I left the Metropolitan Police Service two years ago. I had 14 years’ service and had reached the dizzying height of Detective Chief Inspector. As I celebrate this anniversary I’ve taken some time to reflect on why I left and what I’ve learned over the past two years.
Why did I leave? Well, for many of the same reasons anyone is currently leaving mid-service; the deteriorating pay and conditions, the politicisation of the service, the general climate of hostility towards policing as manufactured by a Government who have no idea what policing is for and frankly I became disillusioned because I felt like I couldn’t do the job I’d signed up to do. All that I’ve seen over the last two years has endorsed my decision to leave when I did. I left still very much loving the job, or at least what the job should be. I am happy that I’m no longer putting myself (and my family) through the rigours of serving during these desperate times, but I’m also saddened by what’s happening to friends and colleagues, to my kin. It is this sense of kinship that has only got stronger for me since leaving, of feeling closer in many ways to those who understand what public service means; the sacrifices, the messy compromises, the comfort of surrounding yourself with people who’ve stood with you in the darkness. A darkness that no matter how hard you try, you take home with you, and changes you.
Is the grass greener outside the job? Well yes and no. When I left the service, I wrote at the time that it felt liberating. This is still true today as it was then, but I found that liberation comes at a cost. In the service you have a pretty rigid structure around you. If you want promotion, then there are processes you must subscribe to (although it often feels like they’ll never get them right), if you want to develop yourself laterally, there are processes for that too. Since leaving I must confess that at times, I have felt rather un-tethered. I left mid-service and don’t have the backstop of a pension, so this has been at times quite daunting as I learn the rules of the private sector. Police Officers don’t have anywhere near the same level of support to transition into other roles that the Armed Forces have. This needs to change.
It hasn’t been easy. In many ways being a police officer has defined me for so long that it can feel like I can’t be anything else. I used to look at (some not all) colleagues approaching their 30-year mark and think of them as being horribly institutionalized. But when I reflect on the last two years it’s clear that I didn’t escape from being institutionalized too and there are days when it feels like the service still holds me like an invisible tracker beam. I remember last year when my wife and I took our son to get his birth certificate I was asked for my profession and I had a moment of existential crisis. For our first two children the answer was easy; “Police Officer”. But what am I now?
I am truly amazed and heartened when I look across this post-policing landscape to see that like me, most of my former colleagues are working in jobs that are still very much in keeping with the public safety ethos. Many have started up their own consultancy firms and advise the service, wider statutory partners and the Government on how to protect people. I guess you can leave the service, but it never leaves you. It is clear that they, we, still have so much to give.
For me, the idea of policing has never been that it is solely the preserve of the police service. Plenty of other actors have a role in keeping the public safe that didn’t take the Attestation. And given the scale of what can only be described as a Government-led assault on the police service, these non-service actors will be even more important in helping to keep the public safe. I am not for a second condoning what feels to many like a slow move towards privatisation of the police service. Rather, I do believe that non-service actors are well placed to support the police in meeting the new challenges of cyber-crime, online sexual grooming, but certainly not replace them.
What do I miss? Being part of a group of phenomenal people bound by a shared purpose. True, there were times when it felt like I was surrounded by people who were miserable, cynical, worn down by years of working in a high-stress, high-risk job where every day you look into the dark heart of man and discover things about yourself you never wanted to know. But, alas, they are my people.
I miss the knowledge that you can sit in a room with your peers and know you all started in the same place, that you earned your spurs. True, some of this shared experience will be lost with the diversification of the entry routes into policing, but as long as the bedrock of the service is made up of those who are willing to do the shifts, to sacrifice time with their families at short notice, and to go into John Sutherland’s “hurting places”, then the service will always be rooted in the reality of its central purpose; to protect people. It is that shared purpose, the humility, and the gallows humour that goes with it that I miss.
Do I regret my decision to leave? No. It became clear that my destiny lies elsewhere, even though it hasn’t necessarily revealed itself to me yet. Would I go back? Well, I’m aware that many of my former colleagues who served their 30 years have received letters gauging their interest in returning. I’m interested to see how the College of Police will implement their 2015 Leadership Review recommendations to effectively create a more porous barrier around the police service, encouraging people to transition seamlessly from policing into other sectors and back. We shall see. I’m not convinced the College knows how any of this would work and even less about the dynamics between the public and private sectors. Apart from the meeting I had with my Chief Superintendent where I handed in my resignation letter, I still find it hard to believe that I was never formally asked why I was leaving. The service continues to miss opportunities to learn more about what is happening to its people, and why they are leaving in increasing numbers.
I’ve played my part in the service. Now I do what I can to help from outside. When I see what the service is being subjected to it fills me with a great sadness, particularly since every man and woman I served with is worth ten of those in Government who treat them with nothing but contempt. It makes me angry. In many ways I am now restricted to the role of spectator, but it hurts just the same.
To those still serving; what you are doing matters. You must never stop believing that. I can honestly say that the most fulfilling days of my life were when I was serving with you.
– Craig McCann | Twitter @CraigJJMcCann
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