The police are the public and the public are the police. The words of Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. The idea that policing was by consent. Maintenance of law & order through cooperation with the public, on the basis of mutual respect.
And it’s a model that was unique, based on trust and not fear. An unarmed social force for public good. It has survived for the last two centuries largely intact, exported among Commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
I think my interest is well-known. My Dad, uncle and several cousins were/are serving officers. I know this side of the thin blue line.
The probity of the police has been questioned before. Often on the basis of enforcing political decisions by the powers that be. Certainly during the miner’s strike of 84/85 there were voices of disapproval for the conduct of some officers – although the provocation was significant too.
One of my favourite memories from that period was one of my cousins who swapped their police uniform with a miner for his coal-digging gear as they both went to New Years Eve parties in fancy dress as each other. Brilliant. That’s how to do it.
Over the last year the challenges have been – yes that word again – unprecedented. Enforcing a gentle form of martial law in a freedom-loving democracy is a fiendishly difficult task. Some over-reaction and under-reaction were inevitable, as the various forces grappled to set the right tone an approach.
Unfortunately this has exposed some of the deeply engrained inconsistencies between forces, teams and individual officers. And both the police and public have been poorly served by the authorities.
Theresa May cut funding, cut numbers of officers and slashed budgets as part of the Conservative government’s austerity since 2010. Most staggeringly of all, half of the nation’s police stations were closed. 667 front-line buildings where the pubic could walk in and talk with real police officers were gone.
Don’t worry – you can email them, text them. Leave a voicemail on the never-answered phone lines. No, no, no.
The link between police and community (growing fractious in some areas for many years) was eroded further. Crimes were counted but not investigated. No resources available. Things have to get really bad before we’ll send someone out.
Many police hated this. It wasn’t what they signed up for. They joined to do their duty, for public service, to make the streets of the nation safe. They weren’t tech wizards or social media hacks. They were there to get out and among them. It’s a tough job. Not everybody can do it. I couldn’t. but the new wave of policing was to be inclusive, modern and socially coherent.
No complaints about any of that. But sometimes you have to face down and handle a vicious mob bent on violence and destruction. Your equality leaflets won’t be much use then.
It’s true that on the other side, some more bad apples got through too. Heavy-handed, judgemental and clearly loving their position of power too much. Rude, arrogant and part of the problem, not the solution.
So, back to the Metropolitan Police, almost 200 years on from Peel’s creation. The scenes last night at Clapham Common were dreadful. Not what we expect from our Bobbies.
The Met Police are paranoid about race. Terrified of causing offence ever since Scarman and the Stephen Lawrence enquiry branded them as “institutionally racist”. In the years since, the pendulum appears to have swung so far the other way, that any sense of equity before the justice in the streets and courts has become a matter of pot luck.
The Black Lives Matters protests in London last year were policed in the most softly, softly manner imaginable. The latter violence, intimidation and damage to property were approached in that same spirit of containment – to avoid escalating matters. I have no problem with that approach. Generally allowing protest to go ahead is a tenet of our democracy.
However, this happened in the middle of Covid restrictions, where people were prevented from travelling outside their area, gathering in numbers, getting too close to each other. The police response? Officers symbolically taking the knee before the crowds. And turning a blind eye to the Covid breaches, in light of the heightened emotional impact.
Now – look at the events this week. A young woman kidnapped and murdered from a walk along the streets of our capital. Thankfully rare in its extreme outcome, sadly common enough for women to live in fear each day of their lives.
The proposed vigil was not permitted by the Met. Nevertheless many women felt strongly enough to go out and make their protest and remembrance anyway.
So – did we see the same softly, softly approach? Containment? Care to avoid escalating matters? Turning blind eye in response to the heightened emotional impact? No chance. Condemnation of the approach taken has been universal from all sides of the political spectrum. Even tough talking Priti Patel will have trouble defending this.
Whilst Cressida Dick, head of the Met Police has been exposed once again as hopelessly out of her depth, promoted beyond her capabilities – but crucially fulfilling the quota for equality with the ‘service’.
I understand the importance of diversity – particularly the visible diversity (colour, race, gender and/or sexuality) amid and at the top of our institutions. If that’s at the expense of competence and capability – the price is too high. Crusty old establishment figure Lord Scarman pulled no punches in his report on the riots of the early 80s and won the respect of the black community by his engagement and integrity.
Clapham last night exposes the underfunding, muddled thinking, poor leadership, inconsistency of applying the law, and a lack of ground-level common sense management. With outcomes that infuriate all sides.
The police are no longer the public. And the public are no longer the police. And that is bad news for everyone.