Written by Graham Bartlett

I’m always telling writers when advising them on crime and police procedure not to confuse seniority with competence. I’m allowed to say that given that I reached the same dizzy heights as Chief Superintendent Jo Howe, my protagonist in Bad for Good.

When I started out in the early 1980s, I was under the naive impression that the higher you got the cleverer you became. In fairness to me, those with crowns on their shoulders and scrambled eggs on their hats believed that too, so like the faeces they came out with, their mindset rolled downhill.

However, as I grew into my police boots it slowly dawned on me that great rank does not come with the omniscience we see and sometime believe on TV. On a serious note, such assertions have led to some of policing’s darkest moments. The Hillsborough disaster is too complex to unpick in this article but to put a newly promoted Chief Superintendent with little recent experience of policing football in charge of such a high profile match when better qualified commanders were available was sheer folly.

When I was a young DC, I was enthralled by a particular Detective Chief Inspector who in briefings would pick on the newest and quietest on the team to voice their views on lines of enquiry or the likely guilt or innocence of a particular suspect. He insisted we all spoke and reminded us he didn’t have the monopoly on good ideas. He took pride in running with the thoughts of those who had a firmer grip on the details than he. In my very early days, having recently arrested Ian McLaughlin for a burglary in the same area as a homophobic murder, I plucked up the courage to suggest him as a suspect. I was right and he was eventually jailed for life. Tragically, he killed again in 2013 when on day release from prison and will now die behind bars.

At the other end of my career when, suddenly, I was trained then charged with making the big decisions during firearms and public order operations, you’d never find me without a tactical advisor within arm’s length.

Tactical advisors are the Regimental Sergeant Majors in any operation. Massively experienced and politely assertive, they are invariably larger than life. While they make no decisions themselves, only a fool ignores their guidance. One of the most inspiring of these was PC Jonny Reade, who one day was working for alongside a very competent Silver Commander during a huge city-centre protest.

As an ex-Army officer, Jonny knew how the rank structure worked and respected those who made courageous decisions, especially if they sought his counsel beforehand. His military training gave him a mastery in making his succinct advice, delivered in beautiful received pronunciation, sound like orders. That day, someone had briefed me that things were not going well and officers were under attack. In a reflex response I leapt up the two flights of stairs, a plethora of possible disasters racing through my mind.

As I reached the command suite, I burst through the doors and glanced at the bank of CCTV screens. A line of anxious-looking police officers were stretched out along the Churchill Square shop fronts facing a hostile crowd. The tension in the room intensified by my presence; as Gold, this was not my domain. I should have remained more detached. I suddenly became aware of Jonny stepping forward, blocking my path.

‘Sir, I am just wondering whether this is the optimum place for you to exercise effective strategic command at this very moment.’ he eloquently suggested.

Before I could argue, with a broad grin he clarified, ‘In other words, would you mind just f*&£ing off for a few moments? Just a few, you understand. Silver and I will pop next door to see you just as soon as we have resolved a few issues.’ Before I could argue he held the door open for me and said, ‘Thank you so much, sir, I knew you would understand.’

Like Jonny, these Police Constables and Sergeants having a war-story for every occasion and are encyclopaedias in any given situation. The decision always rests with the commander, but any senior officer is destined for a very short career if they pull rank over these gems.

In creating Chief Superintendent Jo Howe for Bad for Good, I wanted to reflect this dynamic. She is an assured yet, like all of us, slightly flawed leader. She knows that, so goes to great pains to draw out opinions and suggestions from her juniors whenever it feels right. Occasionally, like me, she’s exasperated when her officers become all coy and clam up. She knows her strengths and weaknesses and relies on those around her to plug the gaps. If they don’t, then carnage is bound to ensue.

Bad for Good by Graham Bartlett is published by Allison & Busby on 23 June in hardback at £16.99 and also available as an eBook. Read SHOTS' review here.

Graham Bartlett

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