For today’s Daily Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with London Metropolitan Police Commissioner and PERF Board Member Cressida Dick. The Metropolitan Police have dealt with many of the same issues as police in the United States, including COVID-19 and demonstrations after the death of George Floyd. Commissioner Dick discussed those issues, and her approach to leading through this challenging year, including the awful incident in which a Metropolitan Police sergeant was shot and killed inside a police station last month.


Wexler: The U.K. is experiencing a second wave of COVID. Tell me about your experience with the first wave and how you think this one might be different.

Commissioner Cressida Dick:  I’m sure it’s the same “across the pond,” as they say, but it feels like a very long time ago that we started out dealing with the first wave in March. When I look back at that, we were thinking about the government bringing in the biggest restrictions on members of the public’s lives since the Second World War. We didn’t actually know how the public would respond to these restrictions, but we knew they could fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between the police and the public if we weren’t careful.

We set out to achieve some things as we went forward. First, to support the Health Service’s response and the country. To try to make sure we didn’t end up with a policing crisis, crime crisis, or security crisis at the same time as a health emergency. To try to ensure that we kept our people safe and resilient, and that the public would be reassured by our presence at a fearful time. And to continue to deal with our biggest priorities. For us that’s violent crime on the street. We didn’t want to stop building for the future. We wanted to carry on thinking of the long term as long as we possibly could. And the overriding thing was that we wanted to come out the end of it with the relationships between the police and the public in as good a place as they could be, ideally as good as or better than we went in.

People complied to a pretty high level, and more than people expected. People were fearful of things like public disorder, looting, and that people would take no notice of these regulations. But actually, most people did comply. We set out to be in tune with our ethos and stick to our values. We generally don’t turn to enforcement first, so we decided we would be out there to engage with people, explain, encourage, and then only use enforcement if we have to.

We issued a relatively low number of penalty notices under the new restricts and made even fewer arrests. But we did do some. When one group was accusing us of doing far too much, or doing it in a way that was unfair, I worked it out, and we were issuing one ticket per every 129 officer shifts in the first three months. So we didn’t do an enormous amount of active enforcement, but we had a very high-level presence.

Broadly speaking, the surveys would suggest the public thought we got that about right. There were high-profile stories where people thought we had either done too much or too little. But the surveys still seem to show that six months on, people think that we’ve got it about right.

Wexler: How were your employees impacted by COVID-19? How did you protect your workforce?

Commissioner Dick: One thing we did is talk to colleagues in other police services in Europe and across the pond, so we tried to learn whatever anyone else had done when they were further down the curve than us. We did not have a terrible level of sickness, attrition, or death like the NYPD, but at its peak I had a number of officers and staff ill and in hospital. I’m glad to say that we haven’t lost a police officer through COVID. However, sadly, we have lost three members of staff.

We’re 40-something thousand strong, and I think we stayed far more healthy and resilient than we feared. That’s probably partly to do with our demographics. We have quite a lot of younger people and we’re quite an active bunch. I think it’s to do with our underlying fitness to some extent.

We tried to follow, as sensibly as we could, the government guidance as it changed. But the reality is policing involves getting up close and personal with people quite often. We carried on arresting people. In fact, we were arresting people at higher rates than before. We carried on delivering all our normal services. We just had different levels of personal protective equipment. If you were going to be dealing with somebody who had perhaps died of COVID, then you would have much more equipment on than if you were just walking down the street on patrol.

Wexler: Many U.S. agencies significantly cut back their arrests to limit interactions with the public where the virus could potentially spread. Why did you take a different course?

Commissioner Dick: We did stop doing some of the minor arrests. We tried to say to people, “If you’ve got somebody who is wanted on a nonpayment of fines warrant from three or four years ago and they are unwell and vulnerable, you really don’t want to be bringing them into custody.” As we went on, we understood more about who was likely to be most affected by this and the different demographics of this. I think we did apply some common sense there.

