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Opinion

Police trust is at all-time low after years of scandals. This is what I learned from new recruits

Radio 5 Live host Chris Warburton visited a police training centre to learn about the challenges facing new recruits

Every driver knows what it’s like to see the blues and twos – the flashing lights and sirens of an advancing police car – in your rear-view mirror as you quickly manoeuvre out of the way. Seeing it from the other side is as exhilarating as it is eye-opening, as I discovered when PC Damien ‘Damo’ Stevens, a driving trainer for Durham Constabulary, took me up to speeds of 90mph on a city ring road during Monday morning’s rush-hour. It certainly wasn’t a normal start to the week, but then my visit to the Meadowfield Police Training Centre in Durham, was some distance from a normal day.

I was there to host a live programme as part of a month-long ‘Policing the UK’ series on BBC Radio 5 Live, in which we’ve explored wide-ranging issues around law enforcement. For the past 17 years, Meadowfield is where rookie police officers for the Durham Constabulary have learnt to do the job.

And on this day, in this huge, aircraft hangar like facility, I witnessed 24 brand-new recruits taking part in a dizzying series of role-playing scenarios; learning skills such as methods of restraint, use of a taser, gaining entry to a property and, eventually, learning to drive like Damo. There’s a fake high street for training exercises, complete with a betting shop and a pub called Joe’s Tavern, which is fully equipped with a dart board, fruit machine and fake blood on the floor.  

The newbies I was following were on the three-year Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship. Among them were 27-year-old James and 22-year-old Lily, who was still getting used to seeing herself in uniform. “It might sound cliched, but I want to help people, and I want to push myself,” she told me. “My mum cried, happy tears though. My grandma wasn’t so happy because she’s worried about me, but once they saw me in the uniform, they were all so proud”.

James is embarking on a massive career change. Just a few weeks ago he was the manager of a high-end restaurant. “It’s going to be so different,” he said. “It’s a much more active role and I needed a new challenge in life.” Enthusiastic new recruits like Lily and James will be welcomed into the force with open arms, but the heady excitement of so many new faces can’t hide the serious recruitment challenges of recent years.  

First there’s the numbers. Many of the new officers coming into the system are replacing the approximately 20,000 who left between 2010 and 2019 as a result of government cuts. While the number of police officers is now a few thousand higher than 2010 levels, the population has also grown, by about 7%, since then. On top of that, the latest Home Office figures have shown a drop in the number of police officers in England and Wales between March and September of last year, the first reduction since 2018.

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Then there is the resulting lack of experience. Currently, a third of all police officers in England and Wales have less than five years’ experience where the length of service is known. That’s more than double the number six years ago. “We have definitely suffered with reducing officers and then increasing really quickly,” the new chief constable of the Durham Constabulary, Rachel Bacon, told me.

“There are [fewer] experienced officers than there were and that does play out on their capacity and capability to deliver… but we do engage heavily in tutoring, mentoring and supporting new cops,” she added.

There are also the years of horrendous headlines around police culture. Has the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer, along with the reports of institutional sexism, racism and homophobia in the police system, had an impact on people wanting to join? Chief constable Rachel Bacon acknowledges the challenge but told me the difference the ‘new recruits’ want to make outweighs some of those issues. “They are the difference for the future. We are still getting really good-quality people who want to join.”

She and her team really do believe that the new recruits joining today can change the reputation and public perception of the police. Time will tell, as Lily and James take their very first step on that long journey.

Watch highlights of BBC Radio 5 Live’s ‘Policing the UK’ series. Chris Warburton presents Weekend Breakfast on BBC Radio 5 Live every Saturday 6-9am and every Sunday 7-10am.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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