Skip to main content

Police vetting needs to change – but how?

As police forces focus on rebuilding public trust, Deloitte hosted a conversation on vetting and standards with leading figures in UK policing. Our UK Policing Lead Partner Andy Willmer shares his takeaways.

Policing in the UK is in a state of shock, reflection and change. The appalling crimes committed by police officers and repeated revelations about behaviour have damaged public trust and left the policing community searching for answers. From the Home Office to individual forces, the entire system is reflecting on what has gone wrong and what changes need to happen.

Front of mind for many police leaders are vetting and standards. Last year, an inquiry by the police inspectorate looked at 725 individual files and found 131 where the vetting decision was ‘questionable at best’. Their report concluded ‘it is too easy for the wrong people both to join and stay in the police’. Five months later, a review found significant improvements, although not all forces had made enough progress. There’s no doubt that vetting – as a key part of ensuring police standards – needs further reform to get it right.

Earlier this summer, I hosted the first of a series of conversations between senior officers, expert staff and national figures in policing. The aim of the series is simple: I want to provide a space for practical discussion on the issues facing the UK’s forces. Former West Midlands Chief Constable Sir Dave Thompson chaired, and the conversation focused on vetting and standards. I’d like to share my five takeaways.

1. Vetting needs to be continuous and part of police culture

There was a consensus in the discussion that forces need to stand back and rethink what vetting is all about. Too often, it’s treated as a distinct and transactional process whereas it needs to be an ever-present part of police standards and culture. Everybody needs to feel a shared sense of responsibility, so it never feels like someone else’s problem. There’s also a danger that vetting is seen as a mechanism to protect the police – but clearly it exists to protect the public, and that’s why getting the regime right is so vital. That’s an important mindset shift.

Vetting also needs to be constant. At present, it’s like an MOT – done at one moment in time. But people are not static. Someone could pass vetting with no red flags and then their behaviour declines over time. Another might be turned down after admitting casual drug use in their teens when they could have become a good officer, given the chance. Redemption is possible, and so is degeneration. A shift to constant vetting, not least as part of appraisals and feedback, would have the ability to pick up those changes over time.

2. A balance needs to be struck between local and national

Vetting is currently done by individual forces, but a balance needs to be struck between what happens locally and nationally. There’s clearly a good argument for a national vetting service which could bring stringency, consistency and cost-effectiveness. It could bring in the best technology as well, which will be increasingly important as our digital footprints grow and police approaches to standards need to respond accordingly. Importantly, a tech-enabled national approach would also be able to make connections in data held by different forces, which could be crucial when officers and staff transfer between them.

But there’s also an argument for local engagement in standards. There’s no substitute for supervisors who know their people and can identify concerns. Local managers can notice dysfunctional behaviours that can grow, for example, in niche teams with a low turnover and a higher risk of an inward-looking culture. There’s real potential for a system of ‘Responsible Officers’ who essentially sign off on ‘fitness to practice’ rather than a system that tries to catch those that have already broken the rules.

Overall, the future of vetting needs to be the right balance between stringent, national standards and perceptive, local engagement. And perhaps it needs to be less about identifying those that have done wrong and more about ensuring a fitness to practice for all – that's a significant shift, but one worth exploring.

3. Policing needs to reset its expectations

Leaders and experts at our discussion argued that policing needs to reset its expectations of how administrative and intrusive vetting must be. Some argued that at the moment, expectations are simply too low. Part of the mindset and cultural shift that needs to happen is an acceptance that officers and staff need to be held to the highest standards, and that will mean intrusion along with an administrative burden.

There’s also merit in exploring pre-emptive and pro-active vetting interventions. In the US, some law enforcement agencies have identified the factors that make some officers more likely to use excessive force than others. Highly pressurised roles or exposure to dangerous situations can and will affect people. Understanding those factors mean that forces can put support and interventions in place around at-risk officers.

4. Something as vital as vetting needs to be resourced as such

Vetting is a crucial part of ensuring public safety and our conversation concluded that it needed to be resourced as such. Chief constables are inevitably focused on short-term issues that require urgent responses, but vetting is an issue that can create tragedies downstream. Forces need to make sure their vetting officers are able to focus on the right things, and have the right technology to help them deliver.

Government and every part of the policing community need to accept that people who would abuse power in the most horrendous ways are out there. The Harold Shipman case showed a high level of resistance in the NHS and police to the idea that a doctor could be a serial killer. Opportunities to make connections about his earlier addiction and convictions for fraud could have saved lives, and the same is true in policing. It’s not an area where errors should be seen as inevitable or acceptable, and that means it needs adequate resources. Our roundtable took place before details about the appalling murders by Lucy Letby came to light.

5. The clock is ticking

Our conversation with police leaders and experts began by recognising that the clock is ticking. Policing needs to act fast to rebuild public trust and take all the steps it can to keep dangerous criminals out of its forces as well as identify those whose standards are falling back. The public knows that the horrendous events of recent years are isolated incidents, but they will not forgive inaction.

Concluding thoughts

Police standards and the vetting processes that underpin them self-evidently need to change, and it needs to change fast. The only question is how – and I hope these takeaways from our conversation with policing leaders help inform the answer.

I’d like to thank everyone who brought their insight to our conversation on vetting and standards, and allowing me to share these observations.

Did you find this useful?

Thanks for your feedback

If you would like to help improve further, please complete a 3-minute survey