Boris Johnson’s push to recruit 20,000 more police increased risk of ‘unsuitable’ officers, watchdog finds

‘There is a heightened danger that people unsuited to policing may get through,’ report warns after wave of scandals

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Thursday 10 March 2022 21:09
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<p>Scandals have provoked calls for more stringent vetting, including social media checks </p>

Scandals have provoked calls for more stringent vetting, including social media checks

Risks that racist and misogynist police could slip through checks were increased by the government’s push to rapidly recruit 20,000 extra officers, a watchdog has found.

Vetting processes have come under increasing scrutiny following cases including the murder of Sarah Everard, the Charing Cross police station scandal, and the unmasking of a Metropolitan Police constable as a former member of a neo-Nazi terrorist group.

An annual report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary warned that “in too many cases, the system fails” to spot unsuitable officers during the recruitment process.

“The sheer magnitude and speed of the police uplift programme inevitably carries risks,” it said.

“There is a heightened danger that people unsuited to policing may get through and be recruited.”

Boris Johnson pledged to recruit 20,000 extra officers over three years during his first speech as prime minister in 2019.

The policy was welcomed after years of shrinking numbers caused by post-2010 budget cuts, but senior officers raised concern how almost a decade of reductions could be reversed in a third of the time.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), warned months after Mr Johnson’s announcement that because of the number of officers who retire or leave every year, around 50,000 would have to be hired to meet the target.

Questions arose at several national policing conferences over how the “quality” of incoming officers would be assured, but police leaders gave assurances that vetting standards would be maintained.

The inspectorate’s report said that failure could have “catastrophic consequences”, allowing the recruitment of officers with connections to organised crime groups, extremists and those holding “incompatible” views such as racism and misogyny.

“When unsuitable applicants lie on their application forms, conceal their social media activity, or play down their criminal connections, the quality of vetting needs to be consistently high,” it added.

Met Police officer convicted of membership of neo-Nazi terrorist group

Sir Tom Winsor, the outgoing HM chief inspector of constabulary, said that if officers do slip through the net, they should be identified and ousted as soon as possible.

“If during the probationary period, a constable displays behaviour like homophobia, racism, misogyny or dishonesty, it’s necessary to take that really seriously,” he told a press conference on Thursday.

“If they just say ‘well, he’s going to be a good cop, we’ll knock off the rough edges’, you’re storing up a problem that could last for 30 years.”

The inspectorate has been commissioned to do a separate inspection on vetting, and is expected to publish its conclusions this summer.

Its annual report said the “vast majority” of police officers adhere to the “highest levels of propriety” but that public trust and confidence had been damaged by a slew of criminal trials and misconduct cases concerning toxic attitudes, abuse of position for sexual purpose and dishonesty.

“When that trust is damaged by cases of flagrant violations, it is essential that public reassurance in the integrity and professionalism of the police is restored and reaffirmed as quickly as possible,” the report said.

Sir Tom would not comment on whether he thought that existing disciplinary processes, which have seen some officers promoted after being reprimanded for failings, were fit for purpose.

He said the question was “something the inspectorate is likely to be asked in the future”.

Sir Tom said he did not believe that the type of attitudes seen in the Charing Cross police station case was limited to London, but there was no firm evidence on how widespread racism, misogyny, bullying and other issues are.

“Whilst what has happened recently is London-centric it is not London-limited,” he added. “A regional chief constable said to me in the last fortnight: ‘We have this problem too.’

“As to how much and how bad it is, we don’t know at the moment.”

The watchdog called for police anti-corruption and standards to be well-funded and resourced with some of their best detectives.

The report, which is the last of Sir Tom’s 10-year tenure as chief inspector of constabulary, made numerous recommendations.

They included a call for fraud to be taken more seriously, for police to focus on preventing crime rather than merely reacting to it, and for other services to reduce the “unjustified load” caused by failures in mental health treatment.

Other issues identified were falling and detection rates for some crime types, many offences not being recorded and inconsistencies between different forces.

Three – Greater Manchester Police, Cleveland and Gloucestershire – are currently in the equivalent of special measures.

Sir Tom has long called for a reassessment of the current model of 43 regional police forces in England and Wales, suggesting it is “not fit for purpose” in the modern day, but the government has not signalled willingness to consider a restructure.

He said: “Criminality is often now complex and far more sophisticated, and investigations can take far longer. If the police continue to use 20th-century methods to try to cope with 21st-century technology, they will continue to fall further and further behind.”

The report also warned that with prosecutions at a record low, and huge backlogs in the courts, police “cannot meet 100 per cent of public expectations” and have to prioritise what they respond to and investigate.

“The public must decide how much threat, harm and risk they are prepared to tolerate,” Sir Tom said.

“Something has to give. Either some demand will not be met or will be met to a lower standard, or more money will be needed, or a mix of both. That’s a political decision for the public to make through their elected representatives.”

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: “Alongside our law enforcement partners, we will look closely at Sir Tom's final report, and the views and recommendations he has set out in relation to policing over the next decade.”

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