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Home > Politics

What Kind of Police Do We Want? (Ones That Don't Make Speeches)

21 November 2005

This week Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair delivered the annual Dimbleby lecture, taking as his theme 'What kind of police service do we want?' Unfortunately the answer was 'probably not one with you in charge'.

Blair has been criticised recently for his handling of the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting, in which an innocent man was killed as a result of flawed or non-existent intelligence. Whether you regard this as gross incompetence or a tragic mistake, what followed was far from acceptable: an apparent attempt by the police to confuse the issue (for example releasing 'evidence' such as the information that de Menezes' visa was out-of-date) rather than just accepting the blame.

But whatever questions about the behaviour of the police have been raised recently, the main problem was the sheer rubbishness of the speech, and the fact that it seemed to confirm any suspicions you might have had about Blair being a pompous arse.

His speech started badly with a joke about a young officer who snaps during a particularly violent riot and runs back through police lines. He bumps into a superior officer who he takes to be a sergeant. 'I'm sorry, Sarge,' he says. 'I couldn't take it anymore.' The 'Sarge' then turns out to be the police commissioner. Says the young officer: 'I am so sorry. I didn't know I had run back that far.'

You see, senior police officers never lead from the front... or something. (Although if you've ever been on the receiving end of coppers' 'humour' you'll realise that this makes Blair a veritable Lenny Bruce.) As the joke descended like a lead balloon filled with sick, Blair then said: 'I use the joke primarily to
poke fun at myself.'

The problem is that Sir Ian comes across as the sort of person who's about as likely to have a laugh at his own expense as Stalin. Hilarity complete, Sir Ian moved on to his central theme: I'm great and any problems the police may have are not the fault of the police.

Apparently we don't have the police force we want because 'for nearly two centuries, the British have not considered any of these questions very thoroughly.'

This is rubbish - in modern times there has been almost constant debate about what the police should be, what it can be expected to do, and what powers it should have. And if anything, there's a more realistic attitude toward the police now than at any time in the last 30 years. There are relatively few Joe Strummers out there claiming all the police are fascist pigs. Most people's views of the police are eminently reasonable - they realise that errors occur in difficult, dangerous and pressured situations, and that a few racists captured on hidden camera probably don't represent the average policeman.

Blair went on to bemoan the policeman's lot in 2005 - the police are meant to deal with petty theft, violence, anti-social behaviour, terrorism and God knows what. You know, all that pesky 'crime' stuff. But whatever failures there may have been in tackling crime, hey, it's not the police's fault.

'Three trends have coincided,' said Blair. 'First, the agencies of community cohesion, the churches, the trade unions, the housing associations, the voluntary clubs have declined in influence. Secondly, the agents of social enforcement, such as park keepers, caretakers and bus conductors, have disappeared. The third was the laudable but under-funded and imperfectly implemented decision to close so many long-stay psychiatric institutions.'

There are plenty of things wrong with society, but is the lack of park keepers one of them? It's all just a bit too vague for us. In their glory days the trade unions may have had a role in 'community cohesion', but what has it got to do with crime? The problem he's alluding to - lack of respect for 'authority' figures and yob behaviour - isn't going to be solved by more caretakers or bus conductors. It would just mean more people to throw sweets at at lunchtime anyway.

Blair then shifted his focus to the real problem facing the police: snobbery. 'I have lost count of the number of times I have been told by people that they had thought of joining the police but hadn't had the courage to do so. What they actually mean, by and large, is that they thought that, interesting as it was, they were of too superior a class or educational background.'

Maybe there are people who think 'By Jove, I'd like to join the Peelers and give these damn footpads and rowdies a run for their money, but what would Pater say?', but they're probably fairly few these days. In reality, lots of people have probably failed to join the police because of the (obvious) disincentives.

There's the physical risk (something the police themselves never tire of mentioning), the shift work, the fact that many 'graduate level' incomes are higher in the medium and long-term, even if the police pays good starting salaries. But many people's reasons for not joining the police probably have little to do with the salary or working hours. Blair omits to mention that the police has a 'canteen culture' caused by the predominance of white, working class, male recruits. This may be slowly changing, but it's unrealistic to imagine the police will ever be an equivalent career to doctor, lawyer or for that matter theatre designer.

Blair continued for some time with a mixture of bad logic and pointless comparisons: 'The Met is bigger than the Royal Navy; we are the largest single employer in London; in another world, we would be a FTSE 100 company. We are a similar size to the BBC.' Well, so what? There are probably more dinner ladies than SAS soldiers, but we wouldn't expect them to storm an embassy.
Especially with their varicose veins playing up again.

By now, Sir Ian's original question was lost in the mists of digression and self-aggrandisement. But if there is an answer to his question, it's probably this.

The sort of police force we want is one that meets a vast range of expectations, whether it's dealing with stolen bikes, catching terrorists or not tolerating racism in its own ranks. As the public, we've got to be realistic about how the police fulfils these expectations, but we can do without a police service that blames everyone except the police for its failures.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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