A Handful of Thoughts about Policing

Where to begin

There are times as a Met Officer when I just want to bury my head in my hands.

Stephen Lawrence. Plebgate. G20.

Even Hillsborough – in another time and another place – becomes an inescapable reality for the Met.

The sins of the past and the sins of the present. Conspiring. And, in truth, there can be no escaping the fact that we have, to a very significant extent, brought it on ourselves.

There are occasions when police officers – of all ranks – do things that are so jaw-droppingly stupid I am left almost completely lost for words.

And some of us can be rude; some of us self-important; some of us unthinking or unfeeling; some of us unprofessional in any number of ways. And then there are those who are just plain criminal – who have no place among us and who shame us all.

It’s no wonder that even decent folk can begin to doubt us.

I am more painfully aware than anyone I know of some of the faults and failings of the Met. I have encountered racism and corruption first hand. I have seen unprofessionalism – and have been unprofessional myself.

There can never be any excuses for of those things.

But – and this is important – I don’t know of anyone more aware than I am of the extraordinary brilliance of the Met and the vast majority of its people.

Everyday Heroism

When you strip away all that really isn’t important, policing has at its core a very remarkable set of values and responsibilities.

They form what might be described as the ‘DNA’ of the Met – something that has barely changed in the last 200 years:

• Saving lives
• Seeking justice
• Protecting the vulnerable
• Defending the weak
• Helping the helpless
• Finding the lost
• Making places safer
• Demonstrating courage
• On occasions, even laying down lives

Whilst accepting that we can fall short of such ideals, it remains a remarkable list. Pause to think about it for a moment. This is what we – quite rightly – ask and expect of our police. And I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.

But it comes at a cost:

• I have worked with officers who have been shot in the line of duty
• I have worked with officers who went down into the tunnels on 7/7 – just as almost everyone else was desperately trying to get out of them
• I have worked with the officer who was first onto the bus in Tavistock Square and who saw things that defy description or comprehension
• I have worked with officers who have ventured into the midst of unimaginable horrors, because duty compels them to
• I have worked with officers who have chased gunmen and disarmed those wielding knives
• I have worked with officers who saved the life of a critically injured drug dealer – giving him emergency life support as he fought them in an attempt to get away
• I have put my arm round the shoulder of a colleague breaking down in tears after seeing open heart surgery performed on the victim of a domestic murder
• I have worked with people who have made innumerable personal sacrifices for the sake of ‘the Job’
• I have seen and experienced things that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, friend or foe

I don’t say these things to impress or alarm – I say them simply because they are true.

I suspect that we’ve all had the experience of passing a police cordon – at the scene of a crime or a car crash – and wondering what was going on. I have the privilege of working alongside those who operate on the other side of the blue and white tape – those on the inside of the cordon. They tread where most would fear to go – and, invariably, they do so with a mixture of compassion, courage and true brilliance.

A former Met Commissioner used a wonderful phrase to describe what that means in practice. He spoke of the ‘everyday heroism’ of those who police the streets of London. I’ve never been able to put it better.

Whilst you’re reading this, there are police officers out there somewhere administering CPR on dirty pavements, confronting armed and dangerous criminals, searching for lost children, talking people down from parapets, picking their way through horrifying crime scenes, completing reams of interminable paperwork, sitting with shattered victims, picking up the broken pieces of life…

Twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year. In tipping rain and stifling heat.

I admire them more than I can possibly say.

The Policing Narrative

So what’s my point?

Simply that there is a need to rebalance much of the prevailing public narrative about policing.

That is in no way an attempt to divert attention from some of our very evident failings – but rather to seek a broader perspective.

The Police Service is, in its own way, a microcosm of the society it serves – full of all the same frailties and faults. But for those who have chosen to serve, the bar has to be higher. There has to be an absolute intolerance of dishonesty, prejudice and unprofessionalism of every kind – and an absolute commitment to sincere and far-reaching reform. London and its communities deserve no less.

But our own officers and staff are also deserving – not least of a broader recognition and understanding of the extraordinary things they do on behalf of us all, every single day.

Not long ago, I was in contact with a senior colleague from another Police Force who had received an e-mail from one of their frontline officers. Responding to the latest round of media coverage of policing, it simply said: ‘Please can someone tell them that most of us are just ordinary people doing our best’.

