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Whom do the Police Serve?-Peter Hitchens

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the watcher

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Whom do the Police Serve?-Peter Hitchens
« on: October 08, 2012, 11:32:26 AM »



Whom do the Police Serve?  Peter Hitchens
 


And here it comes, the March of the Jobsworths. People who say they are (and for all I know really are) serving police officers telling me I don?t understand modern policing, that I?m ignorant, that they?re not servants of the public, that it?s ?offensive? of me to write in such a way after the deaths of police officers, etc etc etc.

Well, this all sounds to me like the special pleading of a nationalised industry that has got away without any serious criticism for a long time, and doesn?t like it when it hears it.

Police Officers are paid by the taxpayer, who has no choice in the matter and to whom they owe a simple moral obligation as a result.  They are not a military formation, but sworn to uphold the law, usually by an oath which binds them to do so without fear or favour. These words mean that every one of Her Majesty?s subjects is equally entitled to call upon a police constable to aid him or her in the enforcement of the law. A simple oath binds the constable thus ?I will to the best of my power to cause the peace to be kept and preserved, and prevent all offences against the persons and properties of her Majesty?s subjects?.

But of course this is exactly what doesn?t happen any more, though it did.  Most of us can whistle if we want the police to keep the peace round where we live, or to prevent offences being committed. Prevention, through a quiet sustained presence on foot,  is a thing they?ve almost entirely abandoned and in many cases despise as a waste of time.

The police now serve the state, and not the people.  This is why they are concentrated in great, scowling clumps around government buildings, but seldom to be seen anywhere else, except whizzing by in cars or clattering overhead in helicopters.

I am, unlike most journalists, filled with insatiable curiosity. Towards the end of the 1980s, I began to be curious about the fact that I seldom saw police officers on foot or bike patrol, as they had been until quite recently.  I was also struck by the fact that large numbers of officers appeared, as if from nowhere, to deal with football crowds or (on one occasion) when protestors tried to save some trees in the centre of my home town, by climbing into them. Where had these officers been all the time? There were so many of them.

Having lived in the same place - with a few gaps - since 1963, and not being a Londoner, I am perhaps better able to spot changes in this country than people who long ago left their roots behind and settled in a select area of our vast and untypical capital city. But I still hadn?t put two and two together.

Then, about 25 years ago,  I suffered an odd incident, which made me think even more deeply. One evening at about 9.00, having recently moved into a suburban house in what I regarded as a fairly staid district, I was amazed and infuriated when a stone came crashing through the middle of the front window. I ?d just turned the light on, and hadn?t had time to close the curtains.

It was quite funny, in a way. It certainly is now.  The previous owners, rather touchingly, had placed a ?Neighbourhood Watch? sticker right in the middle of the window. I, more sceptical than they about such things, hadn?t got round to scraping it off. No need now.  For the stone, presumably aimed at this inviting target, hit the sticker smack in the centre before sailing into the middle of the room. It was a chilly night, but I was so furious that I ran out into the street in shirtsleeves and, bellowing ?Stop! Vandals!? chased the three culprits who were just skittering down the road, laughing,  as I emerged from the front door.

Fuelled by rage, I gained on them (nobody, by the way, so much as flicked a curtain or helped me to catch or slow the stone-throwers as I shouted at the top of my (pretty powerful) voice). After a furious half-mile chase, I had them trapped, cowering, in a bush. I pulled the belt out of my trousers and menaced them, while giving them my opinion of their characters in measured tones. I couldn?t see them, as they were deep in the bush, but they couldn?t get away because there was a high fence behind them ? they?d mistakenly thought they could get into some field beyond. From what I could see of their backs  as I chased them, I reckon they were about 12 years old.

This was before the days of mobile phones. So (rather ingeniously, I thought) I managed to hail a passing taxi. And I stood there while the driver radioed his control and asked them to call the police. They were very happy to do so, and did. The taxi driver, anxious to earn his living, sped off.

 ?Now you?re for it? I confidently told the cowering trio.
 
I waited for the sound of sirens. And waited, and waited. ?They?re not coming, are they, mister?? sneered one of the vandals from the foliage. It was getting cold. I knew enough, even in those days, to be sure that if I laid a finger on any of them it would mean that I would end up in the dock. Emboldened by the obvious fact that the police weren?t coming, and by my obvious indecision, the trio shot out of the bush and sped off in different directions.

