Lady Elish Angiolini’s recommendations as part of the Sarah Everard inquiry look set to fail, writes Matrix Security Watchdog’s Susie Thomson. Her firm offers digital pre-employment and background screening services.

A welcome recognition and confirmation of the failure of the police recruitment process to effectively screen candidates, the first report from the inquiry into the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by off-duty Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens is a timely warning to all large organisations. But does it tell us much more than we already knew? In reality, it arguably raises more questions than it answers.

Surely anyone aware of the tragic events immediately knew there were huge flaws in the police vetting process and that it required a significant overhaul. They didn’t need a report to tell them. They also likely knew the reticence within the force to not only to acknowledge unacceptable behaviour, but also to report it. This surely sheds serious doubt on whether vetting can be handled by the police internally – certainly in the current environment. What’s more, they probably knew that there is every chance other officers in the Couzens mould exist within the force.

In the face of all these already obvious red flags and the intolerable tragedy, it is disgraceful that it has taken two and a half years for this report to be published. Not only that, but although it is full of good intent to make the police recruitment process more robust, where is the deadline for when this must be achieved by? Or the process to measure its effectiveness.

Furthermore, who is going to take ownership of the reform, stand by it, take the key decisions and ensure it works? No new vetting policy, methodologies or practices will be effective unless they are supported by clear ownership of the whole process. To be frank, there is simply no meat on this menu.

Warning shots

Moving on to the report’s recommendations, which will be incorporated into the current Authorised Professional Practice (APP) on Vetting guidelines, there are some worrying signs from a professional recruitment screening perspective. In the new rigorous world of police candidate vetting, each applicant will undergo an in-person interview and home visit before screening and onboarding is progressed. This is to gain a better insight into a candidate’s background and lifestyle. Yet, this is something that will not only be time consuming, but also can be fabricated relatively easily.

It’s strange that this is a key recommendation. Surely, it would be better to set out the rigour that should be applied to the screening process, covering the latest vetting techniques to build a complete picture of candidates not dependent on their personal input. Take social media checks as an example, which can be fast, accurate and cost effective if carried out in the right GDPR-compliant way.

These checks audit an individual’s online presence, painstakingly looking for behaviour incompatible to the role they are applying for. This might be activity that would compromise their ability to carry out their job to the required standard, put colleagues and the general public at risk, or be politically sensitive, potentially damaging the reputation of an organisation. The process also identifies possible privacy issues, such as leaking information.

Performed properly, social media checks are more detailed and quicker than traditional screening methods and can be presented in an easy-to-interpret report. This helps protect an employer without breaching trust with the candidate, accelerating as well as improving the selection process. Ideal for a body like the police that is both cash strapped and resource light.

Lacking bite

Thankfully the current APP acknowledges the social media issue, setting out that “forces should check content on publicly available social media sites”. However, the process suggested for doing so is worrying flimsy, lacking any true rigour. Worryingly, the guidelines recommend a “proportionate” approach should be taken, in which “forces need not spend excessive time in researching”. “If the subject cannot be found in a reasonable time period, a ‘no trace’ conclusion can be drawn.”

This is all far too vague, while drawing a no-trace conclusion from such a wishy washy approach is simply a disaster waiting to happen. What’s more, it seems like police forces are expected to carry out this vital work themselves, despite the huge pressure on existing resources and no previous experience in this complex field.

Thorough social media background checks require specific expertise. They use powerful screening and online behaviour evaluation tools designed to assess a candidate’s social media profile fairly and objectively. This is not something that can easily be handled in house without the risk of breaching privacy guidelines.

This makes the introduction of independent expert screening in police recruitment essential to not only ensure vital social media checks are carried out meticulously, so no one can slip through the net, but also to relieve the burden on an overstretched force and protect the vetting process from any internal bias.

Regular, but not random

Another troubling recommendation is the introduction of randomised re-screening for police officers after they’ve been with the force for set periods of time. Regular vetting of employees is good practice to ensure they are maintaining the standards required of them and because the process should not stop once recruitment has ended. However, carrying this out randomly is ill-advised. First, it enables people to slip through the gaps. Second, it can result in discrimination claims by those singled out for screening.

Re-screening must be regular and comprehensive, particularly in public sector organisations like the police where citizens could be put at risk. It’s particularly important in policing where officers regularly experience traumatic events that can be life-changing and psychologically damaging. Again, social media checks are an ideal re-screening process, which could be incorporated into an ongoing officer wellbeing programme. The overall rise in corporate fraud also makes the process highly relevant for all large organisations beyond the public sector.

The findings of the report by Lady Elish Angiolini are undoubtably welcome, if a little obvious – and late. But its recommendations need more work and perhaps expert input and guidance if they are to succeed in reforming the currently broken and dangerous police recruitment process, which underlines the ineffectiveness of the APP. Rather than seeking merely to update these guidelines, the inquiry should carry out a complete overhaul. Only then will more appalling events like those we’ve seen recently be avoided and public trust truly be established in our police.

Originally published Professional Security | April 2024

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