It occurs to me that, from time to time, police officers make mistakes.
It also occurs to me that we live in a world that is increasingly unforgiving of them when they do.
There are, of course, any number of reasons why police officers might get it wrong:
(1) Because they are human
Though my wife comes close, I’ve yet to encounter an entirely perfect human being.
I’ve certainly never met a perfect police officer.
But I have known officers who make mistakes. I look at one in the mirror every morning before I go to work.
They make mistakes because they are tired; because they are stretched; because they are under pressure; because they aren’t in possession of all the facts; because their instincts have let them down on this occasion; because hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Because they are human.
(2) Because they operate in the hurting places
As I have observed before, police officers go where most wouldn’t and do what most couldn’t. It is a big part of what makes them so extraordinary.
And the places where they so often find themselves are characterised by hatred and harm, by trouble and trauma, by violence and sorrow and grief. In those places, they are compelled to make life and death decisions, within fractions of seconds, without anything approaching a full understanding of the circumstances they’re confronted with.
They face incredible personal risks in doing so.
Sometimes they make the wrong call.
(3) Because everything can’t be a priority
These days, there is more police work to be done than there are police officers to do it. And the job is becoming more complex and more demanding all the time.
But everything can’t be a priority.
While we concentrate our efforts and attention on protecting the most vulnerable and pursuing the most dangerous, it is just possible that other, less important things, will have to wait.
But someone, somewhere will always believe we’ve got it wrong – that there are other things that ought to have been higher up our list. Sometimes, they will be right.
(4) Because policing doesn’t happen in isolation
The police service will always be the agency of first and last resort. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But we are just one part of an endlessly complex statutory (and non-statutory) jigsaw. The young man we arrested this morning is the same one that Social Services are concerned about. He already has a Drugs Worker and needs to see his CAMHS counsellor in between appointments at the Youth Offending Service.
Cuts to the services provided by a number of those partner agencies have widened the gaps that he can fall through.
And, between us, we don’t always get it as right as we should.
(5) Because of organisational failings
Sometimes, police officers make a mistake as a consequence of failings on the part of the wider service.
Perhaps we haven’t provided them with the right leadership and direction.
Perhaps we have focused so much on hitting targets that we have failed to appreciate the importance of things that can’t necessarily be measured.
Perhaps we have provided kit or training that isn’t up to scratch. Or we haven’t provided it at all.
Perhaps it’s us who have let them down.
Sometimes police officers make mistakes.
When we do, we need to say sorry.
We also need to acknowledge that the consequences of those mistakes – for victims, for witnesses, for suspects, for wider society – can be disproportionately damaging. That is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the place that policing occupies in the world.
But the way in which the rest of us respond to the making of those mistakes is critical – not least in determining whether we stand any chance of getting it right next time.
And I’m just not comfortable with the way things are at the moment.
We live in times when the ferocious combination of media hostility, political demand, one-eyed external scrutiny and the baying of social media hounds leaves little room for consideration, balance or perspective.
In the headlong rush to apportion blame, how can any of us be expected to learn from the things we get wrong?
Because mistakes and misconduct are not the same thing. Not remotely the same.
Misconduct is the preserve of:
- the lazy
- the unprofessional
- the corrupt
- the criminal
And police officers who display any of those characteristics have nothing in common with the vast majority of good coppers I’ve worked alongside for the best part of 25 years.
The lazy and the unprofessional need to get their act together. If they can’t or won’t, they need to go. This job matters far too much to be done by people who don’t care.
When it comes to the corrupt and the criminal, the message is clear: They have no place among us.
Actually, they belong in jail.
At the same time, every good Copper (and there are thousands of them) needs our support as never before. And they deserve far better than to be hung out to dry for doing their jobs. When they make an honest mistake – having acted honourably and with the best of intentions – they should be supported by us and allowed to learn from the experience, without being damned in the court of ill-informed opinion.
They do a job that is beyond the experience and understanding of most of us. They do it with courage and decency and patience and good humour.
And, as they venture into the hurting places, they need to know that we have their backs.