“I won’t have the police service as the place where all of society’s ills are laid out and blamed on us.” (Cressida Dick, Met Police Commissioner, April 2017)
The painful privilege of policing is to venture into the hurting places – and to encounter the lives being lived there: the damaged and the dangerous, the beaten and the broken, the troubled and the terrified, the abandoned and the afraid.
I’ve said it often before, but it bears repeating: police officers go where most wouldn’t and do what most couldn’t. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that they do.
But we expect an extraordinary amount from them:
- We expect them to respond when we call
- We expect them to come quickly and arrive safely
- We expect them to to provide emergency medical treatment in the minutes before the ambulance arrives
- We expect them to be able to use a defibrillator
- We expect them to face violence with steady hearts and hands
- We expect them to face abuse with an even temper
- We expect them to show restraint
- We expect them to preserve crime scenes and to be experts in forensic recovery
- We expect them to pursue suspects on foot and online
- We expect them to prioritise the things that are important to us
- We expect them to put an arm around those who have witnessed the unimaginable
- We expect them to enter the smoke-filled tunnels and the wreckage of the bus
- We expect them to protect the vulnerable
- We expect them to manage major investigations
- We expect them to respond to armed incidents and terrorist attacks
- We expect them to run towards
- We expect them to work all the hours, in all the weather
- We expect them to make brilliant decisions in fractions of seconds
- We expect them to be first responders, detectives, medics, counsellors, athletes, heroes, social workers, negotiators, mental health professionals, youth workers, armed and unarmed, friendly and approachable, fierce when circumstances demand, brave at all times.
- We expect them just to get on with it.
And we expect a thousand other things besides.
But the Commissioner is right. We cannot expect them to bear all of society’s ills. Nor can we expect them to take the blame for things that stretch far beyond their immediate influence or control.
Crime is only ever a symptom.
Police officers will always do what they can. They will always be first in line to respond – to the emergencies; to the crises; to the blood soaked scenes and heart-broken families. And that is exactly as it should be.
But they can only do so much.
We have got to understand that the situations and the lives that coppers encounter are infinitely more complicated than we would like them to be:
- We need to understand the reasons why a lost and hurting soul might choose to join a gang or to take up an extremist cause.
- We need to recognise the impact of childhood trauma on the young lives inhabiting our troubled neighbourhoods.
- We need to identify the inter-generational transference of harm in homes where violence is a daily reality.
- We need to get to grips with the far-reaching impact that basic poverty has on families and local communities.
- We need to comprehend what might be happening in the life of the young girl who goes missing repeatedly from the local children’s home.
- We need to appreciate the circumstances of the crack addict who just can’t seem to kick the habit.
- We need to look beyond the obvious symptoms and start to see the deeper causes.
None of these things is simple or remotely straightforward.
Take an average teenage boy caught up in the horrors of knife crime. His short life history is likely to be characterised by some combination of the following factors:
- Domestic violence and other forms of abuse
- Exposure to substantial trauma
- Normalisation of violence
- Broken family background
- Mental ill health
- Drug use
- Exclusion from education
- Older sibling(s) in prison
By the time the police are called for the first time, all of these things will have happened already. And there are no quick fixes.
But there is hope.
We just need to understand the limits of what the police service alone can do. And we need to resist the temptation to blame them whenever things go wrong. Then we need to roll up our sleeves and recognise that something more is required of all of us.
The easiest thing in the world is to walk on by. To cross the road. To wash our hands of any form of responsibility.
The road less travelled is the one demanding that enough of us care enough for long enough for things to begin to change.