Public confidence in the police 'hangs by a thread', warns chief inspector

The police service is at a historic turning point – and there is a limited window of opportunity to repair public trust, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary has warned.

Jun 9, 2023
By Paul Jacques

In his first annual assessment of policing in England and Wales, Andy Cooke said public confidence in the police “hangs by a thread” and the foundations of the Peelian principles have been shaken.

He has called for major reform, including new powers for the inspectors of constabulary. These include giving the chief inspector of constabulary power to give direction to a police force when there are significant concerns about public safety.

The chief inspector described widespread systemic failings in both the police and criminal justice system, both of which threaten to damage public trust in police. He has called for definitive action to be taken to address these failings, instead of “glossy strategies and mission statements” that do not bring about lasting change.

In the State of Policing 2022, Mr Cooke said the police need to prioritise the issues that matter most to the public. Forces are failing to get the basics right in investigation and responding to the public, and they need to concentrate on effective neighbourhood policing, said Mr Cooke.

He also said that “critical elements” of the police service’s leadership and workforce arrangements need substantial reform, such as more scrutiny on vetting and recruitment processes, including for chief officers.

The report makes three recommendations to the Government and chief constables, which include:

  • Reviewing legislation to make HMICFRS’s remit of inspection clearer and clarifying its power to inspect policing functions delivered by police and crime commissioners;
  • Re-establishing the role of the inspectors of constabulary in selecting and appointing police chief officers; and
  • New research into the deterrent value of stop and search and the causes of disproportionality in its use.

Mr Cooke said: “I was a police officer for 36 years before I took this job. I am in no doubt of the dedication, bravery and commitment of the vast majority of police officers and staff. “But there are clear and systemic failings throughout the police service in England and Wales and, thanks to a series of dreadful scandals, public trust in the police is hanging by a thread.

“I am calling for substantial reform to give the inspectors of constabulary more power to ensure we are able to do everything necessary to help police forces improve.

“Over the years, we have repeatedly called for change. There are only so many times we can say the same thing in different words – it is now time for the Government to bring in new legislation to strengthen our recommendations.

“Change needs to start at the top. Chief constables and police and crime commissioners need to do more to make sure their forces are efficient and to get a grip on their priorities. The police are not there to be the first port of call for people in mental health crisis or to uphold social justice. They are there to uphold the law.

“Forces need to show professionalism, get the basics right when it comes to investigating crime, and respond properly when someone dials 999. This is what matters most to the communities they serve and this is the way forward for the police to regain the public’s trust.

“The fundamental principle of policing by consent, upon which our police service is built, is at risk – and it is past time to act.”

Mr Cooke said the perceived legitimacy of the police is central to the public’s willingness to cooperate with them and abide by the law. This drop in trust and confidence can make it harder for decent and honest police officers and staff, who comprise the vast majority of the service, to do their jobs.

“These conditions make it less attractive for people to stay in the service, let alone join it in the first place. Understandably, a substantial proportion of police officers don’t believe they are respected by the public,” Mr Cooke said.

He said there were some “obvious and truly atrocious reasons” for the decline in public trust and confidence.

“In 2021, a serving police officer abducted, raped and murdered Sarah Everard. In 2022, another serving police officer admitted to carrying out 85 sexual offences, including a shocking number of rapes. Staggeringly, in both cases, warning signs over several years were missed, and the officers managed to keep their jobs as police constables until they were finally brought to justice,” said Mr Cooke.

“The police service is a complex system operating within an even more complex criminal justice system, and there are widespread systemic failings in both. Some of these account for the present state of policing.”

In broad terms, Mr Cooke said these are:

  • The police are not always focusing on the issues that matter most to the public, and charge rates are far too low;
  • The police and the wider criminal justice system are not getting the basics right, as shown through the withdrawal from neighbourhood policing; and
  • Some critical elements of the police’s leadership and workforce arrangements need substantial reform.

