Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The sound of the police

There have been a few stories on our boys in blue these last few weeks. The march by off-duty officers was received with a sort of curiosity by much of the union movement, as was their treatment of the Home Secretary. It’s like seeing the beagles start growling at the huntsmen.

The particular shock of the Police Federation is perhaps at the tactical incompetence of the government move as much as anything else. Having been ‘Thatcher’s praetorian guard’ during the 1980s, many must have assumed a government that has alienated doctors, teachers and the armed forces would have need of their particular services. Did the riots not drive home the point?

The sense that the police are somehow special seems to permeate the profession. The recent tendency to refer to the rest of us as ‘civilians’ is particularly grating, trickling in from American crime dramas. Unlike their American cousins, or the rest of Europe, the police are not a gendarmerie. In theory, a police officer has no power that you and I don’t have. They are not the state’s troops watching us, they are individual citizens who do full time the job we are all meant to be doing part time: upholding the law.

Of course I would like to blame all this on the Tories. However Dixon of Dock Green died when he was taken off the streets and put into a car by Roy Jenkins. The shift from neighbourhood policing to what we might call ‘fire brigade policing’ is the central issue, mirroring similar developments in the NHS. The police by and large are not patrolling and so helping to prevent crime, they are in cars speeding to where a crime has already occurred in order to deal with the after-effects.

One can understand why. ‘Beat’ policing is, by and large, a deeply boring job. It will mostly involve giving people directions, chatting to old ladies and walking the same streets for months on end. It’s social work rather than Starsky and Hutch. However it is precisely how one both re-assures a community, and gathers the intelligence which is necessary to intervene before a crime occurs.

The subsequent paramilitarisation; tasers, flak jackets, riot shields has furthered the distance between the police and the public. The open warfare between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the IRA in the 1970s was reflected in turn at Orgreave, Toxteth and Brixton in the 1980s and in the Poll Tax riots in 1990. Working class communities saw them as traitors, ethnic minorities as an occupying army.

Disastrously, but perhaps understandably, the police response was to become ever more insular. Brother officers were to be defended to the last.  This seems to even apply to its canine cops. In 2009 two police dogs  died when accidentally left in a car on a hot day. Their handler was prosecuted, and convicted, of animal cruelty. There have to date been no prosecutions relating to the 17 people who died in police custody that same year.

The police service’s problem has been further exacerbated by political events. In the wake of September 11th, they were given broad new powers under counter-terrorism legislation. This had two effects. First, it made mistakes more likely, Jean Charles de Menezes being the most famous. However the more telling response came with the protests over the Iraq War, and subsequent student protests over tuition fees. The police came into conflict with middle class people, with camera phones and law degrees. These people had also been watching the American dramas, and believed they had the right to protest where they wanted without fear of being kettled. Hence when the police bungled the raid on Forest Gate, or an officer threw Ian Tomlinson to the ground, there were plenty of people with the skills and the motivation to make sure the IPCC put the boot in.

Perhaps the final straw came in 2008, with the raid on Parliament. There was a scandalous response to MPs that their bastion had been violated, and without a warrant! When it was pointed out that the police didn’t need one, the incredulity only increased. It is perhaps the first time many legislators realised what the laws they’d been passing all these years actually meant. Since then the hacking scandal and the revolving door at the top of the Metropolitan Police has left the service with very few friends.

The current compensation for police officers may, or may not be justified. It is however the direct result of a Faustian pact. The police themselves helped bring about the social conditions in which their jobs can be outsourced to Serco, or deskilled to PCSOs. If you fight as a profession, to protect your own right you lose eventually, as the miners proved. If we fight together, for the benefit of all, we win.  The union movement should forgive, even if it can’t forget, but a decision needs to be made. Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?

No comments: