It’s been a hell of a year for police officers in this country.
Twelve months ago, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, policing stood accused of institutional racism. And it wasn’t the first time that had happened.
Three months ago, in the aftermath of the murder of Sarah Everard, policing stood accused of institutional misogyny.
Yesterday, following the publication of an independent inquiry report into the murder of Daniel Morgan, policing stood accused of institutional corruption.
Yesterday, police officers up and down the country had their heads in their hands.
Because, while all of this has been happening, police officers have also been in the frontline of the response to:
- a global pandemic – trying to make sense of rushed legislation, trying to implement imperfect guidance, trying to protect their own health and the health of their loved ones, all while trying to keep the rest of us safe;
- a wave of public protests on the streets of London and Bristol and beyond – attacked from all sides, apparently damned whatever they do;
- a nationwide surge in serious crime – violent crime in particular.
All this after a decade of crippling austerity. All this after the loss of 44,000 officers and staff in England & Wales alone. All of this after years of picking up the pieces that other, underfunded, public services have left behind. All this in the face of hostile and damaging politics. All this in the face of hostile and damaging media coverage.
And all of it is taking its toll. On women and men who are not what we seem to think they are; women and men who are not who we appear to believe them to be; women and men who are none of the things that policing stands accused of.
Before I go any further, I need to make one thing very clear. I am not here to offer a blind defence of policing. I am not here to offer mitigation for corruption or prejudice or any other form of individual or collective failing, past or present. I am not here to offer a single excuse for bad policing. As I’ve always said, society has every right to expect higher standards of police officers than it does of anyone else. Because of the promises they make; because of the powers they are given; because of the position they occupy in our communities. There should be no hiding place for policing when it all goes wrong.
The Met has got some incredibly difficult questions to answer about the murder of Daniel Morgan. Just as it has about the murder of Sarah Everard. Just as it has about the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and about a number of other cases besides. And it must answer those questions. Because policing in this country is founded on the precious notion of consent – on the belief that the police are the public and the public are the police – and those foundations appear under greater pressure and strain now than at any other point in recent memory.
I’m not here to offer a blind defence of policing.
But I am here to offer an impassioned defence of good police officers. Of the tens of thousands of extraordinary women and men who are braver and kinder and more resourceful and more resilient than just about anyone else I know.
While you’re reading this, they’re out there, getting on with the things they joined the police to do: saving lives, finding the lost, binding up the broken-boned and broken-hearted, protecting the vulnerable, stepping into harm’s way in defence of complete strangers, sometimes risking it all.
I love them with every fibre of my being.
But I am afraid that we are failing them.
We are failing them by allowing a partial story to be told. We are failing them by our unwillingness to challenge the imbalances in the narrative. We are failing them by allowing the abject wrongdoings of some to become defining of them all. And all that is good about policing is in danger of being lost along the way.
I want you to keep speaking up about the things that are wrong with policing. But, in truth, that is the easy thing to do. I also want you to do something much harder. Something that is deeply unfashionable. I want you to speak up with equal passion and conviction about the things that are right about policing. Because, otherwise, you’re not telling the whole truth. You’re not even telling half the truth. Because, for every negative story about policing you might want to tell, I could tell you a thousand involving the kind of humanity and heroism that would likely take your breath away. And then I could tell you a thousand more.
I have worked alongside officers who have been shot.
I have worked alongside officers who have been stabbed.
I have worked alongside officers who have had their bones broken.
I have worked alongside officers who have been beaten unconscious.
I have worked alongside officers who have fought hand to hand with murderers.
I have worked alongside officers who have given everything they have.
I have wept for those who didn’t make it home.
And I am afraid that we are failing them.
Somehow, we need to find a way to tackle all that is wrong with policing – without doing irreversible damage to all that is right with it. Somehow, we need to find a way to deal with the sins of the past (and the present) – without doing untold harm to the thousands of blameless women and men who stand on the thin blue line.
I am a passionate opponent of bad policing. And I am a passionate supporter of good policing. It is vitally important for all of us to be both of those things. Because, if you truly want better policing in this country, you cannot be one without also being the other. I don’t want anyone to back away from asking difficult, uncomfortable, bloody awkward questions of police officers. But I need everyone to understand – and celebrate the fact – that, most of the time, most of them are just about as extraordinary as people can ever be.