UK’s Chief Constable Sara Thornton on creating a police force of the future

Let’s face it: chances are we’ll all be a victim of crime at one time or another. And what do we do when that happens? We turn to the police for aid and reassurance. It’s a basic human reaction.

Sara Thornton fully understands this. It’s what prompted her to join the police back in 1986, and the desire to help and to protect has been a constant presence during her meteoric rise up the ranks. It’s a journey that has culminated in her current role serving as the first chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), a position that gives her unparalleled oversight of the ever-evolving challenges facing today’s force.

“It’s important to remember that crime is changing all the time,” she points out. “Whether it is child abuse, fraud, cyber – there are massive changes in what we’re dealing with. And it often doesn’t make sense to do it in isolation, or in siloed police forces.” Throw in the fact that police numbers fell by 36,000 between 2010 and 2014 (with predictions that the overall police workforce could be cut by a further 35,000 over the next few years) and it is clear that what worked in previous eras is no longer suitable now. A period of change and adaptation is unavoidable.

Moving with the times

Chief Constable Thornton has been leading the NPCC since it was established in April 2015 to coordinate the operational work of the UK’s 43 police forces and help develop national approaches on issues such as finance, technology and human resources. Its creation occurred as part of a programme of police reform overseen by the then home secretary – now British prime minister – Theresa May.

“Chief constables had always worked together nationally under the old Association of Chief Police Officers,” explains Thornton. “But what we have been doing in particular is working with the new police and crime commissioners and other bodies like the National Crime Agency to establish a joint vision for change and a joint board that can oversee a national work programme going forward.”

She goes on to say that May’s vision for police reform was that the next stage should be overseen not by the central ministry but by police forces and commissioners. “She believed that sustained transformation would only be successful if it was police-led,” says Thornton. “So it was a political directive that gave us the go-ahead to start thinking about transformation and how we are organised, how to invest in digital and how to develop the workforce over the next five to ten years.”

They have wasted little time in getting down to work and Thornton points out that although most police funding goes direct to the forces themselves, some has been allocated for specific transformational programmes. It is clear she is relishing the opportunity to have an active voice in shaping the future agenda.

“This is absolutely preferable to Home Office policy people deciding what we should do,” she says. “We have lots of good relationships with teams in the Home Office but on the whole you’re working with policy people who don’t do the actual delivering. Now, though, the board can commission, develop and support transformational work within the police service, which means we have a say in identifying and prioritising the initiatives that affect us as police officers.”

Tips on transformation

Thornton’s career has seen her switch between operational postings in West London and roles at police headquarters within New Scotland Yard, culminating in her promotion to be chief constable of Thames Valley Police – a role she held before moving to the NPCC. This combination of experiences stands her in good stead for her NPCC role, which demands strategic nous as well as experience of the reality of frontline policing.

“The whole idea about transformation – particularly around technology but some of it about procurement and building up people’s skills – is about investing now to save money later,” she says. “It’s about modernising so there are fewer steps needed in the process, working out where we can automate more, how we can professionalise teams so they need less supervision – all this kind of thing. But transformations are never easy – trying to get alignment from people with very different motivations is always a challenge.”

That transformations are a challenge was illustrated by the fact that – initially at least – the police board were considering three definitions of what the term meant. They eventually settled on: “a shift in the business culture of the service resulting from a fundamental change in the underlying strategy and processes that the police service has used in the past”.

Thornton says it was crucial to get agreement and buy in from everyone on what it is they are aiming for. “The reason why we did this was that we saw in the paperwork that people in different forces were using different phrases to describe the same thing,” she says. “As home secretary, Theresa May talked about transforming policing to meet future challenges and building capability to respond to these crimes. She also talked about shared capabilities and platforms and wider and deeper collaboration – so in a way she further defined the kind of transformational change that she wanted to see. But a lot of it really does come down to collaboration. The phrase we’ve been considering is ‘planned interdependency’.”

Words of advice

The opportunity to work with her peers on matters of national security and importance is something that Thornton evidently derives much satisfaction from. Her career arc has been underpinned by the knowledge that she is making a real contribution to the public good. “It’s very satisfying to be doing something that matters,” she admits. “This is a great motivator even when things are tough, because if you’re working in public service you’re doing something that really counts.”

Her arrival at this position in her career is the result, she believes, of a combination of hard work and reluctance to settle for second best. “I’m a big believer in the concept of being as good as you possibly can be in what you do,” she concludes. “Don’t spend all your time focusing on trying to get up the next step of the career ladder because people don’t like that. If you’re in the room, then be in the room, if you’re in the job, then be in the job.”

There’s no doubt Thornton is…