What the police can learn from Iraq

Bramshill, birthplace of the new College of Policing, has a very British feel. It combines grandeur, isolation and inconvenience in increasing proportions. Like our stately homes, Sandhurst, Parliament, and our Military, history and tradition rub uneasily with the demands of modernity.

Bramshill will soon be sold, but it will leave to the country an important creation. The College of Policing, which began its work this year, is a key part of modernising the police. I found myself there last week as one of the new Police and Crime Commissioners, contributing to a course for future leaders.

As the elected leaders of local forces, Commissioners also have responsibilities on national bodies. The College is the most exciting, and by some way the most popular amongst my colleagues.

The College faces myriad challenges. The police service has thirty years of change to catch up on, in a time of shrinking budgets. Crime is changing. Employment habits are changing. Society’s demands are changing. Police culture is emerging, slowly, from the grips of a 1970s permafrost. I found myself reflecting on the lessons from another modernity-challenged institution.

Ten years ago, as we remembered last week, the British Army invaded Iraq. Four years later, I was among four thousand British troops fighting a retreat from Basra. As young officers, we would escape at night to the roof of Basra Palace. Between mortar attacks you could watch the stars in relative peace and muse on the progress of the war. Or the lack of it. We had much to muse upon.

What can the College learn from their military cousins? Police and military are very different institutions but they share important characteristics. The police can learn the dangers of neglecting self-criticism. They can learn the importance history and the limits of professionalism.

Both police and military are conservative institutions. They are built on tradition. Like their buildings, over time they adapt the grand and stately to the modern and dynamic. Both are critical activities for the state and hence highly political. Both rely, as all government does, on the consent of people.

Let us deal with the shared traditions first. The Army has a proud tradition of counter-insurgency. We understand the importance of persuasion over force. We were reared on tales of Borneo, Malaya and the pacification of Northern Ireland. For four years British officers in Iraq pointed smugly to their past, while the Americans struggled in Baghdad.

The trouble is, while we remembered the history, we forgot the lessons. The Americans didn’t. They used our history and redesigned their army. By 2007 the tables had turned. No serious critique of the British military performance in Iraq emerged before 2008. Despite the finest, most professional, military education in the world we failed to learn fast enough.

At the heart of British policing is another proud tradition that springs from a similar philosophical well. We police by consent. Our police are citizens in uniform. The people are the police and the police are the people. What could be a more powerful notion in a modern, democratic age, than that sometimes dusty old principle?

The questions is whether the police really believe it. Re-invigorating this is a quest worthy of fine professional minds. In doing so, the College would do well to heed the military experience. Do not forget your history. To know what happened is not enough. You must understand the reasons and be prepared to relearn old lessons.

As for the state, it has no more important task than the protection of its citizens. Our army protects us from abroad, our police from within. Both bear the weight of government expectation. Both swim in political waters. The police, in many respects, face the harder task. They affect our lives more closely and are subject to far more scrutiny. They make their mistakes on our doorsteps.

One of the great errors of Iraq which resonates for the Police was to separate the political from the professional. Politicians in Britain delegated the war to professionals – generals – who promptly bleated about resources. Meanwhile soldiers in Iraq pursued military objectives, usually successfully, only to find that Basra politics had shifted around them. In neglecting politics we won the battles and lost the war.

Police officers show a similar disdain for politics. They should look to themselves before casting stones. There are few more political animals than senior police officers.

Police leaders must navigate local government and the politics of other professions. They need health, education and housing departments to help them reduce crime. Future police professionals will have to be experts at listening to social workers as well as collaring criminals. They will be politicians and public servants in the best sense of those words.

But most important of all in this work is consent. Without public support neither army nor police can succeed. The public have great faith in police officers. I am frequently reminded that they are more popular than politicians. I should hope they are. But that is not enough. The public had great pride in us in Iraq. I experienced it myself whenever I wore a uniform in public. But we were popular people in a troubled institution. Could anyone argue differently of the police today?

Consent and trust are tricky commodities. You only know you have lost them when you need them. The Army woke up to the loss of public support at home as it realised it was losing the war abroad. It had withdrawn from public view for a generation, partly as a result of Irish terrorism, only to find that it needed friends in a difficult hour. Recovery came as much from the public – from Royal Wooton Bassett and Help for Heroes – as from MoD press campaigns.

The Police Service finds itself in a similar situation. It has long taken public trust for granted. It cannot any longer. Police and Crime Commissioners are here to reconnect public with police but the police themselves have the greatest role.

Without the public the police will fail. All the officers at Bramshill I met recognise this. As in Iraq, there are no shortage of bright minds with the right ideas. The challenge is getting both to the surface.

The military has two lessons for the College. The first is to learn the importance of learning. The second is that professionalism is only part of the answer. The other part lies with the public.

The College must capture the traditions that make the profession. But the real challenge is how to involve the public in policing themselves. Convincing us all of our contribution to the law is as crucial to police success as any amount of professional skill.

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