It’s been a while since I’ve written anything like this, so I thought it would be a good idea to get back into the swing of things by writing about a subject that will probably get me put on a watch-list. (If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing until the SWAT team get to your house I always say.”)
So I would like to talk about the police of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, although mainly Great Britain, because I’m not going anywhere near the Police Service of Northern Ireland, I’m controversial, not insane.
The Police in Britain have many names: the Old Bill, the Fuzz, 5-0, the Filth and they get progressively less polite from that point on depending on who is talking about them and usually how much “previous” they have.
In 1829, the joint first Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police outlined nine principles of good policing. The principles were meant to maintain a police force based on respect and approval, rather than an iron-fist.
I’m going to assume that every police station in the country had these on the wall in a nice frame to remind everybody, because that would be the right thing to do, obviously. I’m also going to assume that they were moved when the decorators came to paint the station and got lost under a stack of magazines, because British police forces seem to have forgotten them almost entirely.
I have prepared a handy summary so without further ado, the principles are:
1. To prevent crime and disorder rather than forcibly repressing it or using draconian punishments.
2. To recognise that they can only function if the public approve of their behaviour and existence and are respected by the public.
3. To recognise that in order to do the above, they must secure the willing co-operation of the public in observing the law.
4. To recognise that the more co-operation they receive from the public, the less they will need to use physical force.
5. To seek and preserve public favour by always being absolutely impartial and independent of policy and by always offering service and friendship to the public regardless of wealth or social standing, by being courteous and good-humoured and offering sacrifice to protect or preserve life.
6. To use physical force only after all other methods have failed in order to uphold the law and restore order and to use the minimum force necessary if that happens.
7. To remember always that the police are the public and the public are the police. The police are merely citizens granted powers to give full attention to the duties of every citizen in the interest of community welfare.
8. To recognise that they are not a judge, jury or executioner and must never act as though they are.
9. To recognise that the measure of good policing is an absence of crime, not visible evidence of the police in dealing with crime.
Now I don’t know about you, but I have actually experienced the police flouting these principles, many times. I worked for a while in public event security and stewarding when I was in my late teens and thus worked with the police a few times. I have seen the police strong-arm people for minor disobedience, I have seen them be rude, unhelpful and lazy. I worked at one event that turned violent, (it involved youths with knives and flick-knives and bottles) and was told to “man-up” by one officer when I commented on the situation. I was wearing my company shirt and trousers and I was told to man up by a man armed with a helmet and stab-vest, handcuffs, a baton and the power of the law. And they wonder why the public’s respect for the police seems to be at an all time low.
There seems to be an odd conflict within the police in Britain. On the one hand, there seems to have been a massive reduction in manners and professionalism, while at the same time an increase in the making themselves more and more, well, for want of a better word, fascist. Officers now routinely refer to the public as “mate” or another variation of it, “chum”, “buddy”, “my darling” and so on. What happened to being called “Sir” or “Madam”? They seem to have forgotten that you can be friendly and still be professional. I’ve seen police officers call members of the public “mate” while arresting them. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, friends don’t let friends text their ex at 2am and friends don’t manhandle friends into a van, lock them in a tiny room and take their shoes. I know it’s old fashioned, but to them we are Sir/Madam and to us, they are “Officer”. Respect is a two-way street, they just seem to have put a road-block and stingers down at their end of it.
This obsession with informality and “rapport building” comes, however, at the same time as the militarisation of the police. Policemen used to wear a shirt and tie, admittedly a clip on, I mean, lets not be ridiculous here, and a uniform that looked neat and smart. Now they look like paramilitaries. Combat boots, combat trousers, stab-vests and in some cases black polo-shirts. It’s almost like they were trying to make them look like nazi storm-troopers. I realise that uniforms have to be practical and they can’t go around dressed like something out of a museum, but it’s like they’re meant to intimidate the public. That is not a great way to maintain public approval and co-operation.
Making the police look like a military force only makes crime and disorder worse. You notice how when protests turn into riots, the news coverage always states that “fighting broke out between protesters and police?” That’s probably because if the police hadn’t gone storming in swinging batons and shield-bashing everybody like they just walked off the set of 300, there wouldn’t have been any fighting.
Of course sometimes it’s not the heavy-handed approach that makes people lose faith in the police at all, it’s the fact that when you do actually need them, they’re never around, like a set of car-keys or a hand-grenade when you’re in line at the post-office. I once had occasion to call the police to report armed men attacking people 500 yards away from the police station at 11 o’clock on a Friday night. It took the officers an hour to get there because that station closes at 5pm on a Friday.
This sort of behaviour and response is why people, especially young people, don’t bother reporting crime. The only reason they do it is if they need a crime number to give their insurance company. Unfortunately this means there is a generation of people growing up who mistrust, have no faith in or even downright dislike police officers which doesn’t really bode well for the principles of policing. It also means that governments can harp on about how crime is down. The statistics only cover reported crimes.
Now before anyone says it, I know the police have mountains of paperwork, but then the paperwork is usually required as a result of making arrests, giving cautions, charging people and what have you. So if they worked a bit harder on principle 9, they wouldn’t have so much of it to do, meaning they would be less stressed and the taxpayer would save a hell of a lot of money on paper and handcuffs.
I don’t subscribe to the “all coppers are bastards” philosophy that many punks have had tattooed on their knuckles (as if that will help your interactions with them), the police have an incredibly hard job and many are nice, kind, professional people. I wouldn’t want to have to tell a mother her son had died in a car accident and I couldn’t calmly arrest a man who had been beating his wife and child without throwing him through a window. But then, I’m not a police officer for that exact reason.
I suppose what I’m saying is that the police need to return to the original principles of policing and we would all get along better. If you don’t want to put yourself in danger to protect your fellow citizens, simply don’t join the police. It is not a job that you should do for the power, the money or the career prospects. You should do it because you want to help people, keep them safe and to create a more harmonious society, not because you want a bigger house, to pick on minorities or to feel like you’re more important than the rest of us.
Remember, it should not be one rule for us and another for them. They are us. We are them.