their traditional feuds and rivalries and have combated these challenges through mutual aid, joint operations, shared services and National and International units and teams. This has enabled them to create and control their own strategies and tactics, and they have become worryingly good at it.
These unheralded alliances have been aided by rapid advances in the capability and usage of technology. The police can now surreptitiously examine phone calls, texts, social networking sites, e mails, computers, DNA, biometrics, CCTV and number plates across the globe in ways which the press, the government, the Home Office, lawyers, reporters politicians, civil servants and indeed criminals and members of the public consider intrusive. These technical approaches to policing are undertaken by specialists, some of them Police Officers, some of them not. This causes problems. Specialists are not particularly in touch with the public, and they are not overly concerned with an ethos of service, any more than surgeons barristers and engineers or anyone else who thinks of themselves as ‘professional.’. The autonomy of the Police in terms of what they do and how they do it has steadily increased in ways which are beyond the scrutiny or control of Police Authorities, Judicial Enquiries, Parliamentary Commissions reporters and Newsnight. Hence the Government’s various yet unsuccessful attempts to curtail the Constabulary, with the backing of the press, the judiciary, the public and criminals. Yet, as the Greek myth of the Hydra demonstrates, removing some of the heads of a fearsome and resilient beast does not suffice.
In the 1960s the drift towards specialism was initially welcomed by both specialists and anxious senior police officers. Specialists promised that they could solve complex problems if they could only have a day job, senior police officers believed them. As budgets were not linked to developments in technology increases in spending spent on equipment and specialists led to decreases in spending on more generalist policing practises such as patrols, response and investigations. Specialism is a symptom of bureaucracy, and bureaucracy is notoriously difficult to stop. It is hard to oppose it without seeming oafish, or churlish, or both.
Chief Superintendent Johnny Carroll spotted it in the 1970s. Sadly his response was not as accomplished as his analysis. He was renowned for being quick, firm, decisive, though often wrong. This was in an era in which three out of four was considered quite good. He rose through the ranks to become what was then called a Divisional Commander. He was also put in charge of football matches at Everton, a task which had previously been undertaken very well by the legendary Sergeant Phil ‘The Buck’ Armstrong, who had prowled the perimeter of the pitch for many years. It took a Chief Superintendent to replace him. Carroll informed pretty much every meeting that he attended that if he had his way he would line up the entire force at the training school parade ground, divide them into three and assign them to uniform patrol duties on morning, afternoon and night shifts. This was a magnificently simple but flawed strategy, not least because it did not allow for days off. In a similar vein he bravely made his way to the front of the shield wall in Upper Parliament at the height of the Toxteth riots. Here he attempted to get the embattled Officers into 3 neat lines. (He seemed obsessed with threes.) This didn’t work either. Riots are passionate affairs in which etiquette is sometimes abandoned and the rank structure is not always respected. A tired and emotional constable eventually told him that he was “Neither use nor ornament” and asked him to go away, or words to that effect. Carroll disconsolately retired from the fray. He went on to attain a kind of fame for pushing the Everton midfielder Andy King and a TV reporter off the pitch after a derby game in which King had scored the winner. (Available on You Tube.) This was probably because he couldn’t divide them into three.
The Force also tried a two tier system in which generalists would hold the situation whilst specialists got themselves ready. This was never going to work. It was too complicated.
