Rob Jones did not always want to be a policeman. In fact, he did not know what he wanted to be. Upon graduating from Oxford University, Jones trawled his net through the open seas of unemployment, fishing out a school of opportunities that stretched from one side of the Atlantic to the other: a Masters course in America, a special needs charity at the Bank of England and a graduate programme at the Metropolitan Police. After some demurring, Jones picked the third option. 22 years on, the Colchester local is set to become Borough Commander for the Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster Police Unit, one of the 12 newly created Basic Command Units in London.
The Met’s planned merger of 32 Borough Command Units into 12 Basic Command Units has ruffled a few feathers. In a bid to save £325 million by 2021/2022, the police body announced that 20 police stations will be sold over the next four years as part of a radical restructuring. This reduction, combined with 30,000 decline in police officers by April next year, has done little to allay fears about rising crime in the Capital. As of February 2019, the nearest police station for residents of Kensington & Chelsea will be in Hammersmith, an extra 1.5 miles away from the current Kensington Police Station. Given that there has been a 9% rise in reported crimes in the Royal Borough this year compared to the same period last year, but Jones, who will start his new role as Borough Commander next year, does not believe that a change in location presents a serious challenge: “When you look at the BCU geographically, it’s really small,” says Jones. “It is dense, but the distance is much lower compared to other bigger BCUs who have far less police officers”. What concerns Jones more is the recalibration of officers to the adjusted police boundaries. “It’s important to have knowledge and understanding on the ground…because they need to learn their new surroundings,” says Jones. “At the moment, it is quite rare for emergency police officers to go somewhere if it is close, but not in their borough”.
Another serious challenge that Jones faces is the high level of internal resistance to the merger. In previous interviews with KCW Today, several officers voiced their displeasure at what they perceived to be a gutting of the Met. Budget cuts have had a depressing effect on morale and the relationship between on-the-ground officers, and management has become strained. Jones, who is tasked with integrating the officers in his Basic Unit, suggests that this problem is not a novel one: “Police officers are amazing, but they are quite cynical and don’t really believe in their managers,” says Jones. “When you look at the staff survey, they think that their own team is great, but the further out that you go, they start to think “they’re not that good”. Jones adds that there is a “powerful culture” inside teams, but this tight kinship can also create a mentality that “nobody else is working quite as hard”. Before finishing, the Borough Commander is briefly interrupted by the mellifluous jingle of a Zimbabwean procession en route to its parent embassy next to Charing Cross Police Station. It is not until the rhythmic drum beats of the procession are punctured by the dull roar of building works next door that Jones continues: “I find it quite frustrating because the vast majority of officers like me have done time on the front line and we’ve done those jobs before,” says Jones. “It’s not like we just forget that when we go into management”.
By his own admission, the trajectory of Jones’s rise through the ranks was far from linear. On two occasions, the bespectacled officer failed the sergeant’s exam, resulting in his removal from the police graduate scheme. Losing the scheme was a heavy blow to Jones, but it also illuminated important blind spots. Undeterred, Jones stayed with the Met and quietly worked his way up to the position of inspector and thereafter, was posted to Hackney as a duty officer. “I developed enormous confidence from doing that key role,” says Jones. “It provided me with all the management skills that I didn’t have before, which is why I failed the sergeant’s exam”. Bookish and slender, Jones does not fit the archetypal mould of a London bobby, but there is an unbending resilience about him. The Borough Commander openly dissects his failures in a way that a tennis player might in their post-match interview with Sue Barker. During the Olympics for instance, Jones was posted to Newham, the Olympic Borough, for his first BC job. “Here,” says Jones, “I became staff officer to the last commissioner, which I found really hard and I did not stay in that role for very long, because I wasn’t very good at it”. It was another setback for Jones, but the officer moved into another branch of the Met, transformational change, before returning to operations with the new skills that he had learned. “What has kept me in the Met for so many years,” says Jones, “is that whenever I’ve had a job that I haven’t been good at, the Met is big enough for me to do other jobs that I really love and feel incredibly fulfilled and privileged to do”.
It may be shrinking, but the Met remains a broad church. When Jones first interviewed to become a police officer, what swayed his decision to join more than anything else was the sheer breadth of people working there. “They were just lovely and incredibly mixed, which is a real feature of policing,” says Jones. “In my current position, I’ve got quite a few people with PhDs who are PCs and I’ve got people who were brought up in foster care who came into policing with no qualifications”. In London’s cultural mosaic, this level of diversity is unquestionably one of the Met’s most valuable assets. As police boundaries are redrawn, officers will be moving into communities hitherto unknown, but Jones, who speaks with the same boyish enthusiasm that he likely had on his first outing (‘puppy walk’) with the Met, says: “I’m excited about this role because it has already gone live in two Boroughs…We learnt a great deal from this pilot period… I believe it will go much smoother because we know where the barriers are”.