It’s not a plea for sympathy or any kind of special treatment. Just for some understanding.

Articulating Complexity

I don’t care what anyone else says, policing is different.

Not only is it the best job in the world – I think it’s in with a reasonable shout of being the most complex. Actually, I can’t think of another that even comes close, both on the frontline and in Senior Leadership terms.

Sure, there are jobs that require higher qualifications and those that demand an extraordinary level of expertise – brain surgery, anyone? – but none that I can think of with a comparable breadth and depth of ability and expectation.

Let me try to explain.

On any given day, a PC on a Patrol Team might be called to display some or all of the following skills and attributes:

• Emergency Life Support for the victim of a stabbing
• Forensic preservation of an extensive burglary scene
• Knowledge of a huge breadth of law and procedure
• High speed driving in pursuit of a crime suspect
• Use of a Defibrillator on someone in cardiac arrest
• Completion of a court case file following the charge of an offender
• Use of a Taser when confronted with an armed man
• Crowd control – at the scene of a disturbance or major public event
• Stop & search of someone who absolutely refuses to cooperate
• Desperate negotiation with someone teetering on a 10th floor window ledge
• Coordination of a Missing Person search
• Communication with those in distress who speak barely a word of English
• Compassion for the victim of a serious sexual assault
• Lawful and proportionate self-defence in the face of attack
• Forced entry to an address that contains a two week old dead body, part decomposed and infested with maggots
• Response to a major or critical incident – anything from cordon management, to traffic control, to sensitive witness enquiries and any number of other things besides
• Patience in the face of anti-social hours, significantly extended shifts and inclement weather
• Search and rescue at the scene of a major accident
• A split second decision to risk their own life for the sake of another

And so much of it is done in a variety of adversarial settings – arrest; stop & search; execution of a search warrant; in the midst of a pub fight – or in the face of enormous trauma and distress. Not many people phone the police just to say they’re having a good day.

Instead, they call to tell us that:

• “My son has been stabbed”
• “My girlfriend is missing”
• “I can’t take it anymore”
• “It’s dark and I’m being followed”
• “The house next door is on fire”
• “My ex-boyfriend is trying to smash down my front door”
• “There’s a car on its roof in the middle lane”
• “I’ve just been spat at in the street”
• “My husband was out drinking last night and now I can’t wake him”
• “My house has been broken into”
• “I’ve just seen a cyclist knocked down by a bus”
• “My wallet’s been stolen and someone’s spent two grand on my credit card”
• “It’s all kicking off in the street outside”
• “I want to make a complaint”
• “I haven’t seen my neighbour for a week and there are flies all over their window”

I could go on for quite some time. But, essentially, my point is a simple one:

Nothing else comes close to policing.

And I am proud to serve alongside the heroes and heroines who police the streets of London.

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11 thoughts on “A Handful of Thoughts about Policing

  1. Andy wright

    Brilliant piece of writing John. Thank you. We just need to find one journalist/media type who is strong enough to break away from the pack and actually publish this and in doing so hopefully initiate some intelligent debate. For far too long Government. (esp.Home Office and particularly the Home Secretary) and the MSM have been allowed to perpetuate a vile anti police narrative without ANY credible challenge. This is not democratic and it really is time a stand was taken. Serving senior officers like yourself and even those retired like myself MUST play their part .The public are being lied to and deceived on a daily (almost hourly!) basis and is is shameful. Well done again.

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  2. Stella Coppard

    An honest, comprehensive account of policing today, well written & from the perspective of an ordinary Officer doing the job he loves. All Officers go open eyed into situations which would terrify us, experience sights/sounds horrific, face dangers which become nightmares but they do it time & time again because they are in the job they excell at. They have one weakness (I think it’s their biggest asset), they are human, just like you & me – they have varying degrees of good/bad, different levels of judgement, various standards of intelligence – just like you & me. They are human, like the rest of us they make mistakes, errors of judgement & sometimes their social skills may be abrupt but their underpinning resolve is they are their to help & sustain a level of Society we can all live in with as much security as possible. They are the first we turn to, rely on, want to see when danger threatens. We need them if we want to grow & develop as a humane Society which believes in justice & fairness. The modern day Police need our help when facing an uncertain future of misguided cut-backs & ill-thought strategies but we owe it to them to fight for their survival in a sensible, realistic & sensible structure. They are our safety net, our very human & necessary British Police Force, the best there ever was and a Force we are fiercely Proud of.