Crime went down and our overall demand went down, apart from COVID, because we had far fewer events. We do a lot of public event policing, public order policing, security policing at the airports, and protecting the royal family. We took officers who weren’t doing that work and put them out on the street.

Frankly, drug dealers and other people who shouldn’t have been on the street and were up to no good were very visible. As such, we were able to make a large number of arrests. Proactive work also led to some very significant arrests against serious organised criminals and gang criminals, meaning some very dangerous people were taken off London’s streets. We seized record amounts of cash, drugs and weapons. So, we adapted our services to limit the virus spread, but I believe it was very important our public saw us on the street and in the media and knew we were continuing to fight crime and criminality.

We hugely increased the detection of things like domestic violence. If officers had not been able to do as thorough a job as they’d like in the past, they now were. Or they could go back and look at crimes they had reported a few weeks ago and investigate them thoroughly, because they actually had a bit more space and time.

Wexler: Have you seen an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic?

Commissioner Dick: We had a 7 week national lockdown of very, very strict measures which were then followed by slightly relaxed measures up to July 4th after which they relaxed further. Now we’re going back to slightly increasing the restrictions again. During that first period, we knew people might not be able to report to us so easily. We did everything we could keep in touch and send messages. I think we were arresting 100 domestic violence abusers per day at one point. But we didn’t see a huge surge afterwards. Our surge has been much less than some countries have reported. We have seen an increase, but not huge. And we don’t think there’s such a big increase going on behind closed doors, although some of the NGO helplines reported they were getting more calls.

Wexler: Many cities in the United States are seeing an increase in homicides and shootings. Are you seeing any change in violent crime?

Commissioner Dick: On violent crime, we’re watching what’s going on over there and we’re not seeing that here. We saw a big reduction in the early days of the lockdown. We’re still seeing reductions overall. We’ve seen a high fluctuation in gun crimes and shootings, but nothing like what’s happening over there. It’s just been up and down but not a very significant overall change. And other forms of violent crime are down. Overall homicides in London are down this year.

We are having slightly similar challenges with our criminal justice system, although I think, again, not so extreme as in the U.S. We haven’t had prison releases, nor have we totally stopped the criminal justice system. But it is very difficult to get the most violent criminals through the Crown Court. A lot of our cases are gang-related or just a lot of individuals at once. Getting big cases like that organized in a court during COVID is quite hard. But we’re not seeing that rise in violent crime.

Wexler: What actions is the country taking to address the second wave of COVID?

Commissioner Dick: We have some restrictions in place at the moment, and a lot of guidance as well. As you would expect, more people are working remotely. Fewer people are coming into their offices and are out on the street. There’s general awareness about the importance of social distancing. We have to wear masks in shops, on the Tube, and in public transport.

We’re taking a regional approach at the moment to increasing restrictions. Some parts of the country are at a much higher rate of transmission and all their figures have been heading fast in the wrong direction, so they are now at a higher level of restrictions. Other regions such as London are now at the next level of restrictions. This includes people not “mixing households” indoors.

Some of it is just guidance. Some of it is legal. Some of the legal stuff is quite hard for the police to enforce. When we go to the next level, much of the enforcement won’t necessarily be done by the police; it will be done by others with the police.

The most important thing is to deal with the most egregious breaches. That will send a message to other members of the public that this really matters. And it will help people buy into the community approach. “I need to do this to keep my mum and my neighbor safe. And I will do this if I think the other person, who’s not doing it, is going to get into trouble.”



Wexler: How did the demonstrations after the death of George Floyd here in the United States impact your agency and the U.K. in general?

Commissioner Dick: Our first big protest was the 31st of May. We had six really big ones in central London. They were very difficult to police effectively but were largely peaceful. They were, of course, completely contrary to the health regulations, because you weren’t supposed to be gathering like that.

