I originally wrote much of what follows last summer – in the desperate days that followed the killing of PC Andrew Harper. Little more than a year on, the agony of history is repeating itself.
Most give what they can; some give all they have. Sergeant Matiu Ratana – known to all as Matt – was one of those who gave everything. He was murdered in the line of duty in the early hours of Friday 25th September 2020.
I never had the privilege of knowing him, but I know exactly what kind of man he was – one who understood that precious, old-fashioned thing called duty. The tributes paid to him – by colleagues, friends, local community members, rugby players and coaches, defence solicitors and even some of the prisoners he dealt with in custody – have been extraordinary. People loved him. He was “one of a kind”, “highly respected”, “an inspiration to all who knew him”, “friendly, capable and lovely”, “larger than life”, “big in stature and big in heart”. In every photo I have seen of him, he is smiling.
The sense of staggering loss is greatest, of course, for those who knew him best and loved him most. But every Copper – whether serving or retired – will be feeling it today. Policing is a family and we have lost one of our own. One of the very best of us.
Those who do the job know the risks of course – but there has been an inescapable sense in recent times that those risks have been rising to completely unacceptable levels. On average, in England & Wales alone, 595 police officers are assaulted every week – that’s 85 every single day. Pause for a moment and think about that number. What does it say about us as a society? About who we are and what we are becoming?
And Coronavirus has only made things worse – with a 21% increase in assaults on officers during the first three months of lockdown.
The simple fact is that more police officers are being more seriously assaulted, more frequently than at any point I can recall. And there would appear to be a perfect storm of reasons why it is happening:
44,000 officers and staff cut from policing in England & Wales (2010-2018)
Crime is rising. Demands on policing are rising. The complexity of criminal investigations is rising. Risk is rising. And all of this has happened 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 governments of the last ten years have done more damage to policing than any other in my lifetime. And senior politicians are now scrambling desperately to undo harms that are entirely of their own making. 20,000 new police officers is the very least that’s 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 local communities. With that loss of connection comes the loss of relationship and the consequent loss of a natural constraint on violence. You are much less likely to attack those you know and trust.
The loss of experience
It is not just the number of officers and staff that have been cut, it’s the experience that’s been lost too. Policing is all about experience – you learn the job by doing it – and we have lost thousands of years-worth of hard-earned streetcraft and detective ability since the Coalition Government came to power in 2010.
The loss of operational capability
The seemingly endless costs of austerity extend further still – 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
But it is not just in their actions that politicians have done extraordinary harm to policing. It is in their words too.
The political narrative about policing has, for much of the last ten years, been characterised by an astonishing degree of hostility. The police are incompetent. The police are corrupt. The police are racist. The police are resistant to change.
When politicians denigrate policing as consistently as they have done in the last decade, it does incalculable damage both to the police service itself and to relations between police officers and the communities they serve.
Hostile media coverage
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’s 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 during the demonstration; 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 for real, it is police officers who will be first in line to respond.
During the course of my career, I worked with officers who were shot, stabbed, beaten unconscious, strangled, run down by cars, who fought hand to hand with murderers, who placed themselves repeatedly in harm’s way in defence of complete strangers. They were some of the finest, bravest, kindest, funniest women and men you could ever hope to meet.
Matt Ratana was one such man. Who went to work and didn’t come home.
Rest peacefully, mighty man.