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  3. Once a cop

    Well written commentary and one phrase needs to be expanded upon: ‘in truth, there can be no escaping the fact that we have, to a very significant extent, brought it on ourselves’.

    What is remarkable about the Home Secretary’s campaign about the police service is that she thinks it is a political option acceptable to Conservative MPs and the wider, if smaller, Conservative “grass roots”. Plus their coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats – maybe not one MP, who resigned his post in the Home Office. I cannot recall a single Conservative MP who has questioned, let alone opposed the campaign and one part of them the 25% cuts in funding. A few PCCs have spluttered their concern and been ignored.

    The police service has to ask itself WHY is this possible? Yes we ‘bought it upon ourselves’ in part.

    Somehow the Home Secretary and others in support must have concluded there were FEW adverse consequences politically. That Includes at the ballot box in a General Election.

    Sadly the supposed police service leadership have been silent; with a few honourable exceptions. Yes, ACPO I mean you. No wonder ‘trust & confidence’ in you has slumped to less than half – as found in YouGov’s polling for over a decade. ‘Local police officers’ are trusted far more, by 20% approximately.

    The Police Federation appears to be a rather bruised, wary advocate for policing. Maybe it is more concerned with itself too much.

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  4. doctorplod

    A thoughtful and eloquent piece. As you know I totally share your views, I have been and will continue to be immensely proud of the achievements of our colleagues, not only here in London, but also throughout the country, where more often than not they face the same challenges with far fewer resources, but of course the same passion, commitment and professionalism. I think despite the poor media we often attract it is useful to refer back to Peel’s 9 point principles and in particular point 9, which states “To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action dealing with them”. What you’ve so beautifully stated is solid evidence that everyday our colleagues throughout the UK, modestly go about living the very foundation upon which our very existence was built upon in 1829 and it is that modesty that is often found in the emergency and armed services that sets us apart from many other professions … I think the word we’re searching for is … Vocational … It’s why we are here … Superb piece mate.

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  5. h2631563

    Excellent piece. I retire in slightly over a year and feel more than a little dispirited and jaded about the Job and what it’s become. More than glad to see the back of this madness. However this article reminded me of some of the basics that perhaps I’d forgotten. No I won’t miss the Job. I really won’t. BUT by God I will miss the people. I did a few years in the military before joining the Force. Same sort of people in both. The can- doers. Those who make the unworkable work. Those who keep on laughing and taking the piss, when confronted by the unimaginable. Those who delve into the darkest of places, but keep going back for more. Those who keep getting up when constantly knocked down. I’m sure you only consistently find people like that in the police and the armed forces. I’m bloody lucky to have done both, and worked alongside the very best of people , with a fine sprinkle of pillocks along the way. Alas the occasional pillock is inevitable. Sadly I see the police force destroyed around me now, and that fine bunch of boys and girls crushed under the political Jack Boot. The doers of good trampled under the feet of the doers of ill. Very sad times for us all.

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  6. Mustafa

    A layman’s perspective – Policing

    Commander Sutherland

    A quick thank you

    In more ways than one, it’s not exactly the easiest of tasks to find a clear detailed account online of modern day policing in London, let alone any other UK police service. For taking the time to start and inform a discussion on ‘modern policing’, thank you.

    With your years of experiencing the things London has thrown at you, it’s reassuring that you haven’t become insulated and/or withdrawn from the realities of present day challenges, of which there are many. I’ve no idea which borough or area of expertise you command but it’s a measure of good leadership that you’re attempting to widen the scope of public discourse.

    A vacuum of information

    It is with this last point in which I’d like to make my first point. As you eluded to in your article, us members of the public operate in nothing less than a vacuum of information when it comes to the police. It’s pretty easy for us random folk to make an assumption based simply on being behind a police cordon, what others have told us or even witnessing an officer restraining and/or searching an individual. Some of this, particularly the latter can lead to wild misrepresentation.

