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Wiltshire Police Federation

Police officers should not represent a presence of fear but a presence of safety

1 March 2023

Polfed News

For those of us who have spent years and decades trying to implement reform and support positive change within the police service, supporting our members, the past few years have been brutal.

Where is the solidarity with those on the front line who have to make the most difficult decisions in impossible circumstances, for those who run toward danger? Those who give and risk their lives to protect ours? How have we travelled so far away from this basic premise of what a police officer is? Of what the police service ultimately represents – protection?

These frontline officers are also the ones that carry the most risk to their life expectancies, they face a real unknown as to whether they will have any chance to enjoy a long retirement, in good health.

We’ve been hearing much of good or bad police officers, a gross simplification to the actual job which requires so much trained skill and involves a huge web of complexity. Just as defunding the police is wholly simplistic. No one wins when policing is used as a political football, or when the fact that increases in crime and violence makes it unsafe for both the public and for police officers doing their jobs.

There is a strong sense the public does not understand what police officers are called upon to do, how they are trained to do it, and why they are trained that way. Though there are a thousand small acts that make up the careers of police officers, talking people down when they are aggressive or experiencing a crisis, survival and prevention of loss of life is the ultimate strategy. Without active transparency, we have no hope of the public understanding and supporting the police, regaining their trust. There is little justice for criminals, nor for victims, in a system in which policing is optional, understaffed, underfunded, or harassed and hounded by the media into inertia.

In an ideal world, we would also be able to foster a police culture where poor behaviour is seen as an unacceptable stain on police as a whole and something that every effort is made to eliminate it. Culture change is difficult to impose from outside, but change can occur. Many will remember the 70s and early 80s when physicians acted to defend all doctors, even those accused of malpractice, but gradually began to realise that this hurt people and the profession. As a result, the profession ceased to tolerate poor behaviour within their ranks. Police officers are outraged by recent events, and I am confident this can and will happen within the police service.

We feel the pressure from one extreme to another, the public and media screaming for ever more laws, ever harsher punishments for violence, drugs, and crime, forgetting it is not police officers themselves dishing out the punishments. On the other hand, pressure from idealists, pushing solutions that would neither work in practice, nor be accepted by the majority of the population, leave us frustrated, demoralised and exhausted. We have also faced a backlash over “woke policing” - a damaging term that fails to recognise that community engagement reduces crime and helps to build trust in communities. The service needs to learn how to reengage and be allowed to find positive ways to do this without a daily headline saying they are both too forceful, too woke, too easy going and too hard-line.

The majority of those who undertake careers in law enforcement are motivated by a desire to make a positive difference. Over time, however, the soul-draining impact of repetitively dealing with humanity in its worst moments, and overwhelming demand, erodes their mental health. More must be done to help all police officers manage this, whether they are in uniform on the frontline, or are detectives.

Assaults on our colleagues continue to rise - there were 41,221 assaults on police officers last year, and the mental health crisis among police staff and officers is at an all-time high. Compelling evidence from the University of Cambridge shows demand is mentally damaging officers, with police officers facing the largest workloads with not enough time stay on top of them twice as likely to have Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). As a result, there has been a huge increase in the number of police officers becoming too mentally ill to work. More than 730,000 sick days were taken last year - up from 320,000 in 2012/13.

We must start to understand what police officers actually do… managing the situation of someone threatening your life, potentially with a weapon, telling you they are going to kill you as you try to offer them assistance or detain them. How many of us can honestly say we have our lives threatened at work? How many of us can say we have witnessed the sheer amount of traumatic incidents police officers see throughout their careers? We hear so many of our colleagues say they were numb for years and one incident triggered PTSD and all the pain of those culminating incidents caused irreparable damage to their lives and those of their families.

Ultimately there must be more police to prevent crime and to help the public see us as a presence of safety and security. Give our officers support, enough money to live on, the best kit and training, and more boots on the ground to alleviate the pressure and give the public a world class service.

The police service will turn itself around to regain public trust, our police officers will not tolerate poor behaviour and active transparency will start to rebuild the professionalism of the service. Solidarity with those who protect us will enable the service to thrive and excel.