Policing is at a crossroads

It has been a year of challenges, from Covid-19 to the implications of the death of George Floyd, but it has been the events of the past weekend that have seen policing seemingly end up on the wrong side of almost everything. How has it comes to this, asks retired Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) officer and author John Sutherland.

Mar 15, 2021

The headlines this morning were truly grim.

The pictures were even worse: photographs of women being pinned to the ground by police officers, at a vigil held in memory of a murdered woman.

Clapham Common is a short walk from where I live. I went there yesterday. I went with my eldest daughter in the middle of the afternoon. We bought flowers and we paid our respects. It was peaceful and calm and subdued. It was powerful and poignant and painful. It was beautiful. As we walked slowly round the bandstand, I spotted a couple of uniformed police officers – one man, one woman – standing back from the edge of us all. They were quiet and dignified. I wandered over to them and thanked them for being there.

My daughter and I were back at home as evening drew in. As the crowd swelled. As the atmosphere changed. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what happened. I don’t know exactly who said what and I don’t know exactly who did what, so I’m not going to try to second guess any of it. That kind of uninformed speculation never helped anyone. But I know what the pictures look like.

They look terrible.

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine them looking any worse – and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.

Policing in this country has always been founded on the precious notion of consent – on the idea that police are the public and the public are the police. That we are them and they are us. Today, it is a notion seemingly under greater strain than ever before. When ordinary, decent, law-abiding people are questioning what on earth the police are doing – asking whether the police are even on their side – then we had better make damn sure we’re paying attention. And we had better make damn sure we actually do something about what they’re saying.

Policing is at a crossroads.

Over the past week, the conversation has been about gender – about misogyny and male violence and the urgent need for the police to change the way they respond to it. Before that, the conversation was about race – about prejudice and bigotry and hatred and the urgent need for the police to change the way they respond to it. Next week, we might be talking about something else, but we absolutely cannot – we absolutely must not – shy away from the urgent need for change when it comes to matters of gender and race.

All of this is about so much more than just policing, of course – fundamentally, it is about who we are as a society – but policing remains, inevitably, at the heart of it all. Because policing happens in the hurting places. It operates along the fragile fault lines that run through our homes and neighbourhoods. Because police officers are entrusted with a set of powers and responsibilities greater than those given to any other citizen. Because policing always seems to end up being both our first and last resort when it comes to questions of crime and disorder and much more besides. Because, if not the police, then who?

But policing is at a crossroads.

How has it come to this? How have we ended up here? How has policing ended up seemingly on the wrong side of almost everything? How has it become the focus for so much blame and rage?

What follows is my – probably clumsy, undoubtedly faltering – attempt to explain.

Because policing is imperfect

A statement of the blindingly obvious perhaps, but policing offers an utterly imperfect response to an utterly imperfect world. Because police officers are human beings – imperfect in every way. Just like the rest of us. Because none of us gets it right all the time.

But what separates police officers from the rest of us is the position that they hold – the role that they perform – in society. Which is why we must always continue to expect higher standards of them than we do of anyone else. Because, if you can’t trust a copper, then who can you trust?

Because of the harm done by politicians

Not by all politicians. But by far too many of them.

I have written and spoken about this many times before, but it would be impossible to overstate the staggering amount of damage done to policing by politicians – especially during the last 11 years:

  • 44,000 officers and staff cut from policing in England & Wales (2010-2018);
  • Billions of pounds cut from policing budgets;
  • Hundreds of police stations closed and sold;
  • Neighbourhood policing dismantled;
  • Proactive policing dismantled; and
  • Specialist policing dismantled (dogs and horses and helicopters).

Defund the police? It is a phrase that perfectly describes the strategy pursued by the Government first elected in 2010. And, as a direct consequence of that strategy, politicians have:

  • Fatally undermined the basic ability of the police service to do its job (compounded by their complete failure to adequately define what they actually think that job should be);
  • Desperately undermined the basic confidence of police officers to do their job – without fear or favour as the old saying goes; and
  • Severed the vital connection between local officers and local neighbourhoods – doing untold harm to community-police relations in the process.