A Black Lives Matter protest started and it was very plain to the commanders on the ground that it would’ve been inappropriate or impossible to stop these protests, and would’ve probably resulted in disorder. So the protests went ahead. We had five in central London that were really quite challenging, in terms of large numbers, no real organization or plan, no safety planning by the organizers because there wasn’t really an organizer, and a lot of people milling around for a long, long time. Toward the end of those protests, some BLM protesters became violent. On one occasion some very difficult far right counter protestors were violent early in the day.

Four of the big protests resulted in quite significant aggression and violence towards the police at the end of the day. I had an utterly unacceptable number of officers assaulted. Having said that, it was a small handful of the total - 15,000 people came out, maybe 1,000 were very aggressive, and a handful were physically very aggressive. But it was very difficult.

I’m really proud of how the guys and gals dealt with it. I’m sure we’d do some things differently in the future, but I think we dealt with it proportionately and in a manner which didn’t alienate or lead to things going from bad to worse.

Those large-scale protests finished and other small ones went on happening all around London, but were very peaceful with no major issues. The still happen to this day occasionally.

We brought about 250 people to justice. I look back and think that was a difficult period for us, because as they went on and on and on, I had some very tired people. It was very high-profile. We had some instances where a statue of Winston Churchill was damaged and people got angry about that - understandably.

We had a spike in hate crime afterwards, but that has now reduced.

Some young people here don’t really draw much of a distinction between here and the States. There was a massive focus, in a 95% really good way, on racial justice and the inequalities that there are in our society, in socioeconomic terms, in health, in education, in employment, and in outcomes, particularly in our African- and Caribbean-heritage communities. But there was a massive focus on police and policing – whether we were fair, whether we were doing it right, whether we can be trusted, and whether we’re representative.

I think it has dented people’s confidence overall, and I think our public attitude surveys will show this. Some of that I think is unfortunate and not really very fair. But I also think there is a lot more for us to do to be a service that is providing the best possible service to our black citizens, is truly representative of the city it serves, and one that all my black colleagues can truly thrive in. We’ve had some very strong soul-searching internally, like most big organizations. George Floyd’s death has caused an enormous amount of questioning in organizations, by ordinary members of the public, and in the political circles. We’ve got various commissions going on looking at this subject. I think there will be some really positive things from it.

We haven’t had that serious violence that you’ve had. We haven’t had what looks like a real breakdown in police-community relationships. We haven’t had quite the politicization I think you’ve had.

Wexler: “Defunding” police has been a common topic here. Has that come up in England?

Commissioner Dick: It is talked about. But I think it’s seen as quite a niche argument and extreme argument. It is not one that has been adopted by any of our political parties or any politician in power in this country.

My mayor, for example, is asking some hard questions of the police service, but he is not looking at defunding. He believes that all the public services need more funding, and he doesn’t think he should be shunting money from policing into other public services.

I think most people over here find the argument a bit ridiculous. They see that these defunders don’t have any answers to the question of what do we do about violent crime in the meanwhile. We can understand that better social services and mental health services may lead theoretically to less necessity for policing and conflict between police and the public. But what are we going to do about violent crime?

My budget is still growing. I’ve lost no funding. The only funding that we might find harder is because of the economy and the fiscal position. That’s obviously a serious COVID effect. But right now we’re still growing, and I’m confident for now that we will.



Wexler: My deepest sympathies on your recent loss of an officer. Can you tell us what happened in that incident and any lessons to be learned from that?

Commissioner Dick: What happened to Matt Ratana, my sergeant, was just so awful and very unexpected for us. He was a truly exceptional man and police officer and it has shocked everyone in the service and in London. We do occasionally lose colleagues, but it is very rare compared to the big American services. It’s just a rare thing for us, and not something people expect in their daily work, particularly not in a custody environment.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct is looking at all the circumstances here. We have a homicide investigation running in parallel. Part of our job is to bring the suspect to face justice. He’s still alive, although he was also shot in the melee. He’s very unwell, so we’re not sure when we will be able to bring him to justice. But I certainly hope so.

