I’m married to Bear. She’s wonderful.
At the start of this week, we celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary: eighteen years spent in the company of my best friend; eighteen years spent listening and learning and having the rough edges rubbed off me.
Back in 2002, in the weeks leading up to our wedding, we signed up for one of those marriage preparation courses – a series of sessions designed to get us ready for the big day and all the adventures that lay beyond. The chosen subject for one of those sessions was communication and, during it, we were taught about two specific words that you ought to make every effort to avoid using in any relationship:
‘Always’ and ‘Never’.
Eighteen years along the road, I can attest to the wisdom of that advice.
You know how things can begin to unravel when you find yourself falling out with the person you love most in the world:
“You never take my concerns seriously…”
“You always try to fix things when all I want you to do is listen…”
“You always leave your dirty stuff on the floor…”
“You never do the washing up…”
Always and Never. Two words with the potential to do endless harm to a relationship – not least because they are hardly ever true.
All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the things I actually want to talk about. Specifically, I want address four letters that have been doing the rounds in the last week or two:
In recent days, those letters have been sprayed on monuments and daubed on police vehicles and painted on placards and shouted in crowds. Back in the day, you could find them tattooed on the knuckles of old villains – one letter on each finger:
‘All Coppers Are Bastards’
All off them. Always.
And it bothers me. It really, deeply bothers me. For a series of very simple reasons:
In an age of fake news and alternative facts and saying whatever the hell you want, it seems to me that telling the truth matters more than ever. I’m with George Orwell in suggesting that it might even be a revolutionary act.
To suggest that all coppers are bastards is to be complicit in nothing more than a lazy lie – a dull stereotype that has no basis in evidence or fact.
If you were to suggest to me that some coppers are bastards, I would actually agree with you. I’ve met a handful of them in my time – and they had no place in policing.
Some Coppers are criminals. They belong in jail.
Some Coppers are lazy and unprofessional. They either need get their act together very quickly, or find another job.
But most Coppers are extraordinary. I know, because I worked alongside them for more than 25 years. And the finest of them are the finest that any of us could ever be.
All Coppers Aren’t Bastards.
(2) Suggesting that it is true requires a conscious denial of every single extraordinary thing that any of them has ever done
I have worked with officers who have been shot in the line of duty. I have worked with officers who have been stabbed. I have worked with officers who have confronted knife-wielding maniacs, deliberately putting themselves in harm’s way in defence of complete strangers. I have worked with officers who have been knocked unconscious and had their bones broken, simply for doing their jobs. I have worked with officers who went into the tunnels on 7/7 and who saw and did things down there that are beyond the comprehension of any of the rest of us. I have worked with officers who have picked their way through scenes of unimaginable carnage and, later on, knocked on the door of someone they have never met before to deliver the most shattering news that any of us could ever hear. I could tell you a thousand stories. And then I could tell you a thousand more. Of the kinds of humanity and heroism that would take your breath away.
Every now and then, we remember to be grateful to them. Particularly on the days when the terrorists strike. Or on the days when one of them is killed in the line of duty. But, after a day or two, we seem to move on. We forget. And then we take them for granted all over again.
(3) It is enormously damaging to policing
Suggesting that all Coppers are bastards does endless harm to policing – and to individual police officers.
In recent years, certain politicians and certain sections of the press have been particularly guilty of demonising the police. Repeatedly calling them racist. Calling them corrupt. Calling them incompetent. Telling the rest of us that they are resistant to reform. Telling us, in effect, that they are bastards.
As recently as last week, we saw and heard examples of prominent journalists and commentators using extraordinarily inflammatory language and appearing to take delight in the sight of a mounted officer falling from her horse during the protests in Whitehall. The officer suffered a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a punctured lung. And when that kind of horror story becomes an apparent cause for rejoicing, it leaves me wondering what on earth we are becoming as a society.
Language matters. Because it has real consequences in the real world. When those in positions of power and influence consistently denigrate policing, they put officers’ safety at risk. They put officers’ lives at risk. Last night, footage was circulating on social media that appeared to show two officers being attacked, while bystanders filmed and took selfies. I found it too distressing to watch (just as I found the footage of the killing of George Floyd too distressing to watch) – but the very fact that it happened troubles me more than I can say.
(4) It is enormously damaging to communities
Policing in this country is founded on the precious principle of consent – on the notion of a partnership established between police officers and the communities they serve. It is utterly imperfect of course, but that doesn’t render the whole idea wrong.
I always did my job better when I was standing alongside the people who lived and worked in the neighbourhoods I was responsible for – policing done with them, not to them. Because, when all that really didn’t matter was set aside, it turned out that we wanted exactly the same things: for homes to be free from violence; for an end to the desperate succession of boys losing their lives to knife crime; for ordinary, decent people to be able live their lives in peace – free from fear and harm.
A decade of austerity has done untold damage to community policing. We need urgently to get on with the job of mending it – because it works. Policing needs the community and communities need the police. Good policing is all about relationships – and the language of ‘Always’ and ‘Never’ helps no-one.
If you sincerely want better policing, you will find no greater allies than good police officers. Because none of them thinks that things are fine just as they are – that there’s nothing more that could (and should) be done better.
All Copper Aren’t Bastards.
(5) It is enormously damaging to a righteous cause
I believe passionately that black lives matter. I believe passionately in the cause of anti-racism. I am educating myself about the systemic injustice and inequality that has persisted in this country for generations. And I recognise that we have a long way to go.
I also believe passionately in the right to peaceful protest – a right that is facilitated and safeguarded by police officers.
As I have written previously, anger seems to me to be the only reasonable reaction to the killing of George Floyd: anger that demands a response; anger that won’t rest until there is real and lasting change. But the moment that police officers become the target for violence, the cause is harmed. There are a whole host of agitators out there, waiting for any excuse to kick back against the righteous cry for change. And I don’t want to give them the excuse.
The police are not the enemy here. Racism is. Hatred is. Injustice is.
Police officers aren’t perfect. And we are right to expect higher standards of them than we do of anyone else. But if you were to ask most of them why they joined, they would tell you simply that they wanted to help people. They would tell you that they wanted to make a difference.