This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ethical practice: the results of my inquiries

39 police services have now responded to my inquiries about their ethical practice. A few more will roll in over the next few weeks (delays due to a mixture of reasons). However I think the trends are clear and I wanted to share these today ahead of the College of Policing’s announcements about the revised Code of Ethics (white smoke soon, I believe).

First some caveats:
  • I will not be naming any forces below. I do have all the information provided to me via my FoI inquiries and so there is nothing secret here. I just think it is more helpful to leave things anonymous at this stage and in this arena. 
  • This is a piece of personal research which I have done in between my many other activities. In other words no one has funded me to this. The information below is reliable and accurate but with more time I know I could have done a more detailed analysis. 
  • The information arrived in different forms so I have had to make some judgements about the answers given. There is some categorisation here which is mostly in my head rather than in some kind of social research template. (If you have some specific questions arising from this research, do contact me. I will do my very best to answer any questions that come my way.)
  • I have done all this to provoke debate around just how well the UK police services are tackling the issue of ethical practice and how things might improve. (Hardly a day or week goes by without some new and big story about past or present choices that individual officers or whole forces have made that can be described as ethical choices. I think the public starts from the position that individual police officers & staff, and collective police services, should be unimpeachable: ethical expectations are rightly high, in my view.)
And so what are the headlines?

Of the 39 forces, only two had even the beginnings of plans to establish a regular ethical practice developmental update/refresher/challenge for officers and staff. Almost all the other 37 (with only a couple of exceptions) claimed a ‘yes’ in answer to my question: Do officers and staff undergo any regular programmed briefing/training/development in ethical practice? But (and this is a big but) went on to describe a situation where new (or very occasionally newly promoted) officers and staff received an input at the start of their training. And only then. This is not regular so I counted them as a ‘no’.

In essence then, not a single police service in the country (which has replied so far) has any regular developmental activity for their officers and staff in the field of ethical practice. True, when the people are so ‘green’ as to have hardly applied leather to pavement, they get some briefing on ethics. But there is no follow up, other than some random smattering in other development activities that officers/staff may happen to attend. Doing it only at the beginning is important, except that by not doing it again (and again) when gritty and hard won experience has been gained probably neutralises much of the value of the initial input. Ethics are about practice not theory.

Contrast this with first aid where all, bar one, police forces provide this on a regular basis to front line officers and staff (and even, in many cases, regular input to those in the ‘back office’). The length varies, the duration varies but it is regular and key officers/staff are kept up to date with their first aid skills. Which is good and I rest easier in my bed as a result. But why first aid and not ethical practice?

To complete the feedback, the picture in respect of Health & Safety training/development is more mixed. 17 out of the 39 forces provide regular inputs on H&S. Which I find quite illuminating too.

In answer to my question: Are there any current plans to communicate the new code of practice to officers & staff once it is agreed? If so, please may I have a copy of the relevant document? half of respondents claimed this answer was exempt as plans would soon be published or indeed since the code was not yet published, there was nothing to report. The other half said that plans were underway but nothing to show yet. Fair enough.

Regarding Beyond taking into account any retrospective disciplinary action, is ethical practice integrated proactively into promotion boards and job interviews? If yes, please may I have a copy of the relevant policy or document relating to this?, the answers were mostly ‘yes’ and elements of the police competency model were cited as being integral. However 7 forces did give a ‘no’ in answer to this question. The impression I have been left with is that ethical practice is embedded but perhaps embedded too deeply as to miss an opportunity to promote ethical practice. It’s a cultural thing. All that I can say, as a result, is that this is an area requiring further research and investigation, I feel.

Question 7 proved most interesting: How many instances have there been in the last five years where officers or staff have (to quote the draft code) used their “professional position to establish or pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship with a person with whom [they came] into contact in the course” of their work and who was “vulnerable to an abuse of trust or power”? The answers I got back were hugely variable. Six claimed FoI exempt status on the basis that information of this nature was not held and could not be determined without going beyond the resource limit. Those that did answer ranged from 0 instances to 950 (the latter being a large force). 21 forces reported numbers between 0 and 10. The remainder were in the range of 11 to 30.

I am not sure what conclusion to draw from these answers other than I think there needs to be more data gathered and a single definition used so that forces can compare with each other. On the whole, the numbers do appear to be small. This is good. But what is your experience?

My final question asked about whistle blowing, as mentioned in the code of practice: The draft code states that every person has a “positive obligation to report, challenge or take action against the conduct of colleagues” which is believed by the person to have “fallen below the Standards of Professional Behaviour set out in this Code”. How many instances have there been in the last five years of where someone has done this officially (and for which there is a record)? The answers were again very variable with most (23) claiming exempt status on the basis that this information is not collected. Of those forces which did reply, the answers ranged from 0 to 654 (not an especially large force). 7 Forces were under 100 and 6 were over.

My conclusion from these answers is much the same as for question 7: I think there is clearly a need for some standardisation here and indeed some far greater levels of monitoring / counting / measuring. I think understanding the levels of whistleblowing and the more general collegiate holding each other to account for ethical practice is something that senior managers should have. It is a key indicator of the ‘ethical health’ of an organisation, I believe.

I now have a medium sized email folder of correspondence about all these inquiries. And as I say, if you want to know something more precise or force based than what is shown above, do contact me. Within the limits of time available, I will do what I can to answer you.

Now we await the results of the College of Policing’s deliberations and thence plans to establish ethical practice even more explicitly and solidly in the working cultures of the police services in the UK.

What do you hope is now going to happen?

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