Joining the Police, Leaving the Police... and Everything In-Between
With all the talk and press coverage last week of Police recruitment uplifts, opportunities and challenges, I was reminded that it was eleven years ago this week that I walked through the gates of Hendon for the first time. Thinking back to the people I met that day and all the things that have happened since seems a good lens through which to explore how we got here, and where we might be going - "we" being recruitment, retention and resettlement of police officers.
In my opinion, you could easily substitute paramedics, firefighters, prison officers and teachers into this assessment too, but I'll stick to police for simplicity.
My intake was probably one of the last of a big surge in new recruits at that time - compared to recent years it was a time of plenty. We were a pretty diverse bunch - not just visibly but in age, background, goals, motivations and personality. There were even some of those "high octane graduates" we have since seen much-vaunted separate pathways for. Maybe I was even one of them - well, I was a graduate anyway...
The first key thing that strikes me on reflection is that although we'd all come from different places (via the universal pain of the Northern Line) and were there for different reasons, none of that mattered. It was day one for everyone and what mattered was the future, not the past.
Some people knew at that stage they wanted to progress in rank, some to follow specialist paths, others like me just wanted to get stuck in and see where it led. It seemed a world of opportunity - perhaps that was naïve, but there were indeed days in those early years in sunny South Norwood that I wouldn't have traded for anything. Working hard but enjoying it, making friends for life and seeing a whole different perspective on life that most people never will.
This picture is a proud moment - but again that pride was tempered by the fact the "ceremony" was a long time after the event, almost happened in the canteen (remember those) and just generally felt like it was a chore for the force.
I was about to say I was lucky to have a lot of opportunities within the job, but I have come to realise that you make your own luck. Opportunity comes from consistent effort, taking the odd chance, backing yourself and getting the odd break in your favour.
Working on the Olympics was - should have been - my "break". It was certainly sold that way to me - I'd been happy on response but this, apparently, was a door into that "specialist" world of first name terms, being treated like an adult and a perspective beyond Thornton Heath High Street.
Until the Games finished, so far so good. Then the first encounter with policing's approach to career development.
Find yourself a job or you'll be back on a response team at Tower Hamlets. What do you mean you live in Kingston, don't want to go back to team and might have something different to offer? Says here that you don't have anything we consider "skills", so over to you.
I was "lucky" again to find myself a role on the TSG - which was great. Ticked loads of my boxes. Some of the best people I've ever worked with anywhere. Some of the worst "leadership" I've ever seen and a total absence of any kind of healthy organisational environment.
The message here was pretty clear: sink or swim, and there's no lifejackets or safety nets. Or swimming lessons. Seeing people struggle without any help - worse, ask for help and be ignored - started to put more straw on the camel's back. The final straw came through the now-familiar refrain of "if you don't like it, go and work in Tesco". I'm told there is also a Morrison's (and perhaps Walmart) option depending on your force's location.
I resigned there and then. No plan. Plenty of issues to resolve. I'd gone from enthusiastic 23-year-old intending to give 35 years, to a jobless, lost and slightly broken 29-year old.
At that point I still didn't realise that "a good place to work" might include things like proactive personal/professional development, a balance between effort and reward, health/mental health provision that matched the risk, openness to ideas and lots more. I realised that when I worked elsewhere.
I'll reiterate the point that I loved the vast majority of my police service and worked with and for many exceptional people. However, for the last five years I've also been hearing horror stories from 999 organisations nationally and internationally that make me question whether things really have improved.
I've been saying for a long time now that retention is a massive issue for the police and that it's been hugely overlooked. I wondered if there were things that might have encouraged me to stay - after all, like many Mightify clients who leave the police, I never stopped enjoying the job itself or stopped believing in it. It was "The Job" as an organisation and a culture that I found unsustainable. The group I started with now includes a large proportion who are in a wide range of other industries – which is a great reflection of their skills but also raises serious concerns for the Metropolitan Police on operational and financial levels.
I was faced with a "stick or twist" decision and chose my health. Had I been aware of other options within policing, I would probably not have felt this pressure and not come to that crossroads. Had I felt the processes for promotion/selection were fair and fit for purpose, I might have felt the hoop-jumping and nonsensical frameworks were worthwhile. Had I believed that there were support systems that would genuinely have caught me without knock-on career stigma had I fallen, I might have continued to take the risks. Had I been encouraged to put forth my ideas for improvement, I might not have taken them elsewhere.
These are all things that in my opinion are eminently solvable. They might not keep everyone, and that's OK too. Those people that leave deserve thanks and to be equipped with the tools for onward success. We just have to think very carefully about how we attract people, how we treat them and how we let them grow and evolve within the job.
Personally, I have no regrets. I gave it my all and it gave me plenty back, skills and experiences I could never have gained elsewhere. I have discovered that personal and professional development is an eternal process and I'm cool with that. I now have the chance to drive some positive changes from the outside - so that's what I'll do.