One of the jobs of the Independent Office for Police Conduct is to tell us straight away if there’s a major safety lapse, either something an individual should have done or if we have something in our system that needs fixing. They haven’t done that here.

So it’s a horrible thing, but it comes back to that balance on the street. On one hand, we have to get our job done, and on the other hand, we have to keep the public, our officers, and our detainees as safe as we reasonably can. And we have to ensure that we uphold their human rights and their dignity.

I’m reviewing every step to look at our training, our practices, our standards, and whether technology can help us any more. We’ve only made two changes so far, and neither of them are huge. One is a very tactical thing in the custody suite, which is about ensuring that until someone has been thoroughly searched, the sergeant who goes to speak to them will be wearing their protective vest, though that isn’t a ballistic vest. The other one is we use metal-detecting wands routinely in the custody environment, but we don’t use them routinely on the street. We’re putting them out on the street for people to use whenever they have detained somebody, and they can use them in stop-and-search as well under our law. It’s an extra possible line of defense, not to take away from any of the other practices of safety and searching. But it may occasionally discover something you can’t discover with a normal search.

Those are the only two changes we’ve made at the moment. Clearly there will be a trial and/or what we call a “coroner’s inquest.” These full investigations will throw detailed light on what exactly happened.

We’ve had a huge amount of support, and the guys and gals have felt encouraged by the amount of public support.



Wexler: Have you ever experienced anything like this last seven months? What is your approach to leading through such a challenging time?

Commissioner Dick: I haven’t seen anything like it, I don’t think. I sit in a police service that every year has some quite big challenges. My first year as commissioner in 2017 we had all those terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire. The next year we had a huge amount of concern about knife crime. Then we had some difficult protests in 2019 with the Extinction Rebellion climate protests. So we’re always having new and different challenges, some of which take a lot of effort by the whole of the Met.

But I’ve never seen anything quite like this. I think it is extraordinary. I encourage my team to look at how much harder it is for people in other environments. I think that’s one way to help yourself stay resilient. Whether you’re looking at law enforcement across the pond or in other parts of the world, I think the challenges have been greater than we have faced. When you look at what our National Health Service colleagues are dealing with, that’s greater than what we are wrestling with. We all, at the moment at least, have quite good financial security and we are able to get out and do things. A lot of our citizens are facing major financial insecurity. So I do believe that the grass actually is not greener elsewhere, and if you remind yourself of that, it helps you carry on with what you’re doing.

I find a huge amount of inspiration from the fact that my people seem almost endlessly adaptable and mission-focused. They’re very keen to help the public in this difficult time.

It’s a horrible crisis and very challenging for the whole country, but as a leader, it’s really interesting. My leadership team has been great and I love working with them. And the whole Black Lives Matter set of issues is probably the most intellectually challenging for us. And not just intellectually. I’ve been in the police service for nearly 40 years, and I’ve made it my life’s mission to try to bring justice and be part of a fair police service that is getting stronger and better at delivering fair service to everybody, including our black community. I don’t like seeing my service criticized, and I don’t like people losing confidence in it. I’ve watched some of my team get quite emotional about this, because it’s what we really care about. So it’s not just an intellectual exercise in leadership, it’s an emotional exercise in leadership as well, to keep people positive, accept valid criticism, and carry on doing the very best for our public and improving and changing for the future. And actually putting up with criticism from all sides, some of it unfair, and getting on with it.

I’m enjoying the leadership challenge. But for most people it’s been a more tiring year than most.

If nothing else, my service has shown massive resilience, and that is being commented on by politicians all around the place. That’s something to be proud of. And the fact that the vast majority of the public see us as having done a good job this summer is something to be proud of as well.

I think it’s going to be a difficult winter for the city, the country, and probably elsewhere as well. We pray that next year the city might be functioning economically and manage to keep the virus under control, and people can have a bit more hope in their daily lives.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.