Patronising politics and puerile policing

In the wake of last night’s Tottenham rioting, a spokesman for Downing St is reported on the news today as stating:

“There is no justification for the aggression the police and the public faced, or for the damage to property. There is now a police investigation into the rioting and we should let that process happen.”

Oh, hear! hear! Is that the sound of Hooray Henry’s i hear clapping in the background?

Get ready for wilful misinterpretation

I know. What i write next is undoubtedly going to be misinterpreted, in some cases by the illiterate tendency (who are more than capable of reading “white” and hearing “black”) and in others by the mischievous: by right-wingers and police spokespersons who quite clearly hear “white”, but for reasons best known to themselves then claim to have heard “black”.

So here’s the opening caveat. I write about the police. Loads. Most of those at the coal face do a good job. Most are decent ordinary men and women who sometimes get things wrong and who sometimes also make things wronger because we live, nowadays, in a culture in which the slightest hint of blame for something going wrong is instant career death.

Incidents where a reasonable person might just go “ooops, sorry: we got that wrong!” and move on now become full-blown matters for inquiry, with demands for resignation and “serious consequences” if anyone DID do anything remotely wrong.

The lawless police

That culture is, itself, wrong. It means that a part of our society that ought to be cleaner than clean as far as probity is concerned now automatically takes refuge in obfuscation the moment any poor decision they make is questioned.

And the police track record in such stuff is not good. Dozens of people killed in error by police over the last decade: not one instance to date of any police officer rebuked for same. Reports of police wrongdoing instantly shut down by one of the sharpest sets of lawyers in town – those employed by rank and file Police Trade Union, the Police Federation. Police investigating themselves via the IPCC.

Police regularly breaking the law when it comes to matters like public photography – yet rarely apologising and, in some cases (step forward City Police) not even having the decency to admit that they have broken the law.

You get the idea?

The police – and the politicians behind the police – for whom not only the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law ought to be seen as their ultimate moral beacon have instead descended into a culture of buck-passing, abdication of responsibility and let’s back the police right or wrong.

Which takes us where?

Well, it doesn’t take us into territory where people should advocate putting the boot in, throwing bombs or anything else. Though i thoroughly expect some people to misrepresent this post as saying just that.

Time for realism about policing

However, it does take us back into political ethics and political realism. First, the ultimate justification for direct action against the authorities has always been seen as those times when the authorities fail to allow for democratic processes that allow for them to be questioned. The recent record of the police seems to be drifting perilously close to same. And whether we have ACTUALLY reached that point, public perception is perhaps growing that we have.

Maybe in polite debating circles amongst the chattering classes, we can make nice distinctions proving we are nowhere near there. But on the streets of Tottenham, as the police shoot one more individual and people make the reckoning that, on past form, the chances of ANY meaningful investigation of that episode is next to nil, what alternative presents itself OTHER than to riot.

And second, it is clear that there is one law for the police, one law for the rest of us. Just flick back to events around recent protests and the way in which the police simply lied in order to clear protesters out of Fortnum and Mason.

Again, public perception matters: and if the public come to realise that the police can lie, abuse the law, and inflict violence with impunity, then the consequences are inevitable. More Tottenhams, more violently executed.

Against that, plummy-voiced condemnations from Downing St may make a certain sort of right-wing, self-satisfied politician feel better about themselves: but it says nothing to the reality on the streets today.



7 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Rebecca Pink said,

    Not sure that there is any justification for what happened on the streets. How smashing up your neighbourhoods shops and looting is a justifiable response is beyond most people. .

    Your post may raise some justifiable concerns but why the political spin?

    • 2

      janefae said,

      See my longer response to the later post.

      But i am not saying it is justifiable, per se. Rather, i am saying that it is predictable if the institutions that back policing start to look as though they are beyond criticism.

      Second, there is a more general point about the relationship between democratic protest and direct action: that does hold that where systems are incapable of taking on board serious criticism, then the social contract obliging individuals to obey the law is broken.


  2. 3

    Sorry, I'm not looking for publicity said,


    I’m really happy your surgery went well and your recovery is continuing. Good luck with the future.

    However, while I have been looking to your blog for advice and trying to determine what my recovery will be like when I have my srs and am finally fixed, I cannot let your comments here about my sisters and brothers in blue go. You see, I am a poice officer too. And I am regularly scared as I patrol the streets that something, anything, I do will be misinterpreted.

    The Police Federation represents me. But as a trade union it is less powerful than Unison and other civil trades unions. It will not help me if I make a mistake. It will not allow me to strike. And when I am fed up with constantly trying to justify to the vast majority of the public why we sometimes appear over the top, we do keep society safe on the whole.

