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Police Chiefs' blog: CC Sara Thornton - Who wants to be a chief constable?

14 Sep 2018

Right now, sadly, the answer to this is too few people. We need to ask ourselves why and act on it.

In 2015, more than half of chief constable posts that were filled only had one candidate for the job, with two candidates being the national average, and many assistant and deputy chief constables have serious reservations about taking on the role.

For those who do decide to become a chief constable, we have seen a substantial and increased turnover in a short period with an average tenure for chief constables in the last decade of just over three and a half years, 18 months less than their predecessors in the 1980s. More than half of chief constables – 26 – retired in the two year period between 2015 and 2017 alone. The turnover of female chief constables raises further concern, with the period between 2012 and 2016 seeing turnover 20 per cent higher than their male colleagues.

This matters, especially at a time when policing is already under strain as we deal with rising crime, demand that is more complex and an unprecedented terror threat with fewer officers.

Being a chief constable is hugely demanding and there are many great public servants in these roles. As the High Court described it, the office of chief constable is one of “constitutional significance”. Chief constables are rightly subject to significant scrutiny given the responsibility that they have and we want the very best officers to want to serve in these important roles. Currently, many do not.

My concerns are shared by the Home Office, chief constables and police and crime commissioners. The issues have been debated for at least three years, but there has been little, if any, progress.

While some analysis has been undertaken by the College of Policing into the difficulty of attracting people to chief officer roles, it has not distinguished between assistant, deputy and chief constable posts.

So in 2017 I commissioned some work to look specifically at how long chief constables were staying in post, to better understand the reasons for leaving, and why fewer assistant and deputy chief constables want to step up to the top jobs. We heard from recently retired chiefs whose voices have been missing from the debate, some of whom had left their roles in difficult circumstances.  Views were also sought from serving assistant and deputy chief constables, PCCs, HMICFRS and the Home Office.

The findings reinforce the importance and urgency of addressing a number of familiar issues. These include the inadequate preparation for talented officers, a perception that there are significant financial disincentives, concerns about the fairness and transparency of the recruitment process, and the concerns about the insecurity of the role of a chief constable if their relationship with their PCC breaks down.   There are other factors that we can’t solve - chief officers are now much less willing to move their families across the country for a job or to live away from home for lengthy periods.

All of these concerns, and others, are contributing to difficulty in recruiting the best and most diverse people for the top jobs. Diversity in leadership is proven to improve the quality of decision-making and innovation so we need to be inspiring and encouraging the widest possible pool of people to apply. This is currently not happening.

Those interviewed spoke candidly about their experiences and provided an important perspective.  We must listen to them, properly consider what they have to say and look at where we can make positive change. Police chiefs and police and crime commissioners all agree on this and we will be working together as part of a roundtable hosted by the College of Policing, looking at all the evidence, to help us do exactly that.