I’ve been collecting press cuttings on police misdemeanours for three or so years. They stack up quickly – and I don’t mean those about its huge failings (Hillsborough; Stephen Lawrence; Ian Tomlinson; Milly Dowler and phone hacking; leaking or selling information to the News of the World; Andrew Mitchell MP and Plebgate/Plodgate;) but many more smaller injustices meted out by the police in response, or not, to pleas of help from ordinary, law-abiding citizens in everyday situations.
They build a very clear picture. Trust in the police has been eroding over decades – unsurprisingly.
I’ve expressed my feelings of lack of trust – indeed, mistrust – to several friends and been rebuffed. “Oh, no. You’ve got it wrong,” they said. “The police do a great job in very difficult circumstances. This (whichever misdeed I’ve mentioned) is just a one-off.” I agree with the difficult circumstances bit (but that is presumably where training comes in, followed by experience and good leadership) but the rest is complacent piffle. And it is complacent piffle, from the public and politicians, that has allowed the police’s record to drift into disgrace.
The last time I was forced into silence before I’d even got into my stride was with two friends, both ex-Army or similar (and let’s not start a debate about the Army and trust … I live not far from Deep Cut), whose views were bucolic, and I mean that precisely. Living in small rural parishes surrounded by farmland, where even domestic burglary doesn’t happen often if at all, their experience of the police is of the local bobby on the beat, or dropping in on the local fête, plodding or clip-clopping past with a cheery smile and nothing much else to do all day and certainly nothing to do with the urban world many more of us live in – with experience of the police letting us down.
It started when I was a teenager. Strolling with a friend in open doggy walkland, my handbag was snatched. The police did nothing beyond taking information and saying it wasn’t worth pursuing. To a girl, a handbag means two things: the contents (a little cash, bits and pieces of no consequence) and the bag itself (expensive and very of-the-time-cool). The bag mattered most. A few days later, another stroller found the handbag, took it to our then local grocer (this was in the days when grocers were a part of daily life and the community) who rang to let me know. Only the cash was gone. The bag was a bit soggy but dried out. The stroller and the grocer were appropriately thanked. One happy girl – with a very clear first impression of the police.
Finders’ not keepers
I’ll spare you the details of the incident of the extremely valuable gold watch I found in the gutter outside Harvey Nichols which I was told, on taking it to the police station, would be mine if it wasn’t claimed within six weeks – which was then “claimed” between me ringing to ask if it had been claimed (and being told it hadn’t) and arriving at the police station to collect it five minutes later. There was no message of thanks from, or signature of, the apparent claimant mysteriously emerging five minutes before the deadline to prove it was honestly claimed. I reckoned I knew where it went.
Disbelieved and unbelievable
Then there was the time I lived above a restaurant which repeatedly breached its license causing massive disruption long into the night even before the noisy closing up process began. After weeks of this, and having tried the friendly neighbour approach, I called the police who claimed to be outside the restaurant while telling me it was closed with no customers in it or noise coming from it. Looking out of my window there was no policeman to be seen; the restaurant was in full swing. I wondered whether cases of wine regularly turned up at the police station to keep them on side. If this were the US, this would be the third strike with me and the police force’s reputation would be out; it was certainly on borrowed time in my world.
Lies, damned lies and misrepresentation
Worst of all was during my two stints at jury service. It was clear during one case that the policeman giving evidence was lying. His contemporaneous notes were written in such good prose (perfectly crafted sentences, not a record taken quickly while in the middle of an incident, and vividly unlikely) that the whole jury recognised he was not telling the truth. Didn’t his sergeant, the whole station, know he had fabricated his story? In a separate case, I noticed a policewoman supporting her colleague in court was engrossed in reading the Police Review while the case proceeded. Rather too engrossed, it seemed to me. When we, the jurors, were sent out mid-trial we passed this WPC and, glancing sideways, I noticed that the Police Review was merely a front; it was hiding a woman’s magazine. She was being paid to be there and pretending to be professional; we jurors, unpaid, were taking our role seriously.
Finally … the theft of irreplaceable and valuable architectural features from 13 neighbouring houses – to which the police response was wholly inadequate; the local desk officer did not grasp the architectural, financial and community significance of the incident and did nothing; follow up calls went nowhere. Who in the local police hierarchy decided it wasn’t worth the bother and why?
The small stuff matters
The problem is that the police didn’t, unlike me, sweat the small stuff, which is what you will be thinking my anecdotes are all about. Yes, they are, but it is the small stuff that builds trust. Grand gestures – breakthroughs in major crimes, flushing out dangerous criminals, exposing civilians who lie about their involvement in a crime – are important, of course, but if individuals in their thousands, perhaps millions, are on the receiving end of a shoddy service – of laziness, lies, misrepresentation, lack of interest, self-interest … as evidenced in my cuttings file – it doesn’t matter how many big successes there are. We, the masses, have little or no trust.
We know that if ordinary PCs and WPCs can get away with this sort of bad behaviour, it is being endorsed by those higher up the ranks. It is leaders who set the culture; if they are weak, others will misbehave; if they bend the rules, others will break them; if they don’t set, monitor, nurture and reward an appropriate and professional culture, anarchy will overrule.
Disagree but don’t deny
There will be some who read this shaking their heads in disagreement. Of course the police do get it right some of the time but that doesn’t mean that it never gets anything wrong. To deny that the police force’s reputation isn’t seriously damaged – and in crisis – is to deny the facts. Just like the police.
No ringing endorsement
The post Plebgate/Plodgate ComRes survey for the BBC has been reported widely – in selective snapshot. So here’s another. The most significant results that the police should focus on are not just that one in four (25 per cent) of us is now less likely to trust the police (that is in addition to those of us who didn’t trust them anyway); but also that two in five of us (40 per cent) believe that the police try to cover up wrongdoings by those in the ranks; and that, even more significantly, roughly two thirds of us do not know what we feel about the police – we don’t know whether we trust them; we don’t know if we think they are open and honest or cover up wrongdoings – which is hardly a ringing endorsement.
One more chance?
In any organisation, it takes one wrong’un, and one weak manager, for the culture of a team or a shift to shift unacceptably. From there, one impressionable junior or a manager seeking approval can ensure the temporary shift becomes a permanent switch; it doesn’t take much more for the switch to spread. Police leaders now need to work on a major culture change – shift by shift, team by team not by grandstanding alone, though setting the tone is of course essential. It will take years, perhaps a generation or more, to change its culture and build trust – and I mean build, not rebuild, because, for many of us, it missed its first chance to make a good impression. Unbelievably, there seem to be enough civilians who believe the unbelievable and want to give the police a second chance – for the nth time. For many innocent civilians let down by the police, it is already living on borrowed time.