It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… This is “a tale of two CCs”, of contrasting police leadership styles and a decision dividing them on either side of the thin blue line upon a clothing patch. The first CC in this story is the Chief Constable (CC) of Northamptonshire Police, Nick Adderley. The second ‘CC’ is the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Mark Rowley QPM.

The tale reflects upon how the Commissioner recently banned Met police officers from wearing the ‘Thin Blue Line’ patch on their uniforms. In contrast, the leader of Northants force not only encouraged his officers to wear the patch, but even offered to pay for them with his own money! ‘Patchgate’ might aptly capture the strength of feelings expressed around this seemingly humble piece of apparel.

On the face of things, this seems a straightforward matter; surely police officers all agree that Mark Rowley landed on the wrong side of the debate, while Nick Adderley (a popular police leader) did it right? But this blog is for aspiring leaders, who need to take a more considered, dragonfly-eye view on such controversies.

In this blog I explore this thin blue line decision from different perspectives. Importantly, this includes what leadership learning you can glean from the controversy as part of your ongoing CPD. We’ll explore facets of decision-making and emotional intelligence, both essential leadership skills. I’ll also pose some questions to provoke wider thinking beyond instant judgement.

“Thinking is difficult, therefore let the herd pronounce judgement.” – Carl Jung

Is ‘Patchgate’ a simple decision for both leaders? Many police officers and members of the public, (especially in the Twitter bear pit) appear to think so, and they may well be correct.

But is it an equal decision for both the Commissioner of the Metropolis and a CC of a provincial force, given their differing, pressures, pushes and pulls? Some people appear to have thought about this, others for no more than the few seconds it takes to post on social media, before scrolling onwards and upwards.

More importantly, how are you thinking about this? Have you arrived at a decision yet? How did you make your decision? What detailed information did you have to support you?

On reflection, what scope (if any) is there for you to (re)consider? Or is this simply an open and shut case and you are firmly settled on one side? Here’s more questions to help you think:  

  • Is it possible both leaders have made a good decision at this time, given the information they have available?
  • Nick Adderley has said “I pass no comment regarding the communication sent out by the Met police, re the wearing of the thin blue line patch as I have no detail regarding it.” Do you believe Nick Adderley could make the same decision, if he was the current Met Commissioner?
  • Does the Met Commissioner need to tread more gently around such issues, given recent damning reports and the challenge of regaining public trust and confidence?

Aren’t there nuances or dynamics, which mean things can be (and often are) done differently in the Met and across 43+ forces, in order to maintain public trust, confidence and support legitimacy among local communities? Consider for example that the Met has 46,000 officers and staff serving 9 million people across an incredibly diverse city. Northamptonshire has under 2,500 employees serving a public of 0.7 million people.   With those initial questions posed, let’s look at the ‘Patchgate’ controversy itself, then explore what leadership insights might there be from these two respective styles or approaches.

The Thin Blue Line Patch Controversy

Thin blue line patch controversy

“Think now and then, that there are people who would give their life, to keep a life you love beside you.”

The ‘thin blue line’ badge has been in circulation among British cops for years, as a respectful symbol of remembrance for colleagues, who have lost their lives on duty. The following tweet from police historian Mark Rothwell shows how frequently this occurs in just one force alone…

The quote above, paraphrasing Dickens (from A Tale of Two Cities), succinctly alludes to what the British public ultimately expect of men and women holding the ‘office of constable’. Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters who collectively report for duty across the UK 24/7, 365, to protect life, prevent crime and maintain law and order.

Officers wear the thin blue line patch on their uniform with pride, as a mark of respect to fallen colleagues. It alludes to our model of policing by consent and service to the British public.

When officers and police staff see their colleagues wearing the thin blue line overlaid on the Union Jack, they might remember at that particular moment a deceased colleague. Or maybe, reflect on why they are still personally committed to one of the toughest public service jobs going, turning up for shifts (despite single crewing and running below minimum staffing), bravely facing personal risks.