“But the service isn’t broken beyond repair,” said Mr Cooke. “Undeniably, these failings will be extremely challenging to resolve. But they won’t be fixed solely by issuing glossy strategies, mission statements, visions, concordats or the like. They will be fixed through action.

“The police need to focus on doing what matters most to benefit the communities they serve; these actions need to be highly visible. Not only do they need to show that they are committed to taking action today, tomorrow and next week but also that they will act in the long term too.”

Mr Cooke acknowledged that the police are facing rising demand from the public and, quite simply, “they aren’t keeping up”.

“At best, people can be left dissatisfied; at worst, people can be left at risk,” he said. “To a great extent, I empathise with the police; they have to contend with many factors beyond their control.

“They are operating with limited resources and are working within a criminal justice system that is increasingly strained and inefficient.

“However, these factors, even when combined, don’t sufficiently account for the marked decline in public confidence and satisfaction in policing; there are other powerful factors at play.

“The police should better target their resources, such as officers, staff and technology, at the issues that matter most to the public. Although some forces are better at this than others, a system-wide improvement is needed.

“And there needs to be greater clarity over what the police’s role in society is. For too long, they have strayed into doing the work of other services and not just at times of crisis when immediate intervention is needed.”

Mr Cooke said there have been many major turning points in the history of the police.

“We are living through one of them now,” he said. “Public confidence hangs by a thread and the foundations of the Peelian principles have been shaken.

“Yet policing isn’t broken beyond repair. For the most part, it is a service full of dedicated officers, staff and volunteers who are committed to serving the public. Not only do these people show great determination and courage, but they also make sacrifices – professional and otherwise – to protect the public, deter crime and make communities safer. This must never be forgotten.

“But it can’t be ignored that policing has a limited window of opportunity in which to act. It needs to reset its compass and do so quickly; the police can and must do better. They must focus on the issues that matter most to communities, get the basics right and reform many aspects of their leadership and workforce.

“The future of policing hinges on how well its leaders face up to tackling these challenges. Leaders must set high standards, have clear objectives and relentlessly act to achieve them. Relentless action can’t be overstated.

“We frequently see strategy documents that lay out how individual forces or the service as a whole intends to change over the course of a few years. Unfortunately, less frequently do we see real change. On too many occasions, we see things get worse.”

Mr Cooke said although the police service has “much work to do”, it cannot alone solve all the problems it faces.

“It can’t fix a dysfunctional and defective criminal justice system,” he said. “It can’t give itself the right level of resources, and it can’t influence many of the demands it faces, particularly those caused by the failure of other public sector organisations to deal with their own demand.

“Tackling these challenges requires the commitment and support of the Government to build solutions at both national level and across organisational boundaries.”

Mr Cooke concluded: “Effectively holding the police to account has never been more essential.

The inspectorate receives funding of only approximately £25 million a year: a tiny fraction of the approximate £17 billion that was spent on policing this financial year. Despite this, we contribute an enormous amount to keeping communities safe. More than ever, there is a compelling case to give HM Inspectors the tools they need to do this effectively.

“When forces don’t act as they should, or don’t act quickly enough, they must be held accountable. In some limited circumstances, they should be given an outright direction to rectify failures.

“I, therefore, urge the Home Secretary to seriously consider placing before Parliament draft legislation that gives HM Inspectors the powers they need to help make the police service fit for the challenges it faces.”

National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) chair, Chief Constable Gavin Stephens, said the latest State of Policing report once again highlights the range of challenges in meeting the needs of communities across the UK, and the dedication of officers, staff and volunteers to serve the public across the nations.

“However, it also notes policing must continue to do more to earn back the trust and confidence of the public, which we know has been eroded over recent years,” he said. “To do so we remain focused on preventing crime and disorder, listening to communities concerns so that we can focus on the issues that matter most to them, and providing consistently high quality services in responding to emergencies, investigating crime and keeping people safe.

