Policing is taking an absolute hammering at the moment – with the relentless criticism of a job that most couldn’t or wouldn’t do coming from almost every quarter. And, while it’s tempting to suggest that it was ever thus, there can be no doubt that it’s got demonstrably worse in the last few weeks.
Quite apart from anything else, it is placing police officers’ lives in danger.
Sections of the media have abandoned any last pretence of objectivity and impartiality and declared open season on the girls and boys in blue. The one-eyed occupiers of comfortable armchairs have done likewise. And, while some MPs appear to have changed their tune in recent times, the political tone was set – and the damage done – by the astonishing level of hostility displayed towards policing by the government first elected in 2010.
I don’t think that policing is perfect – quite the opposite in fact. As I have often said before, I think that police officers – both individually and collectively – are capable of getting things terribly wrong. And, precisely because they are the police, the consequences when they do so can be absolutely devastating. We should never shy away from holding policing up to the light.
The truth is that, sometimes, the critics of policing have a point. (Though they might be surprised to know just how many serving officers share their concerns. Nobody hates bad policing more than good police officers.)
But criticism will only ever be effective if it is constructive – if the intention is to build up rather than to tear down, if those who criticise are able to describe credibly how things could be done better, and if they are prepared to roll their sleeves up and actually help.
And there is nothing remotely constructive about the current barrage of hostile invective being fired in the direction of policing.
The police are racist. The police are incompetent. The police are corrupt. The police are unprofessional. The police haven’t changed since the 1980s. The police are no good at this, and they’re no good at that. All Coppers Are Bastards.
On and on and on it goes. And it’s not just damaging to policing. It’s damaging to the whole of society.
Because society depends on policing – to a far, far greater extent than we might actually be comfortable acknowledging. We depend on the police to mend what is broken, to catch those who are falling, to step in when everyone else has stepped away, to pick up the pieces that the rest of us have left behind, to deal with crimes that are only ever a symptom of something that lies much deeper.
Because policing happens at the point of failure. Most of the time, police officers are only called when something else has already gone badly wrong.
Let me try to explain.
When a police officer is racing towards the open doors of an ambulance, carrying the body of a domestic violence victim who has been stabbed repeatedly by her boyfriend, it is the consequence of a whole succession of catastrophic failures that have little or nothing to do with policing – beginning with society’s repeated failure to challenge the reality and consequences of male violence.
When a police officer is kneeling over the stricken body of a fourteen-year-old boy, frantically trying to stem the flow of blood, desperately trying to save his life, it is the consequence of a whole succession of catastrophic failures that have little or nothing to do with policing and everything to do with the overwhelmingly complex sets of circumstances in which so many young men are growing up. More than anything, it is the consequence of trauma.
When a police officer finds the lifeless body of a drug addict lying among the bins in the alley behind the shops, it is the direct consequence of the catastrophic failure of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ – a war that society has been losing since the day it was declared.
When a police officer tries to lift the semi-comatose body of a homeless alcoholic off the pavement, it is the consequence of whole succession of catastrophic failures, not least society’s repeated failure to treat addiction as an illness – to treat those who suffer most as patients instead of prisoners.
When a police officer races to help someone in the midst of an acute mental health crisis, standing on a window ledge or brandishing a samurai sword, it is a direct consequence of the failure of the basic notion of ‘care in the community’ – of the provision of effective support and treatment for some of the most vulnerable people in society.
When a police officer faces a hail of missiles at a Black Lives Matter demonstration it is, in the most immediate sense, a consequence of the failure of order – of the failure by certain individuals to protest passionately and peacefully. But, in a much deeper sense, it is the consequence of several hundred years of history – of injustice and inequality that is both societal and systemic.
The fact is that, whether it’s domestic violence or knife crime or hatred or drug addiction or any kind of criminality borne of serious ill health, it seems that our tendency is to blame the police for the existence of the problem.
Then we blame them for the perceived inadequacies of their response to that problem (though we fail to suggest anything by way of a credible alternative).
Then, finally, we blame them for their inability to fix the damn thing.
All the while, we fail to see (or we choose to ignore) the simple fact that the problem was actually ours in the first place. Because, by the time a police officer gets involved, society has already failed.