When I got home (to find my wife completely baffled by my long absence, as she hadn?t heard anything in the back of the house), I called the police.  They said the officers on duty ?weren?t from round there? and ?couldn?t find the road?.  At this point, I suffered an epiphany. A lifelong belief that the police would be of some use in a moment of trouble (which had even survived several years of Marxist revolutionary activity, during which I?d developed a grudging respect for their humorous and restrained handling of demonstrations)  shrivelled up and died.

But soon after that the Cold War lifted me up in a  great wave, which swept me off into Eastern Europe, then to a posting in Moscow and ultimately to two years in the USA. By the time I came back to this country, the things I?d begun to notice had become even more obvious.

Soon after returning from Washington, I realised that I had not seen a patrolling police officer in a helmet ?that symbol of England ? since I had stepped off the boat at Southampton.  And I began to wonder, again, about why that was. Then, I became a columnist for another newspaper, and began to get letters and phone calls from people who had had similar experiences, either of the police being wholly absent, or being indifferent to their problems or of them being hard on them for protecting their own property. I still remember (though can?t now find it in the files), a particularly tragic case of a lawyer whose career was ruined because he was prosecuted and convicted of a crime, after frogmarching a vandal to his local police station.

Eventually, this caused me to research and write my book ?A Brief History of Crime?, which I still view as the most important book I?m ever likely to write. It contains many months of work in libraries and archives, aimed at trying to find out how, when and where the police had been transformed into the body they are now. A modified version is still available as ?The Abolition of Liberty? .  I heard, and still hear, from retired and serving police officers who accept the points it makes and applaud them. Fundamentally, the police, as I said above, now serve the state, but not the people. The awful case of Fiona Pilkington has always seemed to me to be the perfect instance of the indifference of the police ?service? to the sufferings of individual subjects of the Queen. Many other cases, almost as miserable but not quite, go on as you read this.

But of course I also get the sort of stuff which has come my way for pointing out that the police treatment of Andrew Mitchell was officious and needless, and typical of a type of police behaviour which many, many law-abiding and wise members of the public have encountered in recent years. Those who denounce me as ill-informed, or prejudiced, or who claim, nastily, that  I?m motivated by some brush with the law and seeking revenge, are welcome to use these crude methods. They make no impact on me, and I think most observant citizens know that I have a point.

To portray me as some sort of anti-police troublemaker, who doesn?t grieve at the deaths of officers, is just silly abuse. Nor do I doubt the individual courage of most officers.  But then again, there are brave people in my trade too, who go out and get killed  in pursuit of the truth. Even I, a State Registered Coward, have heard the nasty song that bullets sing, and I was in one case very nearly lynched by an enraged crowd in the Congo.  This is an important experience, and I?m not slow to garner credit from it, but it wouldn?t excuse me for failing to do my job in other respects, nor does the death of Marie Colvin (for example) mean that other journalists should be immune from criticism.

Let?s argue this with facts and logic. The police officer in Downing Street should have known who Mr Mitchell was, been on good terms with him, respected him as a fellow subject of the Queen (no more, no less) and simply opened the gate. Those who think that opening the gate would have been in some way terribly risky need to explain why, in that case, it is ever opened at all. On the other hand, they need to explain why, if it could be opened for a car, it couldn?t be opened for a bike.

I personally think that the danger of a Hezbollah truck bomb charging up the street in the intervening seconds is very slight. Indeed, I?m not sure why Hezbollah would bother.  We have surrendered to the IRA and the PLO, and funnel money to Gaza through the EU, so I can?t see where this grave danger comes from. In any case, being a side street, Downing Street is not very vulnerable to such an attack. Where would the truck bomb accelerate for its final run?  If I worked there, I?d be much more worried about being mown down by an accidental ricochet from one of the Heckler and Koch guns the police like to carry about. I?m amazed they don?t ever go off. Whenever I see armed police in an airport, I hurry round the corner.

The point, by the way, isn?t about the *number* of police who are armed. It is that policing in this country used to be, and ought to be, conducted in such a fashion that a gun is not just superfluous, but an actual hindrance to doing the job. Arming the police at all is a retrograde step. If we really need armed guards on public buildings, then this is the job of the Army. If the government think that will look bad, they shouldn?t do it at all.  Taking the police away from their proper duties, to act as guards for state buildings, is a grave misuse of that body.

I?ve said it before, and I?ll keep saying it. The modern belief among police officers that they are a special corps or squad, and that the rest of us are ?civilians?, is very damaging, and utterly contradicts Sir Robert Peel?s original (and still valid) view of what a British police constable should be. The changes in law and practice that led to this state of affairs are explained in my book. My critics should read it, especially before accusing me of ignorance.  Meanwhile, stay safe.

http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/



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