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Bullying and Harassment in the Police Service

In recent months there has been a considerable amount of attention paid to the prevalence and impact of bullying in the workplace. The severity of alleged bullying offences in the military training setting have been sufficient to warrant investigation by the police, and yet in countrywide research conducted across a range of occupations by Hoel & Cooper (2000), policing itself emerged as one of the top five occupations at risk of bullying.

There are a number of sources such as the Media, Parliamentary Questions, and police organisations that may give guidance as to the perceived relevance of the problem to the Service. For the purpose of this article, three of these: Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC); Force policy documents; and, published bullying research, will be reviewed.

Issues considered of profound importance to policing tend to generate focussed or thematic investigations by HMIC: bullying per se has failed to attract such attention, but it has been argued that harassment, whether or not on specific grounds such as race, religion, or disability, is a manifestation of bullying (Björkqvist, Österman & Hjelt Back, 1994). It is therefore unsurprising that the issue of bullying has been touched on within the seven HMIC thematic investigations since 1993, looking at race and diversity in which calls have been made for a "working environment free from any unfair practice, bullying, prejudice and discrimination…" (HMIC, 2003a: 1.10).

In addition to these thematic investigations, HMIC also carry out audits into individual Forces. Bullying, as a specific subject is not investigated as a matter of course, but problems relating to bullying have emerged during such inspections, for example:

    "... an examination of grievances during 1999/2000 showed that of the 24 made, 50% related to bullying in the workplace." (HMIC, 2001a: 6.20)

    "A concern that was brought to the attention of Her Majesty's Inspector on a number of occasions and by a range of staff related to the presence of a bullying culture in some part of the organisation." (HMIC, 2001b: 3.10)

    "Her Majesty's Inspector was disappointed to hear evidence from individuals within the Force that there may be instances of an unacceptable tolerance of bullying, racist or sexist behaviour." (HMIC, 2003b: 2.39)

McIvor (2004) contacted Forces in Great Britain (45 UK Forces plus the Police Service of Northern Ireland) requesting details of policies on bullying together with available figures on bullying grievances. Of twenty-eight Forces responding, one was not willing to take part in such research, one had a policy not to take part, five had no specific document addressing bullying of officers, and one had such documentation as a 'work in progress'. The timbre of all the policies received was clear and unequivocal: "Bullying and harassment will not be tolerated or condoned", "Bullying is a disciplinary offence and in any form, for whatever reason, will not be tolerated", "No form of bullying or harassment will be tolerated", "Bullying of a physical or mental nature, whether or not amounting to sexual or religious harassment will not be tolerated".

Thirteen Forces gave actual figures regarding bullying grievances. These suggest an average of 5.97 (range 0-26) formal complaints per Force per year. This figure contrasts with in-house surveys carried out by two Forces where bullying rates were recorded at between 16-26% of respondents, and with empirical findings by external researchers, which suggest that as many as 29% of officers will have experienced bullying in the previous five years (Hoel & Cooper, 2001). In an exit poll of police officers across ten Forces conducted by Cooper & Ingram (2004), 31% of police officers transferring or leaving the Service said that bullying and / or discrimination was an important factor in their decision to leave.

The publication of anti-bullying and / or diversity policies, are ideals that might suggest to the outside world that the organisation has an ethos of fairness in the workplace but if such policies are to be taken seriously and are not be seen as mere window-dressing, the Force needs to act upon them. If bullying goes unchallenged, as suggested by one of the preceding HMIC references, or managers experienced as bullies receive acclaim for meeting targets irrespective of the means by which these are accomplished, it is probable that officers and staff will not only perceive a culture which tolerates, condones, or even encourages bullying, but an organisation the integrity and ethos of which is to be mistrusted. A degree of cynicism amongst the rank and file in Force commitment to the eradication of bullying is indicated by the following HMIC quote, "...members are losing confidence in the procedures to deal with bullying and harassment (most frequently - pressurising to get work done)" (HMIC, 2000:4.40). Similar reservations were expressed in the Cultural Audit Report published on the Internet by South Yorkshire Police (2002), which suggests both uncertainty about the support for people reporting inappropriate behaviour (4.5.5: 9) and uncertainty about dealing with bullying and harassment in the workplace.

The evidence emerging suggests that bullying should be considered an issue of some concern to the Police Service. Whereas specific mention of bullying has only been made in a limited number of HMIC Force reports, research findings indicate a more far-reaching problem. In a Service that interacts directly with the public the way in which officers treat each other is seen as important indicator of police / public interactions as expressed by HMIC: "If officers treat each other in a fair and non-discriminatory way, this will manifest itself in an improved service to the public" (HMIC, 1999:5.1.6).

Organisations that rely heavily on in-house resources for training and auditing are more likely to endorse and perpetuate outmoded behaviours. The organisation itself provides the norms against which behaviour is measured, thus events that would be considered bullying and unacceptable in other settings may be normalised by tradition. Opening up an organisation to external scrutiny might seem uncomfortable, but this discomfort should be weighed against the possible long-term benefits that awareness of, and possible changes in, intra-organisational attitudes towards bullying might have on recruiting and retention figures.

Björkqvist, K.; Österman, K.; & Hjelt Back, M. (1994). Aggression among university employees. Aggressive Behavior, 20, 173-184
Cooper, C.; & Ingram, S. (2004). Retention of Police Officers: A Study of Resignations and Transfers in Ten Forces. RDS Occasional Paper No. 86. London: Home Office
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (1999). Winning the Race Revisited: HMIC Thematic Inspection, 1999. London: Home Office.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (2000). 1999/2000 Inspection: Gloucestershire Constabulary. London: Home Office.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (2001a). 2000/2001 Inspection: Derbyshire. London: Home Office.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (2001b). 2001/2002 Inspection: Dyfed-Powys Police. London: Home Office.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (2003a). Diversity Matters: HMIC Thematic Inspection, 2003. London: Home Office.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (2003b). Inspection of Professional Standards: Hampshire Constabulary, November 2002 - June 2003. London: Home Office.
Hoel, H.; & Cooper, C. (2000). Destructive Conflict and Bullying at Work. Manchester: UMIST.
Hoel, H.; & Cooper, C. (2001). Destructive Conflict and Bullying at Work: Special Version of Study Report Commissioned by the Police Federation in England & Wales. Manchester: UMIST.
McIvor, K. M. (2004). Bullying in the Police Service: Constructs and Processes. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. University of Surrey.
South Yorkshire Police (2002). Cultural Audit Report. Retrieved April 2004 from:

Copyright Dr. K.M.McIvor 2005

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