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Britain’s police – damned if they do and damned if they don’t

March 22, 2021

Heavy-handed policing of a vigil for Sarah Everard. Nazi salutes and restraint at an anti-lockdown demo. Broken bones, fireworks and burning police vehicles at a riot in Bristol. Not a day seems to pass when the police are not framed one way or another. As oppressors, thin blue line and victims. If you exclude all evidence to the contrary, Britain, you might think, is boiling over.

Here’s the thing about the British police: everyone has their own opinion. They may be institutionally racist. They may also be a swamp of misogyny. These are perceptions, not facts, because we can’t easily read hearts and minds. But perhaps equally striking is that so many of their senior people come over as rather dim. Again, that’s unproven, but when I watch people like the commander at the Metropolitan Police who acted as spokesperson after Sarah Everard’s disappearance I’m not filled with confidence that the best minds have reached the top.

He was clearly nervous. His words lacked the slightest hint of spontaneity. Like so many of his colleagues when they’re called upon to speak to the media, his delivery was stilted, and his language full of strangulated polysyllables. For all I know, he might be the brightest of the bright, but his demeanour didn’t give the impression of a keen and agile mind. Lower down the ranks, in less formal situations, you do see officers behaving less robotically. Every day, their communication skills prevent escalation into violence and disorder.

But when police at Sarah’s wake, while clearly acting within the law, chose to wade in and haul away women who were there to pay tribute to someone who appears to have been murdered by a serving police officer, their action appeared insensitive and heavy-handed. There’s always a line to be drawn between enforcement that is likely to provoke a greater offence than that which it’s designed to address, and using empathy and common sense by standing back.

Perhaps we’ve come to expect our police to be behave with the mercurial determination of the Line of Duty team, or the nuanced thoughtfulness of Cassie and Sunny in The Unforgotten. But they’re actors, and those whom we see doing their jobs in true crime TV shows come over as far more mundane characters. Is that because they are more mundane, or is it because they can’t afford to display their more distinctive character traits for fear of being accused of showboating?

I’d certainly be surprised if senior officers who come over so stiff and stern on camera return to their offices and start shrieking imprecations like DCS Hastings in Line of Duty. But equally, I like to think that they didn’t rise up the ranks because they were risk-averse, time-serving automata.

I’ve met a few senior police officers in my time, but only after they’ve retired. My favourite is witty, charismatic and kind. The sort of person you’d describe as a born leader. The one I admired least, whom I no longer come across, was pompous, puffed up and self-important. The rest are somewhere between the two. Some are extrovert, others not. If they have a common characteristic, it’s that they volunteer for stuff. Whether it’s serving on a golf club committee or running a jazz band, they get involved. Perhaps that’s a natural consequence of their being allowed to retire with decent pensions in their fifties. At that stage of life, there’s less inclination simply to sit on your backside doing nothing significant for the rest of your life.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that with the exception of the pompous one, these are ordinary people, in the sense that you wouldn’t be able to spot them as retired police officers from a mile off. They don’t talk about their careers unless you ask them.

So why is it that the ordinary people who form our present-day police come in for so much flack? Is it an inward-looking culture with its own rules, norms of behaviour and attitudes? Is it the demands of an increasingly authoritarian and often erratic state that makes increasing and sometimes contradictory demands on them? Is it the decentralised structure of policing that creates inconsistent approaches from one police force to another? Is it a creaking criminal justice system that causes unacceptable delays between investigation and prosecution? Is it chronic under-manning that leaves them incapable of responding to humdrum yet distressing crimes like burglary and petty theft?

Is it what politicians call the optics: the image of the average officer as a beast of burden, loaded up with tech paraphernalia, often overweight, incapable of agility and relying on being mob-handed for effective action? Or as heavily armed Roman legionaries beating off lightly armed barbarians on the streets?

Should we look to failures of leadership – not only among the police but within the Home Office and Ministry of Justice – to find the root cause of public lack of confidence? Or is it, as Paul Newman’s character says in Cool Hand Luke, that what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate?

What we definitely have here is a surveillance culture that sometimes accidentally catches out those who do the surveillance. Self-incriminating police cameras, citizens with mobile phones, CCTV and photojournalists sometimes cast police actions in the most dubious light. Before you know it, videos of the police at work, often shorn of context, hit the social media and enhance the perception of an overbearing, thuggish and inflexible institution.

