Why are UK Police Officers Fleeing the Force?

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London police by Charles Roffy via Flickr

Reports that U.S. police officers are retiring early and that recruitment efforts are meeting resistance get sympathetic nods from their counterparts across the Atlantic.

Police attrition rates in the UK have soared. According to the government’s Home Office figures, the number of voluntary resignations more than doubled from 1,158 in the year ending March 2012 to 2,363 by the year ending March 2020.

That amounts to 1.83 per cent of the total police officer population, up from 0.86 per cent back in 2012, and an increase of 104 percent in eight years. There is no reason to expect that the 2021 figures will reflect any change for the better.

The reasons are not hard to find―and they are troubling.

A November 2020 survey taken by the United Kingdom’s Police Federation, which represents the interests of rank-and-file police officers, found that 55 percent of the respondents had been physically assaulted during the pandemic, including being spat at or deliberately coughed on with an intentional threat of deliberate COVID infection.

The survey revealed that officers believe there has been a lack of empathy with their plight, particularly since they have not been given early access to vaccinations to help ease their worries over infection

The police are not being afforded any special dispensation to jump the queue for immunization despite their daily exposure to risk. In the UK the emphasis is on immunizing the population by age and vulnerability, not by any specific occupation.

In February 2021, the Police Federation published an open letter to the Government demanding action. It was ignored.

The feeling of unease in fact predates the pandemic. A rolling two-year survey by the Federation released in September, 2019 blamed low morale for the fact that so many officers were leaving the service early in their careers. Some 40 per cent of the officers admitted stress was a major contributing factor in their decisions to resign.

There is no doubt that policing in the modern world is a demanding and often difficult occupation. In the UK, as in the U.S., the financial pressure has made it even more difficult.

Since 2010, successive governments have reduced their policing budget settlements each year and forced police chiefs to lose 22,000 frontline officers in order to make ends meet. A police constable’s salary is currently set at £20,880 (USD $29,064), rising to £40,128 (USD $55,900) after seven years of service.

Low salaries are another contributing factor to early retirement cited by the Police Federation. A national pay increase of 2.5 percent has now been agreed for 2021.

But it remains an open question whether it will attract sufficient numbers of new recruits to reduce the pressure on officers now operating with increased workloads, longer hours and cancelled rest days and holidays.

Police chiefs are rightly worried.

The government has committed to recruiting 20,000 new police officers over the next three years, but this will bring its own set of problems. The drain of experienced officers leaves precious few to help train and mentor the influx.

Police chiefs predict that within five years up to 44 per cent of officers will have less than three years’ service.

“Not enough thought is given to this,” Rick Muir, director of the Police Foundation, the UK’s independent policing think tank, told the Daily Express last summer.

“There is a big focus on the additional 20,000 officers. It is a race to get bums on seats. That raises questions of whether they will get people who will stick it out. The percentage increase in officers voluntarily resigning is concerning. For one thing, very many of those people will be needed to supervise, train and mentor those recruits coming in.”

A report released in March 2021 by the University of Portsmouth has taken the search for the causes of the high attrition rates to another level.

Surveying police early retirees over a five-year period at one medium-sized UK police force, the report uncovered a number of internal organizational issues that may have led to the exodus. They included: poor leadership and management; the lack of any robust supervisory support; a lack of lateral career progression or promotion opportunities; and difficulties in managing caring responsibilities with the demands of work.

Such issues, the researchers concluded, were more relevant than any operational factors, and had a direct bearing on officer’s decisions to resign.

“By any measure this rise ( in voluntary resignations) is steep and troubling, especially when coupled with a more complex policing landscape requiring knowledge and experience,” the study’s author, Sarah Charman of the university’s Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, said in an interview with Newswise, the university’s news blog.

“It seems more important than ever, therefore, to provide an insight into a relatively under-researched aspect of policing: why police officers resign prematurely from the police service through what could be argued to be avoidable turnover.”

In fact, more research is likely to discover that the traditionally accepted causes of attrition, attributed to the stresses of operational policing – violence, abuse, assaults, excessive workloads― are equally matched by the inability of the service to lead and manage its members effectively.

A government-commissioned strategic review of policing is currently underway, led by eminent academics and former senior police practitioners. The review will likely lead to recommendations to address some of these issues.

That’s a good start. But even without the review, some things should be clear.

While the stresses of operational policing will always result in some officers leaving early, there is no excuse for poor leadership and management in a service that has always prided itself on this.

Gareth Bryon

Gareth Bryon

In a profession where it has always been said that “big boys don’t cry,” there needs to be better training of managers to recognize indicators of stress in their colleagues.

Surely, understanding what is necessary to foster and engender an organizational commitment to the health and wellbeing of rank-and-file officers is critical to stem the rising tide of resignations.

Gareth Bryon is a former Detective Chief Superintendent who worked as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigation and forensic science services for over 30 years.

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