Whats in a name?

The nickname given to by his parents during his first year of life stayed with him throughout his life. Lucky for him the name RED given to him because of the colour of his hair was one he liked.

His friend, CHUBBY, felt differently about the name given to him by his parents.  Overweight as a youngster, the nickname drew many laughs from family and friends, making him sad and at times angry.  Could one speculate that he remained overweight throughout his life in order to live up to his name?

Over these past months policing culture has been an almost daily discussion point within our national media.  Numerous examples of toxic individuals and teams have resulted in many people asking what’s going on within UK policing?

Two stories are relevant to my ‘stab’ at an opening monologue.  Police Officers Wayne Couzins and David Carrick were serving police officers at the time of their respective convictions for kidnap, murder, sexual offences and domestic abuse.  What connects both officers are not just that they served with the Metropolitan Police, nor that they were assigned to the same unit but the reality that both had been assigned nicknames by their fellow officers, nicknames that appear to have followed them in their police careers.

Couzins was known as the ‘Rapist’ by his colleagues whilst Carrick was referred to as ‘Dave The Bastard’.  The question is why such nicknames were given to both men and why were these nicknames continued to be used and accepted by colleagues including supervisors.

Nicknames are names used to refer to people that differ from their real names. They’re often variations on given names and surnames, but sometimes don’t refer to the individual’s name at all. Nicknames can be related to people’s interests and physical appearance.  Nicknames can be fun, a term of endearment within known peer groups.  However, nicknames can also be given to describe a person’s known personality.

In the cases of both Couzins and Carrick the names assigned communicate known and often visible attributes of both men.  The badge of ‘rapist’ isn’t something you are randomly assigned, especially by those in your peer group.

So why these names?  To me both suggest the presence of problematic and/or harmful attitudes or behaviours that were seen by colleagues.  Maybe they came from colleagues who felt uncomfortable in their presence.  We all get that instinct that something isn’t right.  Our heart starts to beat that bit faster, the hairs on the back of our neck rise or simply we just know that something isn’t right. 

We’ve all heard the phrase “Don’t sweat the small stuff”.  The idea that we will always have bigger things to deal with.  When it comes to dealing with organisational culture, for me, it’s the small stuff that needs addressed.  Now I don’t want to minimise behaviours such as jokes and demeaning language, but the reality is that society, that’s you and me, does this already.

In my work addressing violence I’ve concluded that all abuse and violence will evolve and continue without interruption.  This suggests that the crimes these officers were convicted of started way before the crimes took place.  This will be an uncomfortable conversation to have but it’s a fact.  The nicknames themselves support this.  I can guarantee there will be officers today who will regret not doing more. 

This moral injury/trauma is real and will eat away at those officers who worked around these men.  To be clear I don’t judge these officers.  For many years police critics have complained that officers who allow police misconduct to happen do more damage to the community’s trust than the officers who commit it. Yet they have not been a focus. Officers across the country have been told they must intervene, but they have not necessarily been taught how to do so.

We tend not to act when such behaviours occur and delay direct intervention to when harm is clear.  In the cases of both Couzins and Carrick we have seen that in the days after their crimes became clear.  Both serving and retired officers communicating their abhorrence to the actions of these officers.  That’s important but we need more.

In my work with police, it’s in the early moments that we want officers to act and not be silent or use such names as part of team banter.  When we do, we both add to the power of these men and remove power from their victims.  When we connect these early signs and we learn to notice that this happening we can then act 

This tweet posted yesterday nails it for me.  An acceptance that as police officers we need to learn to notice.  As I teach in my work its then about  “what you do with what you notice”.

I think it’s important to move from officer responsibility to organisational responsibility.  The more I hear about nicknames like this being assigned to officers I also think about the apathy that clearly exists within policing.  The idea that “all I can do is give someone a nickname” or “maybe this nickname will warn others about them” needs some focus and action.

Apathy is clear in organisations like the police and why police leaders require to do more to support their assets.  Currently, senior leaders simply communicate a need to act.  You know what? officers already must act.  The code of ethics requires that.  My message to police leaders is clear.  Police leaders working to address police culture. Never forget what it was like when you joined. What challenges did you face?

The reality is that the challenges are similar.  Officers fail to act for many different reasons.  A major one is that they don’t see support from within the organisation.  Many feel unsupported by senior leaders who at times are invisible to them.  Also, many officers fear being seen as the troublemaker, the fun-sucker or the grass.  Feeling supported by colleagues is key.

Currently, officers are feeling ashamed of what they are learning in the media.  Many are vocalising their feelings.  To police leaders please capitalise on this moment.  This is both a reachable and teachable moment for policing.  The idea that you will be seen as a troublemaker in my view is a misperception that police culture itself has created.

The realities I see currently in my work delivering Active bystander-ship and peer intervention training to officers from West Yorkshire police are clear.

  • Officers agree that some in policing don’t deserve to wear the uniform and need to go,
  • Officers are uncomfortable when they see harm taking place,  
  • Officers respect other officers who challenge such behaviour, and
  • Officers often regret not helping friends.

When we begin to better use the healthy norms we know exist in policing we start to follow the science of prevention which will benefit a profession I was proud to serve within and now support.

Nicknames can be fun but as we are seeing they are often the ‘Red Flags’ that present opportunities for intervention.

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