Posted: Friday 16th January 2015
What is the ‘culture’ of Avon and Somerset police? In December, a number of citizens and members of various community groups met at a summit with senior police officers and staff to debate this. Our police force has set itself an ambitious goal: to change its culture and behaviour and ensure that it’s new code of ethics is thoroughly understood and followed by all officers and staff. It was very reassuring that no-one in the room questioned the need for this change.
Culture was defined as ‘the way we do things round here’, and during workshops the attendees worked in groups to describe their view of what the police culture currently is. Words such as ‘reactionary’, ‘introspective’, ‘defensive’, and ‘biased’ (either consciously or institutionally) were used. The point was made that people, no matter what their background, ethnicity, faith etc., often feel anxious about reporting concerns to the police. People worry that they won’t be believed, taken seriously or get a response to their individual or local community problem. Sadly, some still feel that there may be repercussions or a nasty backlash if they do raise issues or make a complaint. So the perception amongst delegates was that a ‘them and us’ situation can occur.
But it’s easy to list words and describe the status quo. Our job, as members of the public, was to find and describe the changes we would like to see. From the groups, examples of what sort of change is needed gradually emerged. We discussed the need for much better police communication skills. Comments were made that police use jargon and ‘management speak’ which produces garbled and stilted writing or conversation. A big plea for plain English and honest everyday dialogue was made. We asked that letters and emails should always have a named contact, and any technical or legal terms need to be followed by an explanation: ‘this means . . . . ‘ Everyone in the room agreed that the police are really poor at informing people about what is happening after something is reported to the police, or a community issue expressed. Much better and timely communication, again in plain English, is needed. But above all, the plea went up for the police to act, first and foremost, as human beings, and aim to solve problems rather than fall back on legalities and powers. Phrases such as ‘behaving humanely’, ‘using common sense’, and ‘treating people as they would want to be treated’ were forcefully expressed.
Another big issue emerged. It would have been unusual if a day examining police behaviour did not touch on issues of diversity, prejudice and inclusion. Some groups feel they have particular barriers to break down before they can trust the police. It also became clear, in both group conversations and in the introductory and final talks, that the police often talk about and act upon notions of ‘equality’ – treating people all the same, being colour-blind etc., - rather than developing a true understanding of the diversity of individual needs and working to meet these. The police have their own internal community associations, e.g. the Association of Black Police Officers, the Gay Police Association. However, our group heard that association members feel they can be better used as a resource for colleagues, by sharing their knowledge and experience. I have also observed, from conversations with police officers during this and an earlier consultation that some police officers still view the approach to inclusivity as being one of ‘equalities’, such as ‘ I treat everyone equally’. This does not recognise the nuances of individual needs. So perhaps there is also a need to review the diversity training which staff and officers receive and ensure that this is only the start of an ongoing dialogue and learning about wider communities and their perceptions.
As you may imagine, the day ended with a request to the Deputy Chief Constable, Gareth Morgan to reconvene a meeting in a few months’ time, so that communities can see what progress is really being made. Those in the room have given our police some sound and practical ideas for change. However, this should not be the end of the conversation. Reaching out to the local population, hearing people’s experiences and getting their views and ideas must continue during this change period. The force has set itself an ambitious programme, and it must not end with partial or half-hearted conclusions. There are lots of other people, not in the room on that December day, who have an important voice and something useful to say about what changes should be made
The big question now is: will this happen in a way in which local people can see and feel the police are changing? And will the changes be meaningful, long-lasting and ongoing?
Sue Lloyd’s personal views. January 2015.