3 November 2022

A cop-out: vetting failures paint an alarming picture of police recruitment


Who joins the police and why?

The latest Home Office statistics show that the Conservative manifesto for an uplift of 20,000 officers is on target to deliver by March next year. However, a review of vetting ordered by former Home Secretary Priti Patel in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder by a serving officer, reveals multiple failures and system inadequacies across constabularies. It suggests a significant number of new recruits and serving coppers are not fit to wear the uniform.

Her Majesty’s Chief inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) published their findings earlier this week. Their report into vetting, misconduct and misogyny makes depressing reading for those of us who want policing to move on from a seemingly intractable crisis of purpose – a crisis that is both self-inflicted and externally charged. Vetting should start at the pre-employment stage, but the inspectors found numerous examples of officers with very serious question marks over their conduct falling through a threadbare screening net. In 18% of cases dip-sampled inspectors found ‘officers and staff with criminal records, or suspicions that they had committed crime (including some serious crime), substantial undischarged debt, or family members linked to organised crime’. Worse still, local force vetting units had no easy way to identify serving officers who had highly concerning information about their conduct on file. 

These abject failures of professional curiosity are alarming and they come to life in the review’s plentiful case studies. Applicants with criminal records for serious violence sail through with no regard shown to the context of the offences, except the passage of time as mitigation to support their appointment. This has meant, for example, that recruits with a history of crimes against vulnerable people, or who have been suspects in repeat domestic violence or have allegations of sexual misconduct against them are allowed into forces – all without any meaningful exploration of the circumstances of behaviour most people would find incompatible with the enormous discretionary power held by warranted constables. In some cases such officers were taken on without even a further interview.

Inspectors reveal that managers wrongly surmised that recruitment screening decisions ought to follow criminal standards of establishing guilt or innocence. In essence, all this dysfunction meant dodgy applicants went under the radar and into uniform.  Time and again no ‘mitigation measures’ were put in place, even in cases where recruits family members were concerned in the supply of drugs and other serious criminality. 

So what has driven this serious failure of corporate responsibility? As ever, it is a combination of factors that boils the frog. There is too much latitude granted to individual forces to interpret vetting rules. There is a lack of IT and inter-operability, which allows existing officers with a history of misconduct and complaints to slough off the heat by moving between forces. There is a disconnect between professional standards, counter corruption and recruitment functions that create a permissive environment for the devious to manipulate.  But there is something greater at play here and it’s picked up by inspectors – an increased ‘risk appetite’ for risky people.

This ‘appetite’ is governed by several factors, including the imperative to get boots on the streets in a competitive jobs market and the demand to increase force diversity. When the emergency officer uplift began, it was clear that while the funding for officer salaries was found, the additional costs – including vetting and training – had either been grossly miscalculated or ignored. For some time it has seemed that forces are in competition with each other for the most overtly progressive approach to recruitment to meet diversity targets at the expense of due diligence and safeguarding. Expanding the cult of ‘lived experience’ to downgrade the sorts of larceny uncovered by inspectors was probably not what Peel had in mind when he created the foundations of community policing. Getting the police to look like the policed is a laudable aim, and minor youthful indiscretions should not hold a person back forever – but integrity matters more when employing people licensed for violence on behalf of the state.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this distressing report, delivered after PC Wayne Cousins abducted and murdered Sarah Everard, is the testimony of female officers routinely exposed to sexual misconduct at work by colleagues and senior leaders. This suggests that a culture of impunity for this sort of rank behaviour still endures, despite assurances from forces who often haven’t surveyed the problem that they are dealing with it.

I’ve written before on CapX about the difficulty of calling out such behaviour with colleagues who you might need to rely on in dangerous situations. But some of the assertions by female officers are examples of outrageous misconduct by people who don’t deserve a second chance. In fact many of the officers complained about are serial offenders, presumably emboldened by feeble action to deal with their predatory behaviour. Policing is a rough business and people under sometimes enormous stress and in danger shouldn’t be expected to always behave impeccably. Humour is often a release valve and has huge value as a coping strategy and for camaraderie. But when the reported examples of such ‘banter’ include, ‘sending pornography to female colleagues’ phones’ you begin to see the scale of the problem. 

The solutions offered by HMIC include the usual prescriptions to standardise and improve vetting. To have face-to-face interviews, not algorithms, in charge of initial selection. To restore the art of polite scepticism in recruit screening. To drive out casual misogyny by example and sack sexual predators.

I would add another, in relation to the implication that hundreds of officers who should have failed vetting checks are serving – tackling the pre-eminent problem of corrupt officers ensnared in criminal gangs. Forces should create a time-limited amnesty for officers who have been compromised to come forward with information that leads to prosecutions, in exchange for lighter penalties or even the possibility of being retained. This would expose the problem quickly, shut it down and short circuit an investigatory process that would take years, if ever, to reveal it. This could be potentially extended to other types of behaviour listed by Inspectors. After that expires, throw the book at offenders in uniform with exemplary sentences.

I posed the question at the start, ‘who joins the police?’ In the vast majority of cases that’s young men and women of the highest calibre, who go to work to protect the public and sometimes don’t come home again. We must never lose sight of the goodness, kindness, bravery, integrity and compassion that drives these people to serve. It is on their behalf as well as ours that this cancer must be excised. 

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Professor Ian Acheson was a Special Constable with Devon and Cornwall police at the same time as Director of Community Safety for the Home Office.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.