    I am sorry if a tiny number of officers have altered your opinion of policing. But I am not going to apologise for their using force to protect themselves, their colleagues and you, the public. They avoided riots like this in central London during the G8 summit protests and were vilified for the tactics employed during the student fees disturbances. Policing is a thankless and misunderstood task these days. But I, my brothers and my sisters in blue will still turn up for work tomorrow to protect you, whatever your thoughts on our using reasonable force.

    We answer a calling, a vocation and share a sense of purpose, a commitment to protect society at large and the communities that we live in. And whatever people think of our pay and pensions, or the tactics employed to control civil disorder I will always advocate a use of force that will see me go home to my family at the end of work. You see, I believe in the justice system of this country having viewed it from the inside. And I know that if I appear over the top in using force at the end of the day I would rather be tried by twelve than carried by six.

    As I said at the top, thanks for the insight into your recovery and the tidbits of information I hope to use to smooth my own recovery. I’m sorry you feel the way you do about me and my colleagues so I won’t intrude on your blog anymore by viewing it for that advice, lest I be accused of intellectual theft.

    Good luck,


    • 4

      janefae said,

      Hmmm. I’m always wary of writing this sort of stuff, since it does get viewed wrong.

      I think the best way to explain this is by reference to a continuing debate i have with an obscure but not insignificant public body. They come in for a fair bit of stick, because what they do is on the border line of forming public opinion. They have a policing role, certainly: but they aren’t police.

      They take decisions that influence how the rest of us live our lives and, sometimes, they get it wrong. What I have been most impressed by, in dealing with them, is that they have been prepared to take this on. Not in the sense of kow-towing to everything that the public demands: but by noting that their essential weaknesses lie in the fact that in the past their processes have been quasi-legal, lacked independent legal oversight, and also lacked a sensible appeals procedure.

      Now read that back towards the police. Thye police are an enormous organisation: individual forces employ more than the average company and put that together across the UK and u are bound to get good and bad in every area. I’d say the good far outweighs the bad, but there are still two issues that need to be addressed.

      First is how the police deal with individual failings – and the case of Ian Tomlinson is a pretty bad example of that. Second are broader failings over specific areas of the law.

      What i would say to various forces, were i ever appointed pr to them and given the brief to speak plainly, is that even where the police get it right, they have set themselves up in such a defensive way that the public perception doesn’t give them credit for getting things right…whilst when they get things wrong, that same defensiveness is just overkill.

      Basically, my target here is process: the fact that it is very very difficult to insert criticism easily into the system; and that where such is the case, the police as a whole actually damage themselves in the eyes of the public because they eventually become seen as beyond reproach and subject to different standards, different laws from the rest of us.

      Bad pr…bad karma. And if you are in or close to the police, you will be very aware of some of the issues i outlined. The rottweiler nature of the Police Federation for one!


    • 5

      Sabine said,

      Let me quote:And when I am fed up with constantly trying to justify to the vast majority of the public why we sometimes appear over the top, we do keep society safe on the whole.

      So in other words: you’re the good guys, you’re allowed to do and the peasants don’t know what’s going on and better keep their mouth shut while better men/women do what’s good for them?

      And you wonder why support for police/government is rapidly declining even with that part of the population which considers a rule of law a good thing? Rule of law is absolute and any actions of representatives of law, whether legislative and executive must be open and transparent for all to see.

  3. 6

    Jane B. said,

    “Sorry, I’m not looking for publicity”,
    So its them or us is it?
    Sounds like your from the Simon Harwood school of policing.

  4. 7

    Circadian said,

    @Sorry, I’m not looking for publicity.
    Glad to hear you think you are a decent police officer. As a matter of curiosity, what are you doing to get rid of the bad element in your local force? When you know of a copper that is rude to the public, and deliberately uses stop-and-search just to inconvenience someone, what do you do? When you know that one of your colleagues occasionally takes advantage of a few free beers after closing time on a stressful night, is that right? When a mistake is made that causes an accident, or harm to someone, what happens next? Do you come forward and ensure that the law applies equally, or do you close ranks?
    As a law-abiding type of person, I’ve had very little dealings with the police. The few times I have encountered them, I have found them to be arrogant jumped up little hitlers in love with their own powers.
    Do I trust the police? No. It is a very clannish organisation with far too much power, and far too little oversight.
    I disagree a little with Jane’s assessment of mostly good with a few bad apples. I feel that the police is made up mainly of ordinary people who are then very carefully groomed by their elders/senior officers to ensure that they stay loyal to the force, rather than turn any of their own in when they do wrong. Maybe even without the elders realising that they doing it, as they effectively teach by example. Very natural, very ordinary human behaviour. But in an organisation with the amount of power and (lack of) accountability that the police has, very very bad things can result.

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