Police Misconduct: Bad recruitment, poor vetting, or a failure of leadership?

In letting on recently that in ‘most weeks, there’s two or three officers going to court for criminal cases’, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley gave the impression that in the capital, at least, the constabulary is more representative of the community it serves than might have been imagined.

Of course, that was not his intent. He was addressing the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee in the wake of the conviction of David Carrick, a serial rapist who had been serving as a firearms officer with the Met whilst conducting many appalling crimes. Carrick’s case has spawned perfectly justifiable outrage and it has prompted many commentators to pin the tail of criticism on the ‘culture’ donkey.

Priti Patel, connoting images of pots and kettles, let fly at Home Secretary Suella Braverman about the failings of the police vetting process and the ‘locker-room culture’. London’s Evening Standard quotes a victim of Carrick’s (also a colleague) as saying:

He was the guy who would slap a woman’s arse as they walked past or blow kisses. It was the culture—quite a few male police officers did that.

The BBC spoke to Harriet Wistrich, director of Campaign for Women’s Justice, who said:

We have known for some time that there has been a culture of impunity for such offending by police officers […] Recent reports show a woefully deficient vetting and misconduct system and a largely unchallenged culture of misogyny in some sections of the Met.

The Express dug out a couple of others that had worked with Carrick, who reported ‘a macho culture of toxic masculinity’, ‘the force’s toxic canteen culture’, and—with specific regard to the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command, for which they had all worked—a ‘culture within a culture’. The Independent and the Telegraph wrote, respectively, of a ‘culture of complacency’ and a ‘very male-dominated culture’. You get the picture.

To what extent do these various cultures and subcultures exist within policing in the UK and how do they manifest themselves? Concurrent news that the vetting process has allowed for a number of police recruits to enter the ranks despite previous criminal convictions has caused the spotlight to fall onto the recruitment process itself.

In November 2022, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published An inspection of vetting, misconduct, and misogyny in the police service. Rightly, it is a long read. It was commissioned in response to the murder of Sarah Everard by another Met policeman, Wayne Couzens, and it is an appraisal of vetting and counter-corruption, with recommendations to match its findings.

Perhaps the most important sentence in the document, in the current climate of finger-pointing, is this:

Even the most thorough and complete vetting regime could never guarantee that an applicant would not go on to become corrupt or become a risk to the police service.

I see this as an incontrovertible truth, but it should not give rise to the suggestion that there is mutual exclusion between recruiting a few rotten apples and having disciplined and effective police forces.

HMICFRS explains why it has been asked to conduct such an inspection


In David Carrick’s case, there seems to be the implication in the press that had the vetting process weeded him out, then the professional standards departments would not have faced the awkward situation of having to fail to act in every instance of suggested misconduct and improper behaviour. Carrick carried a warrant card for over twenty years. At least four separate mechanisms should have checked his conduct in that time, and they are training, leadership, the moral courage of colleagues and the actions of professional standards departments and counter-corruption units.

It is, of course, easy to say this in hindsight. However, it has been reported that Carrick’s nickname in the workplace was ‘The Rapist’, which is a bit of a clue that his extracurricular pursuits might not have been completely innocent. His career started well before ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘diversity and inclusion’ had forced their way to the top of the training agenda, but the early 2000s was a period which granted police enormous increases in powers, due to the somewhat nebulous but apparently omnipresent spectre of ‘terror’.


Presumption of no bail

To exemplify the abuse of power and casual corruption of that period, I cite the application of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This gave police the power to stop and search without suspicion, in a demarcated zone, supposedly to make communities feel safer. Initial authorisation of section 44 would apply for a 28-day period, though that could be renewed. In London, it was in place continuously from 2001 until 2010. Eventually, justification for such a restriction on liberty faded to nothing and the section was finally repealed in 2012 by the Protection of Freedoms Act.

The Daily Mail reporting that section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 had been ruled unlawful


In the case of supposed counter-terrorism law and policy, even if it was not much understood by constables, you can be sure that higher-ranking police knew exactly what they were doing with it. Just last year, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 gave absurd lassitude to police at the initial stages of the criminal investigation. Under the banner of ‘safeguarding’, the Government has removed the presumption against pre-charge bail—a reversal which, with the exception of legal journals, went completely unreported. This means that any suspect in a criminal investigation will have restrictions imposed on their liberty as a matter of course—and not only that: the initial period of police bail has been increased from 28 days to three months.

