Policing after the death of George Floyd – a police disciplinary view

It’s not just about the rotten apples, it’s about fixing the barrel

Matt Gardner, former head of Police Professional Standards at Scotland Yard

Matthew Gardner retired in 2019 after 30 years’ service as a Chief Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard, London. He was the Head of Professional Standards & Anti-Corruption from 2015-2019 where he led a team of 430 police officers and civilians responsible for following up all complaint allegations relating to racism, harassment, bullying and corruption. He is an evaluator for the European Commission on anti-corruption and  works with CurbingCorruption on anti-corruption and professional standards in policing.

The world is asking questions around the death of George Floyd, and rightly so. The circumstances of his death cannot be defended and the officers responsible are now rightly facing the US justice system. The challenge for the United States is that this is not the first time this has happened and community lack of confidence in America’s police forces has been brought to the fore-front of debate, again.

The immediate focus of this tragic incident is how the police forces in the United States operate. However, a broader debate has also now surfaced, of how police forces operate in other countries across the world in relation to brutality, harassment, corruption and racism; the anger and debate about police forces is legitimate, as evidenced by the demonstrations around the globe.

Photo by Giulia Spadafora / NurPhoto via Getty Images

This weekend in Bristol, UK, public frustration and anger resulted in demonstrators pulling down the statue of Edward Colston – a renowned slave trader. Years of  political debate about whether such a statue should still be acknowledged was ended abruptly as the demonstrators threw the statue into the river. In Belgium, a statue of King Leopold was graffitied with the words’ shame’ as a result of his oppressive acts against the Congolese people.

It is clear that the death of George Floyd has rapidly expanded into a plethora of issues that people across all spectrums of life are now demanding answers upon, and they are demanding that action is seen to be taken. His death has catalysed the debate on the inequalities of race and opportunity in each of our societies, people want to see change and they want to see it now. That demand for change ranges from a review of policing accountability, to a review of how people from minority groups were instrumental in developing countries into the democratic states that we have today, to how this is recorded in our history books, and to how this is taught more openly within our education systems.

In view of what needs to change in respect of police accountability, there are obvious challenges that need to be tackled by the United States and more generally, by the wider international community. Some individuals or groups may question my suitability to reflect on such an emotive issue, as they may believe me to be defensive of policing ‘at any cost’. But I think I offer the opposite perspective, because I had overall responsibility from 2015-2019 for overseeing the professional standards and behaviour of all of London’s 30,000 police officers and 15,000 police staff. My department was vigilant in setting the tone of London’s Metropolitan Police Service, defining what was right and what was wrong, following up all complaint allegations relating to racism, harassment, bullying and corruption. In London’s Police, Professional Standards and Anti-Corruption is a major department. I led a command of 430 people – 350 police officers and 80 civilian staff. I was the senior officer responsible for identifying police misconduct, overseeing the investigations and seeing discipline meted out.

The most crucial issue of all for a police service is that of legitimacy, which equates to trust. If trust is lost, it is a long way back for any policing authority. I feel that the United States is at, and in many areas, has already traversed over that ‘crossroad’. To recover that position requires the public to trust their police officers, and for this trust to be present, or in the case of the USA, for this trust to be re-built. Communities have to see their officers act with the upmost professionalism and restraint, even in times of great challenge, indeed, especially in times of great challenge. This ‘challenge’ is what separates police officers apart from society, the ability to show that restraint in adversity, challenges which few other professionals have to face. This restraint has to be learnt – it comes from training, training and more training.

What are the fundamental steps that are needed to regain legitimacy, whether in the case of the USA, or  across the world, given the light that has now been placed on international policing in general. In effect, what is needed to re-start on, or continue on the path of legitimacy? I believe there are three areas of action for police forces: values, transparency and consistent application.