Hence we see aggression before we recognise forbearance, intervention before restraint. The actions of the few taint the whole. When mistakes occur, they do so in the full glare of public attention. And they result in instant judgements. Such was the case when the police cleared a crowd of women around the bandstand in Clapham Common after the vigil for Sarah Everard. The optics were bad. Almost immediately there were calls from all manner of sources including senior politicians for Cressida Dick, the head of the Metropolitan Police, to resign.

I’m glad she didn’t, for more than one reason. First, insensitive enforcement of the law is not a crime. Nor is it gross misconduct, which would normally be grounds for dismissal. Second, asking her to step down would have sent a message that senior police officers should never have the opportunity to reflect on events, learn from them and fix what is broken. And third, even if she went, would there have been any assurance that the person who replaced her would be any more effective? We should also recognise that there are circumstances when the police are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Perhaps we also sometimes forget that our police are not just in the business of law enforcement. To an extent, they’re like Janus, the two-faced Roman god (above) who looks to the future and the past at the same time. Not only are they tasked with responding to crimes that have been committed, but they are there to keep us safe. We often tend to forget that when a road traffic accident happens, the police are often first to the scene, providing first aid and sympathy to the injured and making sure that oncoming traffic slows down. We also don’t appreciate their role in counter-terrorism, as they work with the security service to pre-empt attacks. And more recently, when armed response teams deploy quickly to limit casualties of shootings and knife crimes.

When they fail to keep us safe, as happened at Hillsborough football stadium in 1989, or when an innocent Brazilian electrician was mistakenly identified as a terrorist and shot in 2005, there are massive outcries. Yet every day people have cause to be grateful for acts of kindness and courage by ordinary police officers that go uncelebrated.

Which way was Janus looking when hundreds of people, with barely a facemask in sight, took to the streets to protest against the lockdown, and when groups of protesters, masked and hooded, went on the offensive against the police in Bristol? Were they responding to crimes committed, protecting the public or caught in a circular dance in which the need to enforce and protect stemmed directly from their own presence?

My favourite former police officer will probably be looking on with a wry smile. He will remember the protests of the seventies, the IRA, the Angry Brigade and the miner’s strike. Nothing new under the sun, he might say. I’m not speaking for him, but he might also reflect that the police are often as not the fall guys, made to look like the baddies by laws passed not by them, but by politicians who are happy to talk the talk but are conspicuously absent from the places where their decisions are implemented. Boris Johnson might be happy to exhibit himself at vaccination centres, but you won’t find Priti Patel, our Home Secretary, locked down in a police station where Kill the Bill protesters are breaking the windows.

Back in my days of relative innocence, when I was a student, about the same age as some of the people who rioted in Bristol, the main bugbear within the police among my peers, for reasons that should be obvious, was the drug squad. Then, as the seventies grew darker, the strikes grew more aggressive, the bombs ripped through pubs and the decade ended with a winter of discontent, the dynamics and priorities of law enforcement changed.

We are living through a similar, if not more extreme, time. As in the seventies, the police are struggling to keep up with the changes in society, because they are not the masters. For that reason, they will always be behind the curve. There may be many areas in which they can bring themselves closer to the leading edge. It might be trite to suggest that if they ever get there it will be because we’ve become a police state. You could also argue that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently going through Parliament takes us closer to that point by further limiting the circumstances under which we’re free to protest. But nobody who has lived in a police state, as I have, would argue that we’re close to that point today.

Earlier in this post, I listed a number of possible reasons why the British police are not currently held in the highest esteem. The truth is that they will never please or satisfy everybody. But perhaps it would help if for a moment we considered life without them. And instead of shouting, bludgeoning and demanding resignations, perhaps we should be more vocal in expressing appreciation when it’s due, and more objective when demanding improvements, not just from the police themselves, but from their political masters.

The last thing we need is an embattled subculture whose loyalties are principally to their own, because for policing to work, there needs to be a mutual dependence, wherein we rely on them and they on us. Or better than that, a common purpose that transcends the them and us and binds us together in a time of crisis.

Chance would be a fine thing, I guess, but not a bad objective to keep in mind.

From → Social, UK

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