Government guidance suggests that:

This is designed to encourage its use when necessary and proportionate to do so, based on each case’s individual circumstances and the list of risk factors now set out in legislation.

The police interpretation, extremely predictably, is that almost everyone now has three months’ worth of bail conditions slapped on them, some of which will likely be oppressive, even if explained as ‘necessary and proportionate’.

How often is the investigating officer likely to argue with a custody sergeant, in favour of liberty, at the imposition of a three-month bail period upon a suspect? The utter disregard for the apparent spirit of legislation—especially that which lies open to subjective interpretation—is completely endemic.

If you have ever been stopped or approached by police and asked to give any information about yourself or your activities, you have probably had the distinct impression that you are obliged to answer. You are not. Only if you are suspected of criminal activity (or under certain specific provisions, like Section 44 of the Terrorism Act) do police have a power to take action such as a search or an arrest. However, the vast majority of uniformed police officers do—technically—detain members of the public unlawfully on a daily basis.

This is a failure of training. In the initial, classroom-based training setting, the practice of stop-and-search is taught correctly, as you would expect. In practice, which happens soon afterwards, the muddle of dealing with real people takes effect. When dealing with a dynamic situation at high intensity, the desire to control it will often result in overstepping the mark, especially when it is not at all clear exactly who has done what. However, without genuine suspicion or belief that a person has played a part in the commission of an offence, police should be neither searching nor arresting and, especially, ought not be detaining without just cause.

The Government explains why the presumption against bail should be removed


Not worth the challenge

All police decisions and actions should pay heed to the Code of Ethics, and an integral part of this Code is supposed to be the ‘challenge’. This is discussed and used as a role-play scenario endlessly in training. It is meant to be the informal process by which a constable challenges a colleague on behaviour which does not meet the required standard. The College of Policing explains that;

Evidence tells us that simply having a Code of Ethics is not enough to reduce unprofessional behaviour—it needs to be talked about as an everyday business consideration. If the public don't have the confidence to trust the police to be fair, acting ethically and in their best interests, they are less likely to assist the police in upholding the law. The Code of Ethics is about self-awareness, ensuring that everyone in policing feels able to always do the right thing and is confident to challenge colleagues irrespective of their rank, role or position.

If executed properly, the expectation is that the challenged colleague would see sense and make the right decision, or face the incident being reported up the chain of command. Typically, for training purposes, it will be the ‘old sweat’ who wants to take the shortcut and the young whippersnapper that presents reason to (usually) him. A debate or argument ensues, with the workshy veteran eventually being brought around, both by the conviction of the trainee and by the implicit threat of some sort of disciplinary action.

This would work, in principle, if those further up the food chain played their part. The problem is that there is a terrible deficit of moral courage at the rank of sergeant; and, above the sergeants, senior ranks have become less and less visible and further removed from the daily business of interacting with the public and investigating crime. An enormous amount of time is taken up by ‘dip-sampling’ crime reports in order to see whether the Victim’s Code is being adhered to, and this is because it reflects badly on inspectors and above if it is not. The Victim’s Code is supposed to ensure that the victims of crime are treated appropriately.

The reality is somewhat different. Like most processes that police are bound by, it is a box-ticking exercise and it strips away the potential for injecting any humanity into the situation. By the rank-and-file constable, it is seen as an onerous drudg,, and the constant requirement to keep the victim updated—even when there is no news—breeds a form of resentment.

Back to the sergeants—and I generalise, of course. It would be to a ‘sarge’ that a constable’s concerns over a ‘challenge’ would be reported in the first instance. However, in the given scenario, it may well be that the sergeant is junior in service to, or trained with, the miscreant. The likely outcome is not just that the incident will not be dealt with appropriately but that the challenger will face a backlash, which is most readily alleviated by falling in line with the model of bad practice, and so the wheel turns.


Slovenliness and cowardice

If this sounds too much like a theme played out on countless second-rate television dramas, then may I suggest paying close attention to boot leather? It is very common for uniformed constables to wear shabby kit in public and, in particular, to fail to clean their boots.