Step 1 is Values. Values are the backbone of any organisation, they define the way we live and breathe, they are our core way of working, our ‘raison d’être’. Values are supported and driven through leadership, tough requirements for personal integrity, such as regular vetting, and a code of conduct which defines what is acceptable and what is not for police officers. The code of conduct draws a line in the sand as to what we do and how we do it. It is supported by various aspects such as a strong ‘whistle-blower’ policy and a complaint intervention scheme, which identifies officers with a recurring complaint history, to proactively ask, ‘why is this happening’ – instead of reacting when it is too late. In Europe, a recent review of corruption concerns in law enforcement agencies shows there are significant deficiencies in many European countries – another reminder that this is by no means just a US issue[1].

A good Complaint Intervention Scheme enables line managers to proactively question an officer’s behaviour and where necessary, challenge, investigate and ultimately, dismiss. I understand from media reports that the officer involved in George Floyd’s death had numerous complaints for using excessive force. It would be useful to know how and if this behaviour was addressed, which again, brings me back to my original point on transparency and legitimacy. This all needs to be shared with communities once the ‘full facts and evidence’ are identified. A code of conduct captures innumerable issues and advises a police service on how to address challenges.

Step 2 is Transparency. Communities need to see with their own eyes that police forces are accountable when things go wrong, that they are above reproach. The system to provide that transparency are internal professional standard units or internal affairs departments. Here lies the challenge as some community members simply do not trust ‘the police, policing the police’. To address this, we need independent oversight from the external government ombudsman and better still, community groups which are actively engaged in reviewing and adding reassurance that processes are fair. For the United States to recover from the present position there needs to be a fundamental review of the countless examples we see in the media of police ‘crossing that line’, especially with minorities, exceeding their  authority and acting as an outside entity, above apparent approach.

How do we best take away the inclination that police investigating police simply aids a cover-up?  I remain convinced that in large police forces – with an officer head count exceeding 5,000 – a stand-alone function within a police service to perform this role, supported and challenged by strong external oversight, is the best method we have to date. I know that in smaller forces this is more challenging. We could move to a position of independent oversight, whereby outside bodies would conduct misconduct investigations, but these have a mixed record; although they have the advantage of being independent, they lack the professional skills and resources to sustain the investigations.

To ‘seep transparency’, we need to be clear in releasing findings when misconduct cases are investigated, sharing all the evidence when in the public domain and sharing that evidence in great detail. The media have a social responsibility to accurately report on the evidential facts, and not seek the ‘sensational headline’.

Step 3 is consistent application. By this I mean application of the rules of behaviour identified in ‘conduct regulations’, not walking by, but addressing and challenging inappropriate behaviour and setting a tone. Step by step, this sets the culture of an organisation. This starts from the top and is the responsibility of all. In reverse, and just as importantly, it is also about identifying ambassadors for change, identifying excellent work and placing high performing officers on a pedestal and by doing this, as an organisation you effectively say: ‘this is what good looks like, this is how we want you to behave’. From my experience, this is what 99.9% of police officers set out to do on joining a police service. As in all walks of life, some lose their way, some meander and some turn bad. For the minority that turn bad, this is why, legitimacy and transparency, supported by a rule book in the form of a code of conduct are required, to drive an organisation’s values and change culture, so that we have a police service that our communities can trust.

The inequalities that the tragic death of George Floyd have raised have pushed this to the fore-front of our minds like I have never seen before. This is an opportunity we need to take as individuals, as a community, as societies on a national and international basis. As Covid-19 has tasked us to change our ways physically, the death of George Floyd is now asking us to change our ways mentally, and change we must.

This is one of two blogs from CurbingCorruption on policing after the death of George Floyd. The other (here) is on international experience of police reform. It is from Mark Pyman the lead author of ‘Arresting corruption in the police: the global experience of police reform efforts’ (here) and founder of CurbingCorruption, an organisation that brings together experience of successful reform  worldwide.

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[1] The Group of States Against Corruption, or GRECO, is the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption monitoring body. Among its other functions, GRECO conducts regular peer reviews of its member states – predominately European countries and the USA. The two main focus areas for the current evaluation round is ‘corruption and prevention at the top executive function in the central government’ and ‘corruption and prevention in law enforcement agencies’.  So far, fifth round assessments have been conducted for 18 of GRECO’s 50-member countries. The most significant gap that the GRECO evaluators have identified to date is the inadequacy of a code of conduct for Law Enforcement Agencies


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