A few weeks ago I attended a Swindon police reunion, which coincided with the news that Wiltshire Police was being placed in “special measures” by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS). Gathered in the room we represented hundreds of years of policing across a broad range of disciplines, including general policing, neighbourhood policing, CID, roads policing and at least one dog handler. As you might imagine, there was considerable consternation regarding this alarming development.
It has to be said that policing has changed dramatically since many of us first put on that serge uniform and started to pound the beat. The demands placed on the police have changed beyond recognition with hi-tech cyber crime, the pervasive threat from international terrorism and the menace from organised crime groups. Whilst policing has become increasingly complex, this does not explain this decline in local service delivery.
The HMICFRS report paints a bleak picture, which is summarised in the following terms, “I have concerns about the performance of Wiltshire Police in keeping people safe and reducing crime. In particular, I have serious concerns about how the force responds to the public, protects vulnerable people and makes use of its resources.”
Rather than there being a single critical factor that has brought us to this position, there will be many issues that taken together have resulted in this outcome. In the following paragraphs I outline a few personal thoughts based on my experience of policing.
I will start with the inspection regime, which is described as now taking a more “intelligence led approach”. It should be noted that going back to at least 2015, Wiltshire Police was consistently assessed as being “Good”. I very much doubt that the deficiencies that have now been identified have appeared from nowhere. The descent into “special measures” is therefore perplexing and must question the efficacy of previous HMICFRS assessments and resultant action plans.
This is no attempt on my part to deflect attention away from Wiltshire Police. I have no problem with them being held up to scrutiny when it comes to quality of service and value for money, but there has to be a limit when it comes to managing expectations. In providing additional context, Wiltshire Police has the fourth lowest government grant in the country, which undoubtedly has had an impact on local service delivery.
Managing tight budgets is nothing new and in my time there was a continual requirement to find cashable efficiency savings. As part of this effort, Wiltshire Constabulary was at the forefront of civilianisation when it came to making certain that police officers did not take on administrative roles, which added to the difficulty in achieving year on year savings. Ultimately the debate came down to talking about officer numbers, which inevitably impacted on operational policing.
Then more recently came successive years of austerity and as a consequence a reduction in the numbers of police officers across the country. If you need further evidence regarding the impact of austerity, then understand that Wiltshire Police are currently returning to officer numbers from ten years ago and the following extract from the HMICFRS report struck a real chord with me:
“Wiltshire’s workforce profile reflects the relative lack of experience seen in many forces across England and Wales, with a high proportion of new officers recruited as part of the national Uplift programme. Eighty percent of officers in community policing teams, for example, have less than six years’ service, and half are student officers with fewer than two years’ service. Our inspection activity found that student officers are often being mentored and supported by inexperienced colleagues.”
Now factor in that over the best part of three years there has been no face to face training as all instruction for new recruits had to be delivered remotely during the pandemic. It should therefore not come as any surprise when faced with these challenges that there has been a decline in performance. Ministers and others might point nationally to an additional 20,000 officers, however the benefits that they bring will not be realised for many years to come. Regrettably, we cannot give them a boxful of experience when they are appointed as Constables.
Another aspect of the report that deeply saddened me as a former Head of Wiltshire CID was the assessment of performance when it comes to investigating crime. The Inspectorate identified issues regarding the recording of crime, missed investigative opportunities, crimes not allocated to suitably qualified and experienced investigators, poorly planned investigations and the quality of investigations not properly managed. With this litany of inadequacies, it is hardly surprising that many victims of crime are poorly served.
In my view the start of the decline in investigative capacity and capability can be traced back at least twenty years with the inception of the tenure policy, which limited how long any officer could serve in CID before being returned to uniform duties. Advocates of this policy pointed to the cross fertilisation of investigative skills between CID and uniform policing, which in theory had attractions. Conversely, it thoroughly demoralised many detectives and undermined their professional development. Years later we are now at a point when the Inspectorate questions the local capacity to investigate serious crime.
One aspect of performance not commented upon within the report is the current detection rate for the different categories of crime. My perception is that in recent years there has been a move away from hard targets regarding clearing up crime to a softer approach that is more victim focussed. All very laudable but then consider that I understand that less than one in ten domestic burglaries are currently being detected. I hope that I am misinformed because in my time the Swindon Burglary Team achieved a detection rate that hovered between 42% and 50%.
My point here is that detection rates matter because a huge deterrent when it comes to committing crime is the probability of being caught. There needs to be far greater visibility regarding this aspect of performance when it comes to reducing crime and managing the repeat offenders who commit a disproportionate number of crimes.
A question that then needs to be addressed is does this situation represent the failure of leadership and in particular, accountability. Currently as a resident of Devizes, my local policing team comes under the management of a solitary Inspector, who also looks after Warminster and Marlborough. Back in the day, this area came under the management of a Chief Inspector and three Inspectors. They were supported in managing crime by local CID officers, who made it their business to return healthy detection rates. If there was an issue with performance, it was these officers who felt the heat. This exemplifies how structural change, declining officer numbers and removing the availability of local detectives have together impacted on service delivery and performance.
Then consider the Chief Officer team and here I feel duty bound to reveal that I previously worked with many of them. In my experience they are good people, who have reaped a bitter harvest from being historically underfunded and moving goal posts when it comes to the assessment of performance. They have had to manage the impact of the Salisbury ‘Novichok’ attack and then the pandemic. I anticipate that the Chief Constable and his team might feel that they are under siege.
In my opinion, one of the most essential responsibilities of leaders is to sustain an environment that enables your people to succeed, a requirement that is shared with the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). In a television interview I heard him state that for the time being the Chief Constable enjoys his confidence. Unfortunately, this was reminiscent of the vote of confidence from the Chairman of a football club before the manager is sacked. I sincerely hope that it does not come to this as there are no quick fixes here and it will take time for remedial action to have any positive impact. The Chief Officer team and PCC both have vital roles to play in working together for the benefit of local communities.
Along the way some difficult decisions will have to be made when it comes to managing finite resources and maintaining appropriate standards of service delivery. Would you rather there is a focus on supporting the victims of domestic violence or chasing those engaged in hare coursing across the Wiltshire Downs? Should we prioritise combatting speeding in our villages or detecting domestic burglaries? In essence, policing cannot be broken down to a montage of populist sound bites. In managing expectations, there needs to be greater clarity when it comes to defining and pursuing the achievement of local policing priorities.
My thoughts are very much with the hard working officers and support staff within Wiltshire Police, who will no doubt feel disheartened by this report. I heard a Police Federation representative on the television complain about a service that is underfunded, set unachievable targets and then beaten up when it fails. Apparently some officers and their families are only able to survive with the assistance of Universal Credit and sadly the same applies to nurses and other key workers. After years of pay freezes, the pay and conditions of many public sector workers are very much in need of review. Unless this is addressed, retention and achieving a return in the investment in training will become an issue.
In closing, I recently spent an afternoon giving feedback to a group of men and women grappling with some leadership exercises. They were participating in the first week long supervisors’ training course to be run for a long time at Wiltshire Police HQ; for comparative purposes, as a newly promoted Sergeant I spent two weeks on a residential training course at a regional training school in Exeter. In talking with these individuals, I was impressed by their commitment to serving the people of Wiltshire. Turning performance around will inevitably be an arduous journey, however they instilled me with hope for the future.