Do I mean to imply that there would be fewer instances of rape and murder by police if they spent more time with parade gloss and brushes in hand? No. But trying to find a sergeant in a similar state of deshabille is much, much harder. Those at the rank of sergeant know, absolutely, how they and their subordinates should be turned out in public, but almost none will have the grip to enforce such a thing. It is the product of a broken leadership structure, and it is this which allows the propagation of ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘canteen culture’ and misogyny, wherever they may occur.

Continuing up the pecking order, it is this same mentality which allows for unthinking abuse of the application of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, or of the presumption in favour of pre-charge bail. If everybody does it, then all backs are covered. It is a culture of cowardice. It is also a culture of blurred lines, where the social and professional distinction between—in particular—constable and sergeant can be hard to define.

Repeated calls for a separate ‘officer class’ have been made over the years, one that would more closely represent the military model. The police and the armed forces operate in very different environments and they must, necessarily, operate in their own way. I have worked in both camps and have seen that simply overlaying a military leadership structure onto the police would not solve the problem. It is fair to say that the very word ‘leadership’ has little to do with leading people, where police are concerned. Direction is via policy, and achievement is mostly in spite of the circumstances, not because of them.

There is a great disjointedness within police departments and across forces and constabularies; exactly like the disjointedness between police and public. Inside a more cohesive organisation, it would be much harder for these sorts of corruptions to enter the system, and harder still for them to be ignored. Just as senior police officers should know the men and women working for them, so legitimate challenges made between colleagues should have consequences. Due consideration to the risk posed by a suspect under investigation should be given, and justified. All police decisions must be based on an articulated rationale; this is one of the primary purposes of the (now mostly digital) pocket notebook. The problem is the precautionary principle.


Reputation über alles

The now much bandied-about precautionary principle was, originally, confined to environmental law in Germany as far back as the 1970s. It is designed as a risk management and mitigation tool. When there is not enough data to demonstrate the absence of risk to human health, or to the environment, the activity should stop until there is enough data. It was specifically designed to avoid charging off in a particular direction only to find, later, that harm was being done.

In recent times, as use of the precautionary principle has spread to all areas of government and corporate policy, it has been picked up and put down according to whichever predetermined outcome is required. Hence, it was picked up, almost worldwide, in 2020, to frighten the living freedom out of society, and tossed aside again when the risks of taking a novel drug could not possibly be known. For police, it is picked up in order to provide rationale for the abuse of power, and dropped like a hot potato when it comes to dealing with staff management and disciplinary issues. As Encyclopaedia Britannica notes:

The precautionary principle has been criticized for promoting a risk-averse approach to policy making and resource management in contexts where risk is part of decision making and the problem of scientific uncertainty is especially acute.

Of course, the adjective ‘scientific’ may now be replaced with another modifier of your choice. The adjectives ‘political’ and ‘reputational’ are those that have most commonly been used in apposition to ‘uncertainty’ in relation to risk-aversion and uncertainty. An area of concern for HMICFRS, articulated in the section Errors in vetting clearance decisions, was ‘disproportionality’. What they mean by this is spelled out:

If decisions are found to disproportionately affect certain groups, for example people with disabilities or from minority ethnic groups, then forces should take steps to understand the reasons for this.

The trouble is, it would appear likely that many forces’ vetting processes have gone somewhat further than just understanding the reasons. On its Diversity and Inclusion page, the College of Policing has a ‘Positive Action Recruitment Guide’. The guide warns that:

Positive action should be used with care and should not be confused with positive discrimination, which is illegal. Positive discrimination is where, in an attempt to redress historical inequality, discrimination in favour of a protected group occurs.

Nevertheless, the pressure to demonstrate diversity in the workforce is immense.

Matt Parr, His Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and author of the inspection report, said this on the matter to the Telegraph:

We completely support the idea that London—which will likely be a minority white city in the next decade or so—should not be policed by an overwhelmingly white police force.

Since David Carrick’s case has been catapulted into the headlines, some of Parr’s other comments have been taken somewhat out of context, but he did describe the crusade to change the hue of the Met as ‘noble and right’.


Outright discrimination

There are numerous instances of transgressions into positive discrimination by police forces, some of which have even been covered teeth-grittingly by the BBC, like that of Cheshire Police in 2017. A previous chair of the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), Sara Thornton (known to UK Column for over a decade), actually called for the law to be changed so that positive discrimination could be practiced by police recruiters.