“We are also very determined to ensure the highest standards of professional behaviour, acting in the public interest to maintain the vital support of communities so we can police by consent.

“I am committed to ensuring that the NPCC works alongside our partners, to secure the right level of investment in policing and bring about meaningful change.

“The report also rightly recognises the pressure on the criminal justice system and mental health services and the serious impact this has for society in accessing the justice and care.

“Alongside our partners, we will look closely at His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary’s report, and consult more widely on the views and recommendations that have been set out in relation to policing.”

Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) chair Marc Jones said: “This report rightly recognises some of the key challenges that all policing leaders face in repairing trust with the public. Confidence is fundamental to our policing system and something that police and crime commissioners (PCCs) are working to address as a priority.

“We welcome the support that His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) gives to PCCs as part of their critical role in holding chief constables to account and will look in detail at the report and its recommendations.

“Unlike the police, elected PCCs are the public’s voice and are, indeed, accountable to the public for our work and for the services we provide, including around victims and witness services. We remain committed to ensuring the police are answerable to the communities they serve.

“The law is clear and unambiguous that PCCs are responsible for appointing the chief constable. The PCC powers in this area were examined and reconfirmed as part of the recent PCC review. Work continues with our partners to ensure the appointment process; pay and reward; and leadership development continue to attract and develop a strong and diverse pipeline of chief officer talent.”

The Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) says officers must have access to right resources to salvage policing and the police service.

PFEW national chair Steve Hartshorn said: “At the outset, I would like to thank Andy Cooke for the timely and realistic assessment of policing in England and Wales.

“Policing and the police service are indeed at a historic turning point, and HMICFRS is right when it says that ‘there is a limited window of opportunity to repair public trust’.

“There is no doubt that police officers want to provide the service the public deserve, and they go to great lengths in protecting the communities they serve, even putting their lives on the line of duty.

“This cannot be achieved without the Government and chief officers ensuring officers have access to the right resources. Our forces are struggling due to paucity of funds and the HMICFRS rightly identifies that ‘an abrupt, stop-start approach to police funding isn’t in the public interest’.

“We have said time and time and again that to address the systemic failings of our police service, change needs to start at the top. Police chiefs must lead by example and change the way we recruit and train officers.

“We recognise the HMICFRS recommends re-establishing involvement of the inspectors of constabulary in the selection and appointment of police chiefs. While police officer recruitment routes are being revised, it is only right the HMICFRS assists the Home Office in the crucial task of selecting and appointing leaders of the police forces.”

Police Superintendents’ Association president Paul Fotheringham: “This is an important, informed report from a chief inspector who has years of experience in policing, and is independent of both government and other police leaders.

“Consultation has been key to its development, and I was pleased to be invited to inform the final report, contributing feedback and insight on behalf of our members.

“I agree with the majority of the observations made, many of which relate to areas on which our association has focused for some time. Our members are the senior officers leading work linked to every one of these issues, whilst also being personally affected by the challenges of delivering policing.

Mr Fotheringham added: “Whilst the report rightly applauds the dedication and professionalism of the vast majority of the police workforce, it is also a summary of widespread, deep-rooted factors that are each having damaging impacts on the ability of policing to do what the public wants and expects.

“Each of these has been apparent for some time, in some cases for years, yet we continue to assess and strategise without seeing real change.

“We heard of a commitment to a Royal Commission into the criminal justice system four years ago and a review of the outdated police funding system eight years ago, for example. Neither have happened, yet this goes widely unchallenged.

“It is encouraging to see examples throughout the report of the brilliant work underway across policing to address some of the issues described, but we remain a service working without truly unified action, meaning that the benefits of this excellence take too long to be widely seen and felt by our communities. I hope that the report results in considered responses from government, the NPCC and the APCC about the matters raised, and that it can instigate renewed commitments from those with the power to address the many problems we face.”

Mr Fotheringham said he was pleased to see attention on the severe wellbeing crisis “we know is present across our service, with our own concerning survey results being referenced”.

