Police have lost their discipline, says head of constabulary watchdog

Andy Cooke has called for a return ot discipline among police officers - Kirsty O'Connor/PA
Andy Cooke has called for a return ot discipline among police officers - Kirsty O'Connor/PA

Police forces have lost their discipline and need to return to the days of “immaculately polished boots” to regain the trust and respect of the public, the chief inspector of constabulary has suggested.

In his first Annual State of Policing report since taking over at His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), Andy Cooke said it was not old-fashioned for the public to expect high standards when it came to appearance.

Mr Cooke, who was chief constable of Merseyside Police between 2016 and 2021, said new recruits who joined in the recent uplift programme might have different ideas about how they ought to look, but he said first impressions were important.

He said: “Discipline is a critical prerequisite for high standards. Over the past decade, to some extent, the police service has lost its discipline.

“In most forces, gone are the days of immaculately polished boots, ties or cravats and custodian helmets.

“But first impressions are important. If the police want to be seen as professional, they need to look professional.”

He went on: “If supervisors are letting the small issues go, like officers not looking smart then what over things are they letting go as well? That discipline needs to be drummed into police officers from the start of the service.”

Mr Cooke, who joined HMICFRS last year, taking over from Sir Tom Winsor, insisted he was not calling for a return to “Dixon of Dock Green” times, but said trust and confidence in policing was at an all-time low and forces needed to “show professionalism” and focus on “getting the basics right”.

He said there had been a drop in standards in policing, with scandals, such as the murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens and the unmasking of serial rapist David Carrick, leaving the public “horrified” and “disappointed”.

Mr Cooke stressed there was a “limited window of opportunity” for policing to rebuild public trust and said the way to do it was to focus on delivering high standards in areas such as investigations, victim care, integrity, courtesy and professionalism.

Public trust ‘hanging by a thread’

The report published on Friday also warned Chief Constables to stay out of politics reminding them they were not there to champion social change or take sides but to uphold the law including preserving the right to free speech.

Some police forces have been criticised for intervening in “non-crime hate incidents” such as Twitter spats. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, has urged them to focus on fighting crime.

Mr Cooke said: “The police are there to uphold the law as it is written by parliament and the judiciary and you don’t have to like the thoughts and mindsets of the people you are protecting, but you have got to protect them nevertheless.

“This country has got a proud record of mainly keeping politics out of policing that should not change and it is not for individual police chiefs to decide which causes they support or not. They are there to uphold the law.”

Mr Cooke, who spent 36-years as an officer, said public trust in the service was “hanging by a thread” and called for “definitive action” and “substantial reform” to turn things around.

He said the withdrawal from neighbourhood policing was one area that needed addressing, describing it as the “building block” of the service in England and Wales.

Since 2010 the number of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) has been reduced by almost half from 16,377 to 8,263.

Mr Cooke said: “Neighbourhood policing isn’t just ‘nice to do’. It is fundamental to the police’s relationship with the public and to preventing crime.”

He also called for new powers for the HMICFRS to force chief constables to implement their recommendations.

“Over the years, we have repeatedly called for change. There are only so many times we can say the same thing in different words. It is now time for the Government to bring in new legislation to strengthen our recommendations,” he explained.