Whilst policing is a principled, moral, and ethical job, the great majority of the public who join do so for all the right reasons. For example, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to protect life and property, prevent and detect crime and to make a positive difference by supporting victims & the vulnerable. If these are clichés, Dickens might add some eloquence to blending policing with the sentiments of the thin blue line patch.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The Peelian Principles say the police are the public and the public are the police, and it was Sir Robert Mark a former Met Police Commissioner who said:

“The police are the anvil on which society beats out the problems and abrasions of social inequality, racial prejudice, weak laws and ineffective legislation.”

The poet Michael Marks also captures the strength of feeling well with his finale to Between the Monsters and the Weak:

“And maybe just remind the few, if ill of us they speak, that we are all that stands between the monsters and the weak.”

In that context and given what the thin blue line patch represents to officers, there is clearly an emotional connection and good reason for those who choose to wear it, not forgetting the taboo of police officer suicides which remain a scar on the service.

The controversy has arisen however in the USA and elsewhere over the appearance of the thin blue line badge, including injunctions against its use by police officers.

Thin blue line patch USA and Canada

Most recently, in January 2023, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) banned the thin blue line from public view, including on uniform patches and vehicle bumpers. The reasons included that it has being ‘hijacked’ by racists and far right groups. Additionally, critics are quoted as arguing that instead of representing a thin blue line between ‘the monsters and the weak’…

“the “thin blue line” represents an “us versus them” mindset that heightens tensions between officers and citizens and negatively influences police-community interactions by setting police apart from society at large.”

This has created a danger that a minority among the public might associate it with those groups when seen on the uniforms of British officers. A directive was then made by Silver Command in the Met to ban the wearing of the patch in relation to policing at this year’s Pride event, whereby certain communities may have misconstrued its meaning.

Attempts to educate as to the clear differences have achieved little success; after all, it’s an emotive issue for all parties.

Further controversy then arose with backlash from many officers, arguing for example that the rationale of impartiality for banning the patch does not stand up to scrutiny, given the relaxing of such uniform rules and standards when it comes to symbols of other causes, such as Pride rainbow patches and epaulettes.

Police promotion to Inspector

Emotionally Aware Leaders

Police emotional awareness

“There is no separation of mind and emotions; emotions, thinking, and learning are all linked.” – Eric Jensen

Chief officers as organisational leaders must be at the top of their game, being politically astute but also possessing high levels of emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ is unsurprisingly an important leadership competency specifically assessed in police promotion selection processes.

But what is emotional intelligence and how does it help? Daniel Goleman defines emotional intelligence through four clear aspects:

4 themes of emotional intelligence

To understand the rationale of both ‘CCs’ in question, here’s a snapshot of current guidance to aspiring senior police leaders. These are behavioural descriptors at Level 3 from the College of Policing’s Competency and Values Framework (CVF) relating to the competency: We are Emotionally Aware:  

  • I balance risks, costs and benefits associated with decisions, thinking about the wider impact and how actions are seen in that context. I think through‘what if’ scenarios.
  • I use discretion wisely in making decisions, knowing when the ‘tried and tested’ is not always the most appropriate and being willing to challengethe status quo when beneficial.
  • I seek to identify the key reasons or incidents behind issues, even in ambiguous or unclear situations.
  • I use my knowledge of the wider external environment and long-term situations to inform effective decision making.
  • I acknowledge that some decisions may represent a significant change.
  • I think about the best way to introduce such decisions and win support.

Senior police leaders will take the above guidance into account and apply it, together with all the experience and expertise they’ve accumulated in their careers to date, also using professional judgement and intuition. Take another look at that guidance, especially the last bullet point.

Ask yourself, is it possible two different leaders could make different decisions using this guidance? You might think so. You might also hope so.