    “Why are there so many of you for one person?”, “Can you not use less force? etc etc

    I must confess, even I’ve thought these at times. It’s easy when you’re not on adrenaline and don’t quite understand what the backstory to a situation is. If the officer doesn’t have a body camera, it just turns in a word of mouth duel if a complaint arises.

    As a 21 year old student, you don’t really need to go back as far back as Stephen Lawrence to find examples of just plain dodgy policing. However, this is not to say that there aren’t examples which deserve the benefit of the doubt, or at the very least, some sort of leeway.
    Sometimes, but not always, a “We’ve clearly screwed up here people, here’s is what we’re going to do to improve” helps.

    Perspective

    I’ll have to revert back to the essence of your article. It wasn’t a raving endorsement of the status quo nor was it a denigration of an organisation of 50,000 people, 31/32,000 of which are police officers. Far from it. I think ‘perspective’ may do it justice.

    A few personal examples may help with this.

    Years ago, a local bus driver had call in a ‘Code Red’ on loud school kids and asked for police assistance. I was 11 at the time. I didn’t quite understand at the time why one of the officer’s saw the need to say ‘let’s get these monkeys off the bus’. I brushed it off, at that time I didn’t really know how to process his ‘rudeness’ so I just got on the next bus home because getting home to play some football seemed more important to me.

    During college, I remember being in a room of fellow teenagers and someone, off the cuff, asked ‘who here has been stopped and searched?’ Apart of me (I’ve been stopped but not searched, just checked out), around 80% stood up. I wondered, are we doing something wrong? Is it what we’re wearing or how we’re walking? I doubt that’s something 16/17s should be discussing.

    The best we got was the need to rationalise that there may have been robberies in the area alongside pocket sized leaflets of our rights if stopped. These were made available to students.

    The flipside.

    It was uniformed officers who converged on me after I had made a 999 call stating a woman was being assaulted by her boyfriend. After 2 officers had initially arrived, the man leap into a nearby canal to escape. When that failed, fighting the officers was his next tactic. By now many more officers and a dog had come to back up the initial 2. A lot of wrestling and some incapacitant spray later, the man was arrested.
    It was also an off duty officer who pulled over and spent an hour with my Mum, who’d fell and hit her head of the pavement and sat bleeding waiting for an ambulance. This officer gave first aid, called our family to let us know what had happened and where, plus had the presence to sit and give some light humour to the situation.

    So, what should be made of these examples? Perspective. One can either look at the former examples as an illustration of failings within policing. There are many issues modern police services will face in the years to come but, crucially, this shouldn’t distract from the many good things.

    Opening up

    I guess, over these past few years, it’s become easier to interact and talk with officers online through official Twitter accounts. From a London perspective, talking to Sgt or PC who policies your local ward isn’t an impossible thought as not everyone can attend a public meeting.

    With all that’s been said, it’s also worth noting your point about society in general. To quote, the police are simply “a microcosm of the society is serves” or in the words of Sir Robert Peel, ‘The police are the public and the public are the police’. In an organisation of 50,000 people, someone somewhere is going to screw up at some point, potentially quite badly.

    In my opinion, there will always be those who are corrupt, overly physical or even racist. This is simply because it’s far harder to screen or identify these type of officers.

    There are many questions and policies of what ‘modern policing’ means in this day and age. For me, Stop and Search is but one of many. Deaths in police custody and the recruitment of new officers from within the M25 in a climate where London’s property market is turning into one big Monopoly board. How would a new PC afford housing?

    Somehow, you’ve become the jack of a spades emergency service. Herding livestock which has managed to get into live traffic may not even be an unrealistic thought. More worryingly, response officers are increasingly dealing with people with mental health issues.

    So this is what I’d ask of you.

    Many people will ask many questions about many issues. Now more than ever, it’s possible to push out the good stuff, not as ‘propaganda’ but simply as an illustration of ‘The Job’. @mpsinthesky seem to have mastered this part.

    As a Commander, you or I as lay person, can’t possibly know or respond to every point However, the more colleagues in your position of rank from various forces, the more of a clearer and more authentic picture we can get of the state of policing within the UK. Who knows, with this, public debates can be held around London and the UK as a whole.

    From that, progress can be made (I hope).

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