Yesterday, the Prime Minister gave a pre-recorded speech in which he attempted to explain the government’s latest strategy for responding to the pandemic. Stay Alert, we were told. But a soundbite does not a strategy make and, mostly, he seems only to have confused people (including senior members of his own government).
“Stay at home as much as possible.”
“Work from home if you can.”
“Limit contact with other people.”
What do these statements even mean? They are so subjective as to be rendered almost meaningless.
But, as ever, police officers out on patrol will be expected to interpret and apply them. And some will accuse those officers of being heavy-handed in doing so, while others will accuse them of not doing enough.
A Copper’s Lot is to be caught in the middle, trying to make sense of things that make almost no sense at all.
The Last Few Days
Last week, the nation marked the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Friday evening’s BBC broadcast included a beautiful musical tribute to key workers and members of the emergency services. Except that the police weren’t featured in it.
There were teachers and nurses, members of the armed forces and farmers, train drivers and shop workers, ambulance crews and firefighters, pharmacists and vets, doctors and bin men and posties. But no police officers.
And I can’t for the life of me understand why we wouldn’t want to acknowledge and appreciate members of the police service too – those remarkable women and men who go where most wouldn’t and do what most couldn’t.
A Copper’s Lot is to be taken entirely for granted, until the moment when we need their help.
The Last Few Weeks
The general media coverage of the policing response to the pandemic has fascinated me. And not in a good way.
From the start of the lockdown the focus has been, overwhelmingly, on the negative – on isolated instances of individual officers misinterpreting or over-reaching their new powers. The early headlines were all about Easter eggs and shopping bags and park patrols and drone flights. By comparison, far less attention was given to accounts of police officers being coughed on, bitten and spat at by suspects claiming to have the deadly virus. Or to tales of officers visiting the elderly, doing their shopping and filling their fridges. Or to stories of the thousands of their colleagues who were simply getting on with the day job – protecting the most vulnerable and pursuing the most dangerous in society.
When it comes to policing, bad news travels much further and faster than good news. And when it turns out that some of the negative stories aren’t even true, the damage has already been done.
I’m no blind apologist for the job I used to do. Sometimes police officers – both individually and collectively – get things terribly wrong. And the consequences when they do can be disproportionately damaging. We have every right right to expect higher standards of police officers than we do of anyone else in society.
But is it too much to ask for a bit of balance? Because, for every negative story told about policing, I could tell you a hundred extraordinary ones – involving the kind of humanity and heroism that would likely take your breath away.
A Copper’s Lot is to ignore the noise and get on with the precious business of saving lives and finding the lost and comforting the broken hearted and confronting the violent and defending the weak.
That remarkable, old fashioned thing called duty.
The Last Few Years
In truth, the media coverage of policing during the last few months has, for the most part, been consistent with coverage during the last few years. And with much of the political commentary too.
For the past decade, the story being told about policing by many politicians and newspapers has been an undeniably hostile one: the police are racist; the police are corrupt; the police are incompetent; the police are unwilling to change. Just as thousands were being cut from their ranks, and billions from their budgets. During this period, one journalist with a more open mind posed me a powerful question.
“Who is standing up for policing in this country?” he asked.
He didn’t think that anyone was.
A Copper’s Lot is to remain in the arena, face marred by dust and sweat and blood, absorbing the relentless criticism of those who don’t count.
It Was Ever Thus
Perhaps it’s always been this way. Perhaps we regard police officers in a fundamentally different way to almost everyone else in frontline public service – the emergency services in particular.
Nurses help people. And we love them for it.
Doctors help people. And we love them for it.
Firefighters help people. And we love them for it.
Paramedics help people. And we love them for it.
Police officers help people too. If you ask most of them why they joined in the first place, they will tell you that it was because they wanted to help people. But that’s not all they do. Sometimes they stop people. They pursue people. They challenge people. They search people. They arrest people. Sometimes they use force to do those things. And, as I have already acknowledged, they don’t always get it right.
Perhaps that’s why we find them a little harder to love.
Because there is a part of policing that is rough – involving the kind of violence and trauma and chaos and catastrophe that most of us would prefer not to think about. Until it visits us, that is.
A Copper’s Lot is to venture repeatedly into the hurting places – in amongst the broken lives and broken bones, the broken hearts and broken homes. And you won’t hear a word of complaint from any of them about those things. Because that’s the job. It’s what they joined to do.
I just think that the rest of us ought to show them a little more appreciation along the way. And not just on the desperate days when one of them has been murdered or in the immediate aftermath of the latest terrorist atrocity.
Policing is an entirely imperfect response to an entirely imperfect world but, for more than twenty-five years, I served alongside a bunch of absolute bloody heroes. The best of them are the best of us all.