And there’s lots more where that came from to support effective decision making in policing. Authorised Professional Practice (APP) includes the National Decision Model (NDM), centred around the Police Code of Ethics. There are also bespoke force values to consider. It takes courage (a specific Metropolitan Police value) to make decisions as a leader, especially when you know it will be an unpopular one. All of these are aids to thinking and can be helpful in arriving at the best decision or course of action.

Thinking from different perspectives is something I encourage police promotion candidates to include as part of effective preparation for promotion opportunities.

“2% of people think; 3% of people think they think; and 95% of people would rather die than think.” – G.B. Shaw

Some decisions can appear easy on first glance. But they may (as in this case) have the potential for unanticipated repercussions, in terms of damaging community or public trust and confidence.

As a leader, in order to think in an emotionally-aware manner, you must be able to think broadly and critically. Critical thinking is the process of thinking carefully about a subject, without allowing feelings or opinions to affect you.

Critical thinking is an ability you’d expect the Met Commissioner, Chief Constables, and other police leaders to possess and bring to bear. Particularly when thinking through conflicting issues, challenges and problems facing policing. That’s why critical thinking ability is also assessed in promotion selection processes for aspiring senior police leaders, with use for example of the Watson Glaser Test.

That said, if every decision that was made using all available guidance had the right outcome, at the right time, for everyone… What a wonderful world that would be! After all, being a Chief Constable can be a lonely place, especially when making decisions on controversial issues or as Dickens might put it, connecting with “a multitude of people and yet a solitude”.

One criticism of senior officers is that they’re all from the same mould. However, here we have two clearly contrasting leadership styles, each with their own lessons for you to reflect upon as an aspiring police leader…

Lessons from CC 1: Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley QPM

A Chief Constable heads their local domain, but the Commissioner’s role features enormous responsibilities. A quick look at the job description is enlightening: Leading 46,000 staff and officers, a budget of over £3 billion, with the first duty to protect the public and make London a safer place to live, work and visit for everyone.

John Sutherland, a former Commander in the Met, now a best-selling author and public speaker, writes about seismic challenges facing the Met and the ‘Impossible Job of the Metropolitan Commissioner. John encourages us all to consider and:

“Think more widely about the context with which all of this is taking place, a context created by politicians who have broken the legs of policing and left the rest of us to wonder why it is no longer able to run.”

Whilst there are always contenders for the Commissioner’s position, the biggest job in policing, some may view it as a poisoned chalice. Not least in tackling a toxic environment alluded to by Stephen Otter, former Met Commander and CC of Devon and Cornwall Police:

“Permanent change in the Met will require a long-term plan, and one to which successive commissioners are obliged to commit. This means the Home Office and London mayor will have to see it through. Many would say I’m naive to even imagine this might happen. I sincerely hope I am not.”

Resolving issues highlighted in the Casey Review will require such a long-term plan, something underway at the moment no doubt as a very high priority. Amongst all the Met’s competing high priorities, where do you believe thinking through and deciding upon the wearing of the thin blue line patch should be prioritised?

Clearly a decision has been made, the thinking has been done. The Commissioner has explained his thinking at City Hall’s Police and Crime Committee last week, stating Met Police uniform policy only allowed officers to wear the Police Memorial Day badge, the Royal British Legion’s Remembrance Day poppy and the Help for Heroes badge or wristband. Clearly, the desire of their uniform policy is to keep things to a minimum.

“I’m very reticent to extend that, I think having as close to nothing as possible makes sense.” He also said he is “cautious” about officers “showing allegiance to any cause” on their uniform.

Requiring officers to remove the ‘thin blue line’ badge from UK police uniforms is not new. In 2015 a Sussex officer was ordered to remove the badge because it was in breach of force uniform standards.

Sir Mark said in the US, the equivalent badge to the thin blue line “has ended up being both a policing symbol and is being used by some hard-right groups. That’s why this is a tricky territory. This is contentious.”