In the early 1980s the Operational Support Division, (OSD) a kind of interim arrangement between the notorious Commandos of the 1960s and the acclaimed Matrix of today were the first level response for firearms incidents, which were rare. This meant that they did some armed escorts and if a firearms incident occurred out of office hours they went to the armoury and drew revolvers and shotguns. They were then meant to secure the scene whilst the full time and highly specialised firearms unit got off the golf course or out of bed and raced to the scene to save the day. Relationships were strained, not least because the specialist firearms unit suspected that the OSD were often too impatient or incompetent to await their arrival, and went in themselves. They were not given to hanging about. One night a fatal shooting occurred outside a nightclub in the Liverpool City Centre. Neil Clarke, at this stage a sprog (recruit) but later a distinguished detective serrgeant and centre forward sent out a ‘Con requires.’(A call for instant assistance) OSD Officers raced to the scene and were told by the club owner, the notorious Tommy Stockley, that his nephew had committed the act and gone home to Bootle. They woke the specialist firearms unit, told them what had happened, collected an array of firearms and headed off to Bootle to secure the scene. The firearms unit assembled at headquarters, arrayed themselves with weapons, armour, Velcro and bright lamps and headed off after them. Up until this point they had never made it to a job before it was resolved and the Inspector’s voice quivered with excitement as he gave a running commentary on their progress. They pulled onto the forecourt of the Mons public house to check their equipment and comb their hair. The suspect’s Mother emerged into the garden and spotted the OSD, who hadn’t been trained in concealment and had forgotten to stand behind the hedge. She launched into hysterics and began to run around the garden. Cries of ‘Freeze! Armed police!’ caused her to run even faster, in diminishing circles, until she collapsed with some form of fit.. Various relatives emerged and raced to her aid, none of them were shot. It transpired that the nephew had gone to casualty, having been injured in the fight which had preceded the shooting. The OSD made their way towards the hospital in a personnel carrier driven by the legendary Ian Brown, whose ability as a thief taker was matched only by his lack of spatial awareness. They arrested the nephew, but not before crashing into a dog van. The van was dented. The Handler, who happened to have been a pupil at WE Pobjoy’s Quarry Bank Grammar School, went off on a sick pension, thus creating a rare vacancy in the dog section, an issue to which this article will return later. The dog was interviewed by the victim support team and said he felt rough. (sorry…)
It turned out that the nephew was innocent and Stockley was eventually acquitted. (This is another story, that won’t be getting told just yet.) The debrief was difficult. It would be nice to say that the OSD and Firearms went on to build up a relationship of trust and mutual regard that was not the case.
As the years passed the firearms unit increased in size and worked longer hours, and traffic officers in Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs) took on the first line of response, and many layers of Velcro... They were supplemented by bomb disposal teams, who also tried to take over from the officer in charge whenever they got to an incident in time. Desperate operational officers tried cunning questions like ‘How can you help me?’ This confused them at first but as time went by they generally steadied themselves, refused to answer and then took over anyway, so in retrospect it wasn’t really that cunning.
The unique and important things about a Police Officer are their rights to stop and search and arrest people. Patrols, on foot, cycle and the bewildering range of vehicles now available are and always have been of crucial importance. Being divided into three and made to walk or drive about is hard and demanding, even when there isn’t a riot going on. Shifts, even in their more recent revised and complex form, probably do more damage than we know. It is no wonder that officers seek specialist posts, but they should be subjected to regular rigorous scrutiny. This is an unpleasant and unwelcome process, and one which was tried in the 1990s. Three times. Johnny Carroll would have been pleased.
The first attempt came when HMIs decided that job tenure, an approach in which specialist posts are held for a set period rather than indefinitely was a ‘good thing, ’and should therefore be introduced. Merseyside’s Chief Constable was Sir James Sharples. He hinted that as even the HMIs who had initiated the process didn’t seem to clear about what it was that perhaps ‘some sort of review’ of Officers in cherished posts would suffice. He was instead presented with the radical proposal that the time spent in a cherished post should be limited to a period set by a the amount of training it had taken to prepare the officer for the post. Once this expired the holders should return to the hurly burly of uniform operations. They would be able to share their knowledge and experience with their younger colleagues and indeed the public. This was cautiously agreed for a number of specialist posts in small units. At one station two officers had worked for a long time in more or less the same role, dealing with juvenile offenders. One said that she was willing to return to uniform patrol but she would need some training. This was initially viewed as a delaying tactic, as no one had ever demanded a period of preparation before they moved to a specialist post. To her eternal credit she rolled up her sleeves, got some mentoring and marched off to her beat. She subsequently became the Lady Mayoress of the town to which she was posted. The officer other became very ill and died not long after. We will never know whether this would have happened anyway.