All of this is made worse by the fact that politicians have:

  • Sustained, for a number of years, an enormously hostile narrative about policing – telling us that they are racist, corrupt and incompetent, without ever pausing to offer any semblance of balance to their commentary; and
  • Lied to us repeatedly about the consequences of their own actions – variously telling us that crime was down, that police reform was working, that those who questioned what they were doing were crying wolf. And when it reached the point where they could no longer deny the fact that crime was rising, they tried to get away with telling us that there was no clear connection between rising crime numbers and falling police numbers. In the words of the regularly re-quoted rogue Civil Service tweet: “Arrogant and offensive: Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”

Lives have been lost as a consequence of the lies they have told and the harm they have done.

Because of the harm done by the press

Not by all journalists. But by far too many of them.

Far too many in the press have followed the pattern set by far too many in politics – in maintaining a narrative about policing that lacks any kind of balance:

  • By focusing relentlessly on the negative;
  • By almost completely ignoring the positive;
  • By taking controversial policing stories from around the world and presenting them with headlines that leave the reader free to assume they happened here;
  • By creating hostility and division – and then exploiting it;
  • By driving a deliberate wedge between police officers and the public they serve.

And everything that happens in the mainstream media is renewed and intensified on social media, where everyone seems to be shouting and almost no-one seems to be listening – where everything is binary (you are either for me or against me and there is nothing in between) and where cases are tried and decided in the five-second-court of online opinion.

Because we continue to expect police officers to pick up the pieces of austerity

Government policy over the last decade hasn’t only been devastating for policing. It’s been devastating for the whole of the public sector, not least:

  • Mental health care;
  • Adult social care;
  • Education;
  • Youth services; and
  • The wider criminal justice system.

And, more often than not, we are asking and expecting police officers to pick up the pieces that other agencies – frequently through no fault of their own – are leaving behind.

The wider, long-term consequences of austerity – together with the legacies of both Covid and Brexit – are certain to make things even more challenging:

  • Deepening poverty;
  • Rising inequality;
  • Growing unemployment;
  • Falling state support.

At the start of 2021, there is a growing sense of public anger at the undeniable, unavoidable injustices apparent in our society. I fear that, left unaddressed, the disquiet will only grow.

And, when people take to the streets to demonstrate and protest, who will we ask to respond?

Because we are expecting the police to bear the ills of wider society

As far back as the 1970s, the then MPS Commissioner, Sir Robert Mark, suggested that, “the police are the anvil on which society beats out the problems and abrasions of social inequality, racial prejudice, weak laws and ineffective legislation”.

Perhaps it was ever thus. Because policing operates where others fear to tread. Where life is agonising. Where lives are lost. Where situations appear hopeless. Where all seems broken beyond repair.

But – again as I have suggested before – the point at which police officers get involved is the point at which society has already failed. Crime is only ever a symptom. Disorder is only ever a symptom. Of things that lie far, far deeper.

The MPS is facing a whole series of desperately uncomfortable questions in the weeks ahead. And there are no easy answers to any of them. But we are fooling ourselves to a dangerous extent if we are thinking that this is only about policing.

The truth is that racism is not fundamentally a policing problem. It was there long before the police were ever called.

Misogyny and male violence are not fundamentally policing problems. They were there long before the police were ever called.

But it suits the politicians and the press – among others – for the focus to remain on the police. It makes sense to blame the the police for the existence of the problem. And then to blame them for their failure to fix it. Because, as long as the focus and the anger remain fixed on the police, attention is diverted from the racism and misogyny (and every other failing) in their own ranks.

Perhaps, to some extent, it suits us all. Because the final truth is that none of us gets a pass here. None of us is entirely free of blame.

Just at this moment in time, we appear to be a nation more deeply divided than ever before:

  • Between male and female;
  • Between black and white;
  • Between rich and poor;
  • Between left and right;
  • Between leave and remain;
  • Between north and south;
  • Between have and have not; and
  • Between us and them.

The question we all need to ask is where do we go from here?

The answer to it will depend on the choices each one of us makes:

  • About what we believe;
  • About how we behave;
  • About how we speak;
  • About how we disagree;
  • About how we listen – especially to the voices of those who see and experience the world differently to us;
  • About the ways in which we hold our politicians to account; and
  • About the ways in which we hold our media to account.

Policing is at a crossroads.

Society is too.

John Sutherland is a retired MPS chief superintendent. He is the best selling author of the memoirs Blue and Crossing the Line. This post was originally appeared on his personal blog and is republished here by kind permission. Read the original article here.

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