“The challenges we read about here will each have an impact on the wellbeing of our people, and we have a responsibility to support them,” he said.

“The report references the increase in people leaving our service, alongside the critical need for strong supervision and leadership – we need to be clear that with a hugely inexperienced workforce ahead of us – creating a culture of support, learning and recognition is vital in protecting the workforce mix of experience and fresh thinking that we need.”

In response to the State of Policing report, Pavan Dhaliwal, chief executive of the charity Revolving Doors, commented: “The inspectorate’s findings expose a crisis of accountability and the Government must act on the recommendations.

“Reports of systemic failings and institutional discrimination within police forces have become all too familiar. As the inspectorate warns of a collapsing policing system, a wider dysfunctional criminal justice system, and dwindling time to restore public trust, it is clear that we cannot afford to perpetuate the status quo any longer.

“What we need now to rebuild the institution entrusted with our protection is decisive action, unwavering integrity, and political will. This process must include the voices of those who have been at the sharpest end of police failings and know best what meaningful change entails – those who are stuck in the revolving door of crisis and crime.

“We ultimately deserve nothing less than radical reform.”

The NPCC says “significant amounts of work” are being done to ensure vetting is as thorough and regular as it can be. Alongside developments such as a Code of Practice, every police officer and member of police staff will be put through the police national database.

“High standards are imperative and change is needed, vetting is one part of a huge system and must continue to drive policing standards higher,” it added.

“Policing is committed to ensuring that only those individuals with the highest levels of behaviour and integrity enter the service.”

Last month, police chiefs issued the first ever national threat assessment of crimes posing the most danger to women and girls.

The NPCC said it is “a key step” in the police response to violence against women and girls (VAWG) and will guide forces as they relentlessly pursue abusers and deliver justice and support for victims.

The VAWG Strategic Threat and Risk Assessment (STRA) aims to support police forces to better understand the influences and levers that contribute to VAWG.

Forces will use the STRA to “effectively target their finite resources” and decide how many officers will be needed to tackle the rising rates of violent and sexual crimes faced by women, said the NPCC.

Operation Soteria Bluestone, a national Home Office-funded research and change programme, led by the NPCC and hosted by the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime, is a collaborative programme bringing together police forces with academics and policy leads to use evidence and new insight to enable forces to transform their response to rape and serious sexual offences.

Findings from the first year of the policing aspects of Operation Soteria were publish by the Home Office at the end of 2022.

In January, the CPS published Q2 performance data covering the three-month period from July 1, to September 30, 2022, which show a continued increase in people charged with rape.

“Police receive millions of emergency calls each year and the types of crime and incidents being reported are increasingly complex. These can include non-crime incidents such as significant mental health crises and vulnerabilities, which has a significant impact on our available resources,” said the NPCC.

It added: “A national approach to Right Care Right Person (RCRP) will reduce the number of deployments in respect of specific types of calls relating to mental health and concern for welfare, and help police staff in control rooms focus, from the outset, on getting the right person and agency, with the right skills, training, and experience to respond to the incident.

“We will work closely with key partners to ensure the right support and safeguarding measures are in place for people in the community through the National Partnership Agreement.”

The NPCC was asked by the Home Secretary to lead a review into the operational productivity of policing.

Evaluation by the Policing Productivity Review has shown that more than 443,000 officer hours could be better used through a reduction in duplication, simplifying the process for cancelling crime reports when they are not substantiated.

These equate to the equivalent of attendance at 220,000 domestic abuse incidents, 270,000 burglaries, or almost 740,000 anti-social behaviour incidents.

“This work will ensure that officers can be more productive and spend more time on local priorities and activity that will give victims the service they deserve,” said the NPCC.

“Police officers must be totally focused on keeping people safe and ensuring they feel safe. We want to provide the best possible policing to the public and the work of the Police Productivity Review is aimed at removing barriers and improving effectiveness.”

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