Oddly, I always struggle a bit with police “fly-on-the-wall” type documentaries despite having worked around policing and the criminal justice system for most of my life. They tend to bring out mixed emotions in me – admiration for what cops achieve and put up with, disbelief with what the public are capable of (not in a good way) and anger at how we have ended up where we are. With increasing years and blood pressure, I tend to avoid them but this week’s “Cops Like Us” had a theme running through it that resonates with what we do here at Mightify – people feeling they had almost gone as far as they could (and in many cases beyond that) and wanting to leave.
It won’t need a spoiler alert to say that many of the public hit the rather challenging bar of taking stupidity and shameful behaviour to new heights (although I suspect if you are a response cop reading this, it was just what you see daily). Similarly, how far cops are prepared to go to help people and how much aggravation they are prepared to endure was as usual humbling and deeply impressive. So did I get angry? Of course I did.
The overwhelming message was of an increasingly limited number of front line officers, often “mid-career”, who were trying to hold back a tide of societal change, political apathy and poor leadership single-handedly or at best double-crewedly (if that is a word). One officer highlighted how she was expected to be a relationship expert, a social worker, a mental health worker, a housing manager and a financial adviser, how she had no training in any of them and how she often went several shifts in a row without dealing with a single crime. I get it that the police service has always been the service of last resort but why have police leaders let it become almost the only service of every resort? Why have politicians chosen to pull off the double whammy of reducing other services to the point where everything falls on a police service that is also substantially diminished? And at a time when big chunks of society are apparently less able to manage their own lives and need more interventions and services.
So officers find themselves dealing with the impacts and failures of society and social policy. I suspect there is a school of thought that says “it was always like that and cops just get on with it cheerfully”. Well you would have to be in a very shiny political ivory tower or a spectacularly plush command suite to believe that after seeing these cops at work. No breaks, no food, no access to toilets, a feeling of having been dealt a bad hand and of having lost the pleasure of coming to work which was previously central to so many. While the odd person talked of “the mentality of policing – you just have to put up with it”, many had decided to leave (a “heart-breaking decision”).
Here at Mightify we are privileged to help people who have made that decision discover their skills and where in the outside world they will be valued. Some of those people have come to the end of their service but others are simply burnt out. Many have loved policing for years and the leaving itself takes a heavy toll. As we move, in policing and elsewhere, to a more “portfolio” career structure where people glide in and out of sectors rather than spend a lifetime in one, we need to give people the right support and insights into their skills and worth throughout their service so that they feel able to move when the time is right for them – not just when they have been destroyed trying to do their best for a society that appears not to care. Feeling trapped with no options is a bad place to be and undoubtedly contributes to the high levels of stress related illness.
I don’t suggest for one moment that this is on its own going to sort out today’s raft of problems. It won’t. That needs some fearless political and professional leadership that goes beyond a numbers game and an “I’ll trump your last gesture with a bigger one” virtue signalling contest. It needs police officers to be put back to policing with competent, properly resourced complementary services to
work in tandem whether in mental health, substance abuse, housing or whatever. Police officers, as well as fighting crime, will always want to help people and that is as it should be. But we need to help them too, throughout a policing career and elsewhere.
I will finish with two other points from the programme that hit me. Firstly, and with savage irony, confidence in the police in Stoke on Trent has diminished because although they are busy resolving all society’s problems that is not actually what people expect or want. They want them to deal with crime and community safety. Secondly, policing has always been a family business with inter-generational advocates but when a dedicated officer with 15 years’ service says she will move heaven and earth to stop her daughter becoming a police officer, where do we go next?
Finally, finally for any cops out there who have found time to read this - thank you, you are awesome and please, don’t let anyone tell you that you are “Just a Cop”.
And if you want to watch the BBC documentary to see what we were on about, you can find it here.