As the world moves on, it leaves behind a broken-hearted bride, married just four weeks ago.
Most give what they can; some give all they have. PC Andrew Harper was one of those who gave everything, killed in the line of duty on the night of Thursday 15th August 2019.
I never had the privilege of knowing him, but I know what kind of man he was – one who understood that precious, old-fashioned thing called duty. He was described by his Chief Constable as “a fantastic police officer” and “a great friend and man”. I suspect that I would have liked him very much.
The sense of staggering loss is greatest, of course, for those who knew him best and loved him most. I find myself thinking of his two families – the one he was born into and the one he was sworn into – but, most of all, I think of his widow, Lissie. She was supposed to be preparing for a honeymoon. Now she’s preparing for a funeral.
I can’t even begin to imagine.
Those who do the job know the risks of course. But there has been an inescapable sense of late that those risks have been rising. In the past three weeks alone:
But those were only three of the higher profile cases. On average, 595 police officers are assaulted every single week – that’s 85 every single day. Pause and think about that number for a moment. What does it say about us as a society? About who we are and what we are becoming?
And I can’t help feeling that things are getting worse – that more officers are being more seriously assaulted, more frequently than at any point I can recall. There is a perfect storm of reasons why that might be so:
The loss of 44,000 police officers and staff in England & Wales
Crime is rising. Demands on policing are rising. The complexity of criminal investigations is rising. Risk is rising. Just as police numbers and resources have fallen to their lowest levels in a generation – the direct consequence of a series of conscious, deliberate political choices.
The government of the last nine years has done significantly more damage to policing than any other in my lifetime. And now senior politicians are scrambling desperately to undo harms that are entirely of their own making.
20,000 new police officers is the very least that’s now required.
The loss of neighbourhood policing
In most parts of the country, austerity has led directly to the decimation of neighbourhood policing and, with it, the loss of basic connection with communities. With the loss of connection comes the loss of relationship and, with that, the loss of a natural constraint on violence.
You are surely less likely to attack those you know and trust.
The loss of operational capability
But the costs of austerity extend beyond the basic numbers, jaw-dropping though those are. They extend to the loss of effective crime-fighting capability in the form, for example, of dogs, horses and helicopters.
And the overt politicisation of Stop & Search has played its part in reducing levels of frontline policing proactivity.
Hostile political rhetoric
It is not just in their actions that the government has done extraordinary harm to policing. It is in their words too.
The political narrative of the last nine years has been characterised by a quite astonishing degree of hostility towards policing. The police are inept. They are corrupt. They are racist. They are resistant to change. And police officers raising concerns about the damage being done are crying wolf.
What kind of message does that kind of talk send to the listening public?
Hostile media coverage
Particularly when the hostility of the political narrative has been picked up and reinforced with evident glee in some sections of the mainstream media.
Certain national newspapers in particular have operated for years with barely disguised contempt for the job I love – preferring to disregard a thousand stories of compassion and courage, in favour of the one that paints policing in the worst possible light.
And if you think that words alone are incapable of causing harm, then you have never studied Allport’s Scale of Prejudice.
Inadequate court sentencing
Of late, my social media feed has carried far too many reports of woefully inadequate sentences handed down by courts following assaults on my former colleagues. It’s almost as though attacks on police officers don’t matter. It’s almost as though there’s no deterrent.
But an attack on a police officer is an attack on us all. It is an assault on civilised society.
Our addiction to violence
And then there is wider society’s very real problem with violence. We seem to be addicted to it: on our streets and in our homes; outside the pub and outside the stadium; on a Monday morning and a Friday night; in news feeds and film scripts; in fact and in fiction. As a source of entertainment.
And, every time a punch is thrown or a knife is pulled or a frenzied attack begins, it is police officers who will be first in line to respond.
For more than twenty-five years, I worked with heroes: police officers who were shot, stabbed, beaten unconscious, strangled, run down by cars, who fought hand to hand with murderers, who placed themselves continually in harm’s way in defence of complete strangers.
Andrew Harper was one such man. Who went to work and didn’t come home.
Rest peacefully, mighty man