Professionalism in policing: Minding the gaps

In her latest blog, British Transport Police Chief Constable Lucy D’Orsi expresses her anger that serving officer David Carrick was free to carry out a campaign of abuse against women for so long without ‘alarm bells being heard’.

Jan 19, 2023
Chief Constable Lucy D’Orsi

This week, I am angry. Angry as another high-profile case of a police officer abusing his position to hurt women in such a calculated way, darkens the news. I won’t repeat the sentiments of my colleagues. David Carrick was a criminal with a warrant card. But it’s easy to say he wasn’t one of us. He was. And that’s why it feels so shameful that he was free to abuse women for so long without the alarm bells being heard. At times like this, I find myself awake at night wondering how we can strengthen our approach, stopping the likes of PC Carrick from the very moment an allegation is made.

Today – just as the day I joined – I’m humbled by the passion, bravery and dedication that flows through this unique profession. But it can be tempting to believe that those who choose a career in policing are inherently altruistic, but the reality is that officers and staff are shaped by the society we all live in. That’s why vetting and constant vigilance will always be required of us, and complacency and the ‘benefit of doubt’ must be confined to our history. Policing, at its finest, reflects the very best of society and works with the tacit consent of the communities we serve.

A big part of this conversation is culture. If people believe that a behaviour is tolerated, an individual protected or victim or witness marginalised, it will continue to exist. It is no coincidence that these officers are in some way ‘known’ in the organisation. In British Transport Police (BTP) we re-routed on this journey after the murder of Sarah Everard. And as I prepare for my 11th accelerated misconduct hearing, I can feel the shift in how seriously we take professional standards, but it’s something we have to work at every day. From creating an internal environment where people can speak up confidentially, to swift and credible action and transparency throughout our decisions. It’s how we earn the trust of our people and in return they share concerns that would otherwise never have been spoken, or heard.

Since joining BTP, I’m encouraged that internal reporting of wrongdoing has increa­sed by 63 per cent, yet I know that sadly there is still more to be heard. Many are historical cases that colleagues felt they couldn’t challenge at the time. But when an organisation commits to supporting victims, the tide turns and our relentless pursuit in building a modern and inclusive workplace which has no place for wrongdoing is proof of that. The courage shown by our colleagues helps us greatly, as more and more are supported through strong allyship.

For those who do come to our attention, the difference between a silly mistake and predatory, discriminatory or abusive behaviour is actually pretty obvious. We are a force that provides the space to learn, where it is appropriate to. In fact, 12 per cent of our cases are resolved through reflective practice – the highest of any UK police force and against a national average of three per cent. When used in the right cases and with common sense, it inspires meaningful development and cultural change. Equally, there are plenty of cases that require a formal sanction – or even dismissal. You can’t learn not to be a sex offender or domestic abuser, not on my watch anyway – we simply don’t want you in the job. And we will take swift action to see to that.

But what about the criminal matters that come to the attention of police, but somehow don’t always result in quick-time action? That’s a little more complex – but high time we sorted it out.

If I was to commit a crime, get arrested and give my details, there is no obvious system check that would flag that I’m a police officer if I didn’t choose to tell them. Yes, you read that correctly. On arrest, my DNA and prints would be taken and checked against national forensics databases. Even though I’ve provided my biometric samples to the police (my employer), the datasets are not run together to identify a match. As it stands today, I could be arrested by the police and nobody but me would know I am the police. In my view this is a priority issue for our attention. Otherwise, others could fall through the cracks and go on to do harm.

So what’s the solution?

Bold leadership, better intelligence and information sharing, tighter regulations and conditions, and prompt action. It’s about time we understood and closed the gaps. It’s what the public expect, and I don’t think we need to await a review to tell us that. Whether that means reviewing the remit of biometric data or police workers have an appropriately defined presence on the Police National Database (PND), the point is if any of us come to police attention the right people must be alerted immediately. The Home Secretary’s announcement that all forces will conduct their own PND checks is to be applauded – but we can also take it further. Those checks are only as good as the day and time they are undertaken. We need this to be immediately picked up at the point of arrest. It gives us a better chance of taking swift action, protecting the public and restoring confidence.

Then it’s how we piece everything together for a consolidated view. If a career in policing is like a tunnel, we should be able to walk in from the past and out towards the present, passing every event like an obstacle adorning the walls: every commendation, appraisal, letter of thanks, period of sickness. We should also be able to see every complaint, every grievance outcome, performance sanction or moment of reflective practice. And if we pause and look back, what is it that obscures the light? Patterns of complaints over the course of a career can indicate a more serious underlying issue and, in a similar way to trauma, we don’t see the impact over time clearly or quickly enough.

We must also take a hard look as to whether our misconduct processes and systems deliver the results we need them to and what, if anything, needs to change. So, for example, if an officer who is investigated for a serious sexual offence is not proceeded with criminally, the matter is then considered from a misconduct perspective. Misconduct proceedings exist for a different purpose than criminal proceedings namely to secure public confidence and there is a lesser burden of proof. However, the misconduct regime does not come with the same investigatory powers as criminal proceedings such as seizing personal digital media, searching a property or persons, obtaining comms data checks and being able to use surveillance tactics in the same way etc… I believe we need to start a debate on regulatory reform.

Finally, we need to stand up for what we believe in if it’s in the public interest. During the pandemic, one of my PCs harassed a lone female jogger for her phone number and told her she was “too curvy to be Asian”. Inexplicably he was given a final written warning by an independent panel and allowed to keep his job. For me this is totally unacceptable. I can’t have someone who I believe poses a threat to women, working for the BTP. So, we are taking the panel to a Judicial Review. We can’t hide behind the decisions of others, if we don’t agree we must stand up and make that clear. After all, we are here first and foremost to protect the public.

As I publish this blog, I will be finalising a letter to my Secretary of State (for Transport, copied to the Home Secretary) to offer some of these suggestions, along with other specifics, to assist us to adapt as a police service – so the missed opportunities around the corner are not missed. I believe the workforce would support this, because nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop. There are so many angry good cops right now who care more about keeping people safe than you would ever believe. So, if through the anger stirred up this week, we can make some procedural change and close the gaps, then let’s all get behind it.

Policing is defined by the character of our people. That is the truth I want us to embrace. I firmly believe that policing can re-earn the trust of those we are here to protect, but it will take the courage and concerted effort of us all.

We can do it and we must do it, quickly…

Reproduced courtesy of British Transport Police

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