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.
When you strip away all that really isn’t important, policing has barely changed for the best part of 200 years. The job is still:
• to save lives
• to seek justice
• to protect the vulnerable
• to defend the weak
• to help the helpless
• to find the lost
• to confront the dangerous
Sometimes, to risk it all.
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. 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.
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”
Nothing else comes close to policing.
And I am proud to serve alongside the everyday heroes and heroines who police our streets.