Bearing in mind what I have set out above about the abuse of terror law and the application of police bail, how likely does it seem that the line between positive action and positive discrimination will not have been crossed, routinely? The swirling political winds and the comments of senior leaders in policing are bound to have had influence upon the recruitment and vetting processes. Cressida Dick, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, are among a growing number of people who have called for the Met to be 40% non-white, to reflect the population of London.

This is where we return to the comments made by Sir Mark Rowley about the numbers of police officers under the scrutiny of the criminal justice system. Where is the evidence for concluding that a police force which better represents the ethnicities of the community will be better at policing that community? Just for the sake of argument, who would be prepared to jump up and shout for change if a constabulary was over-represented by non-white police officers? None of the usual suspects, I would wager. Certainly, the push for being able to show off recruits with ‘protected characteristics’ has become a more competitive space. When I was recruited for training as a detective, it appeared to be something of a glitch in the system, as not one single image in the recruitment literature was of a white man, and the word ‘diversity’ appeared in more or less every paragraph.

The heady combination of an ingrained level of petty corruption, a haywire confusion of postmodernist agendas and a dramatic decline in any form of critical thinking has set the police up for a big fall. On top of this, the starting salary for a constable is extremely low, given the demands of the job. A constable in training receives £23,556, which is roughly equivalent to that of a travel agent—the difference being the travel agent gets to go to bed every night and is less likely to be spat at or urinated on by her ‘customers’. So, if a culture of toxicity and misogyny did exist in any definable sense, it is being replaced by something much more amorphous—a quality which will make it harder to deal with, should the inclination arise.


Mental health of police

Race, sexuality and gender are just the tip of the iceberg. A greater part of the diversity pie chart is to be made up by those who are considered—or consider themselves—neurodiverse. The College of Policing even has a Neurodiversity Glossary of Terms, and I wonder how many of them you would have thought of before checking the enumeration of them on that page. The number of incidents that police attend with a ‘mental health’ flag has increased so dramatically that this could be viewed as a very useful reference document. However, since it falls under the College’s heading for Attracting, recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce, there may be trouble ahead. There is no doubt that dealing with members of the public and managing complex investigations requires a great mixture of characters and mental capabilities.

This glossary deals with Theory of Mind, which is defined as ‘the ability to instinctively know what others are thinking and feeling’, and Dyad of Impairments, which is a ‘theory of autism identifying impairments affecting social communication and social imagination difficulties’. I would not wish to appear insensitive, but recruiting police constables who cannot tell what others may be feeling and have trouble communicating with people would be disastrous. And yet, I well remember attending an online seminar given by a man who very enthusiastically described himself as neurodiverse, before going on to just about encourage those listening to pronounce themselves neurodiverse.

The College of Policing’s neurodiversity glossary


Judy Singer, the Australian sociologist who coined the term ‘neurodiversity’, observed that:

The rise of neurodiversity takes postmodern fragmentation one step further. Just as the postmodern era sees every once too solid belief melt into air, even our most taken-for granted assumptions—that we all more or less see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and sort information, in more or less the same way, (unless visibly disabled)—are being dissolved.

She is right about the postmodern fragmentation, and she said that in 1998. The reaction against a culture that enabled David Carrick to behave with impunity has produced a counter-culture so muddled that even those peddling it are not quite sure how to harness it. Thus, we have the ludicrous predicament of diversity audits being stymied by people being able to ‘identify’ as something that they are not—or, one better, to ‘prefer not to say’.

The minefield of acronyms is becoming ever-more dangerous to navigate. The Government, which likes to lump people together whenever possible, has been bashed for this. Just over a year ago, a guide to Writing About Ethnicity stated that:

We do not use the terms BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) and BME (black and minority ethnic) because they emphasise certain ethnic minority groups (Asian and black) and exclude others (mixed, other and white ethnic minority groups).

Ironically, in recruiting and vetting terms, police are being asked to emphasise certain ethnic minority groups in order to exclude others.

Weak leaders, removed from the reality of those in their charge, have allowed the pendulum to swing from the toxic masculinity of the age of terror to the postmodernist policing of thoughts and feelings in the age of self-identification. They have lacked the grip or impetus to shape or encourage these cultural trends, but they have positively failed to check or moderate them; and, in doing so, they have failed the public. Under these conditions, recruitment and vetting will continue to become more about ‘protected characteristics’ than aptitude for public service—and there is not much ‘noble’ or ‘right’ about that.