The Dog and Mounted Sections got extended tenures due to the large amount of training that their specialist roles required. They then put forward the desperate but ingenious suggestion that the amount of time that the animal that they rode or led had been in post should also be considered, arguing that it would be cruel and wasteful to pass the creature to a new owner for a short while. This led to allegations that Officers were pushing around deceased animals on wheels. They were almost totally unfounded, not least because the stuffed horsed proved unwieldy. The stories about police dogs pushing stuffed dog handlers around are almost certainly apocryphal.
Tenure for the CID was rejected altogether, partly because they were seen as crucial to the performance of the force and largely because they had no wish to return to uniform at all. Ever. The CID hierarchy under the astute leadership of ray walker had taken ‘the pick of the bunch’ for many years. They were happy with what they had, claimed that inefficient officers were regularly removed, and produced some compelling statistics to support their arguments. However under cold scrutiny these cases were worrying rather than reassuring. Detectives were indeed regularly removed from the CID, but this was seldom because the staff appraisal system revealed that they had failed to maintain high levels of performance. It was more often because they had been involved in spectacular situations related to drink, women and property. (There was an oft quoted saying, ‘drink and women will get you the sack, property will get you locked up. It was true.) When these scandals occurred the bosses were tough, and detectives involved were sometimes charged, or disciplined, or they retired due to ill health. The remainder were sent to either foot patrol or to drive a patrol car on shifts, ( ‘binned’) often in a ‘swap’ in which a capable patrol officer finally made it to the CID. This meant that the public lost the service of an experienced and knowledgeable officer who was replaced by either an inexperienced probationer or a disgruntled veteran. Having successfully escaped tenure the CID, Firearms and Traffic were subjected to…some sort of review. Sir James was right. Again.
There followed two more attempts. In the 1990s Senior Officers began to worry realise that the balance between generalist and specialist officers had tilted too far. Sir James ordered a review of Headquarters which would return officers to the front line. A couple of days later the he walked into his suite and found his staff officer, Martin Hill, being interrogating about why the place was chocker. (full.) Sir James established what was going on and politely explained that this was not quite what he had in mind, and that the reductions were to be found elsewhere. Elsewhere was the rest of HQ. The staff were committed to their work and very good at what they did, but offices were overstaffed, and often duplicating work undertaken on Division or by other units. There followed a traumatic few weeks during which staff were told that their departments were being merged or discarded and that they were returning to shift work. It was rumoured that there were scratch marks on the lino where previously well ensconced officers were dragged from the building. Jimmy Elliot had just spent a year or so centralising call handling centres. Now they were decentralised. This removed hundreds of staff and millions of pounds from the headquarters budget. Sir James was pleased. Jimmy went to live in Florida.
As you might expect most of those earmarked for eviction either never left Headquarters or oozed back, like water splashed out of a puddle. Another review took place, the third attempt. This time the budgets of the departments involved were reduced so that they could not refill the posts. This proved more effective and longer lasting, although I am sure that many veterans managed to sneak back in until the recent rounds of austerity cuts.
This is an issue that has lasted for a very long time, from the early days of the Liverpool City Police to the present. It won’t go away, it can only be managed. So, how should the job handle the need for specialist roles? To have a ‘day job’ as a police officer is to get a very good wage for doing what a support officer or a retired police officer would willingly do for less. The opposition to retired Police Officers taking second jobs is formidable, it even exists in the IPCC, for whom they have been a godsend. Strategies based on jealousy are seldom helpful. Retired Officers on short term contracts, working in tough performance regimes, are a bargain, and those who cannot hack it can easily be identified and again retired. There is no sense in throwing away their experience and capability, when they can free up officers for operational work.
Specialists should be few and they should be rotated, so that they share their learning and their colleagues develop their skills. The fable of Icarus tells of an Ancient Greek who flew too well, too high, so that the wax on his wings melted, and he fell to his death. No one can last forever. That which raises them up will, if left unchecked, bring them down.
Assistant Chief Constable
Merseyside Police (Retired)