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?