Do you believe this is something a Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, England should at least consider? Could it be the correct decision to ban the thin blue line patch from Metropolitan uniforms, for now at least? People may not agree with Sir Mark’s rationale, but he has provided a logical, coherent one, saying he has…

“every sympathy with officers who care deeply about remembering their colleagues, but the reason the organisation was taking a firm line was because someone might say what about this, or I’d like to wear the flag of my national heritage and then we’ll have all sorts of different flags… and then we’ll have someone say hang on this plays into political disputes it could drift into hundreds of different badges being worn.”

Coming back to EQ in leadership and in summary, the emotional intelligence / awareness leadership lessons that can be drawn from this may include:  

  • The ability to remain calm under intense scrutiny, pressure and questioning (self-awareness and managing yourself).
  • Recognition of differing perspectives on controversial issues, and being sensitive to stakeholders who may be impacted most by decisions (considering also the policing principle of impartiality).
  • Wider relationship management, considering decisions as part of the bigger picture to include other contentious issues facing that force, such as the recent Casey Review.

On the calmness under pressure point, are you currently thinking about Patchgate with your ‘chimp brain’ or more rational brain’? What does each say? Here’s some reading you may be interested in on this point…

Lessons from CC 2: Northamptonshire Chief Constable Nick Adderley

Many officers have criticised Sir Mark as coming across as uncaring, not appreciating the emotional impact on officers, some even seeing a long-term pattern of pandering to the ‘woke mobs’ who only seek to berate police.

Nick Adderley instead took a contrasting approach, focusing more overtly on the wellbeing of his officers and the right of his own workforce to express themselves.

“I have offered to pay for the patch, for my officers and staff (my own money) if they wish to wear it, as I am determined never to allow a minority to twist the meaning of this patch, which risks the memory of fallen officers being driven into an abyss of hushed tones.” – CC Nick Adderley

Another clear rationale. This has proved a popular one among officers, being met with resounding praise, as summed up by the following tweet…

Other CC’s have made their position clear. For example, CC of Essex BJ Harrington QPM showed public support for the thin blue line patch clear, by posting a picture of his body armour with the patch clearly visible…

But what EQ leadership lessons might you glean from this approach? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Supporting wellbeing is a key element of being emotionally aware. Giving a morale and motivational boost to officers, for example by publicly demonstrating support, is just one way leaders can support wellbeing.
  • Demonstrating empathy and social awareness around what’s important for his force.
  • Taking a principled stance, then standing by this firmly, despite the criticism / accusations that may arise from those opposed, especially considering national policing scandals in recent years.

Both CC’s have given clear rationales for contrasting approaches and their resulting decisions. Although you may not agree personally with one or the other, it shows there are alternative ways of working through policing challenges, with integrity and intent to do the right thing. Both CCs operate in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, where any decision can look, sound, and feel different to people.

Policing clearly hosts a broad church of leadership styles and approaches. But what would you do? What lessons have you taken? As I allude to in a recent podcast, I aim to take a Socratic approach to make you think around these issues, develop your own critical thinking and to help raise emotional awareness as a leader. I hope you’ve found this blog helpful.

Finally, think about the following example promotion board question Federated ranks at Level 2 of the CVF. Consider it from both a decision-making and wellbeing perspective (i.e. ‘We take ownership’, ‘We analyse critically’, and ‘We are emotionally aware’).

“As a newly promoted leader, how will you monitor and review the impact of your decisions upon your team? Talk us through your approach.”

P.S. Whatever your views on uniform policy and standards, or the rights and wrongs of this issue, you can choose to buy a UK thin blue line patch and other paraphernalia here, to help support police officer mental health and wellbeing.

Kind Regards, Steve

Want to go further right now? Hit the ground running with your promotion preparation. Get your personal digital promotion toolkit, and/or my Police Promotion Masterclass. You can also contact me to arrange personal coaching support. If you first want to explore completely free content, I have a collection of videoseGuidesa podcast.