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Peter Walker: The police need leadership - and to get back to basics

Screen shot 2012-12-24 at 12.46.23Peter Walker is a former deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire police.

Last weekend's newspapers will have made uncomfortable reading for anyone who has a connection with the police.  Seldom has coverage of policing been so consistent in its condemnation of an institution at the heart of our public services.  It is very difficult to relate the present circumstances to the oft-repeated mantra "the finest police force in the world".

The Hillsborough cover up; the ignoring of the plight of young girls forced to work as prostitutes in Rochdale and now Plebgate are just three cases in a list that is becoming depressingly long.  The reputational damage to this country's police is enormous.

Yet in the background, away from the clamour, are tens of thousands of men and women who quietly go about their business on behalf of their communities.  I recently had an exchange of messages on Twitter with a dog handler who had been in Machynlleth, for the past fortnight, with other officers from all over the country, searching through difficult terrain and in appalling weather for poor April Jones.

His determination to secure closure for her family is in sharp contrast to the motives of those who falsify records, ignore the obvious, or drive a political agenda for their own selfish purposes.

If anyone had doubts about the case for reform in the police service, they must recognise now the evidence is clear.  Interestingly, radio and television channels have carried many interviews from politicians who had tried to make the case whilst in office, but were overwhelmed by the ability of the police to carry public sympathy.  That even a BBC "Any Questions" audience this week expressed their doubts about trusting the police, shows just how much opinion has changed.

Because the police have always fought to maintain the status quo in such a manner, I wrote some months ago that Theresa May would have to remain firm to withstand the onslaught that would meet her reform proposals.

Despite all that has been thrown at her, she has done just that and the first of her reforms are now in place.  Yet she now has to deal with the obvious failures of leadership within the police that have allowed the present lack of faith in the service to develop.

Perhaps the answer lies in just one word: leadership.  During the latter part of the 1990s, it became fashionable for the training of police sergeants and senior officers to focus on "management", as though the police was some large commercial organisation.  National police training in general and the Police Staff College at Bramshill, in particular, drifted away from providing operationally relevant courses and, where operations were covered, they had far less practical input.

A good example is public order training.  Commanders used to attend courses where the operational imperatives were drawn from the Broadwater Farm riot in the mid nineteen-eighties.  The overwhelming lesson was "take the ground early". That training changed.  The result was seen in last year's riots, where lack of police on the street at an early stage let the rioters gain the upper hand - at a cost of billions of pounds to communities up and down the land.

Yet it is not just at senior level where leadership is lacking.  Just as in the military, standards for the front line staff should be set and maintained by sergeants, but their training and the amount of contact they have with their staff do not permit them to undertake this vital function.  Most sergeants I speak to regard their role as being "senior PC's", whose tasks do not require or enable them to mould and motivate a team spirit.

One of the developments the Home Secretary has enabled is that of a Policing College, to radically overhaul the manner in which police officers are trained at all levels.  It is absolutely imperative that this new body moves away from the theoretical, "management" focused approach, particularly for sergeants and the ranks above.  The emphasis must shift to one that is based on clear standards and a practical application of training for the challenging work they and their officers undertake.

Leadership should be the underpinning quality for those who aspire to be responsible for the actions of others and an absolute requirement for anyone who wants to reach the highest ranks of the police force. My dog handler friend, those who carry out such an unenviable task with him and thousands of other brave and selfless police officers deserve nothing less.


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