There are two sides to every story.
And there are two sides to every encounter between a police officer and a member of the public.
Somewhere out there today, an officer will be dealing with a victim; a suspect; a witness; a protestor; a passer by; a young person being stopped & searched; an agitator with a camera phone; a drunk; an addict; a survivor of domestic violence; a journalist; someone seriously injured in a collision; a local politician; the family of someone who has been stabbed; an innocent in the midst of a mental health crisis; a tourist asking for directions; a parent whose child is missing; an elderly person whose life savings have been stolen; someone like you or me.
In many cases, the encounter will be marked by tension. Or anger. Or violence. Or bewilderment. Or sadness. Or distress. In most cases, it will be far from simple or straightforward. But, in every case, we will have higher expectations of the police officer than we will of the person they are dealing with.
And that is exactly as it should be.
There are four simple reasons for this:
Professionalism: We are expected to deal with whatever working life throws our way. This is our job. This is The Job – and every good copper wants to do it well.
Pay: With the very honourable exception of our colleagues in the Special Constabulary, we are paid to do what we do.
Promises: Each of us has taken a vow – made a commitment to serve in the office of constable with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality.
(On a personal note, this happens to be the second most important set of promises I have made in my entire life.)
Powers: Each of us possesses an extraordinary set of legal powers – not least to detain a person, to search them, to take away their liberty, to enter their home and to use force where necessary.
When I am dealing with a person in the street, putting my hands in their pockets or putting handcuffs on them, forcing my way through their front door or simply delivering a message they don’t want to hear, it is my responsibility to make sure that I carry out my duties in a manner that is beyond reproach. Even if they are utterly unreasonable, or antagonistic, or offensive, or off their faces, or punchy. Even if I have to roll around on the ground with them. The first and greatest responsibility will always be mine.
But life works both ways.
Society has responsibilities too – beginning with the need to recognise and appreciate, with much greater clarity and immediacy, just what it is that police officers do on our behalf.
Policing operates in the fractured places – where there is hatred and conflict and harm. Police officers are the first on scene and the last to leave. They see things and do things that are beyond the imagining or comprehension of most of us.
In the view of a great many decent people, they are “all that stands between the monsters and the weak”.
And each of them pays a personal price. It would be impossible to venture into the places they’ve been, to see the faces they’ve seen and to remain unaffected by it all. I know, because I’ve been there. We’ve barely begun to understand the impact on police officers and staff of the repeated exposure to extreme trauma.
And this is happening in a context – operationally and economically – that is, arguably, more challenging than at any point since the end of the Second World War. There are fewer police officers now than there were ten years ago – but, in many respects, the demands placed on them are growing and becoming more complex.
As a society, we need to be more understanding of these things.
We need to ensure that police officers actually have the leadership, training and kit they need to get the job done – and to keep themselves, the public and their colleagues safe. We need to better appreciate the extraordinary risks they face on a daily basis and we need to make it abundantly clear that an assault on a police officer is an exceptionally serious thing.
We also need to insist that police officers get the individual support they need – particularly when it comes to dealing with the personal consequences of all that we ask and expect them to do.
We need to be more forgiving of them when genuine errors are made, understanding that mistakes and misconduct are not remotely the same thing. And, where wrong-doing is identified, whilst not shying away from it for one moment, we need to seek the opportunities to learn rather than just to blame.
Might I suggest that, as a society, we need simply to be more grateful for every good copper out there. I have served alongside them for almost a quarter of a century and, the occasional idiot aside, they are a remarkable bunch of human beings – brave, funny, loyal, honourable, hard-working public servants who made the same promises as me.
If you happen to see a police officer today, go up and thank them for what they do. It will be worth it just to see the expression on their faces.