The Independent View: In defence of the Police

Comedian David Mitchell wrote an article in The Guardian recently in which he was generally disparaging of the police read it here

After reading the article I said to my wife ‘David Mitchell really doesn’t like the police’ her response was ‘What do you expect? He’s a liberal. They don’t like the police generally’ Is this true? It seems, to a degree, that it is. The police represent authority, discipline and justice. They can appear as the antithesis of the most basic principles of Liberalism: Liberty, equality, freedom and civil rights but my argument is that without the police democracy could not work.

I have a unique perspective on the subject because I am a serving police officer with a Home Counties service.

Civil liberties and freedom are important and the mark of a true democratic society. I believe police officers, certainly those I’ve worked with, value freedom and democracy a great deal and police our streets not to chasten or bully but to serve the public, save lives and keep people safe. The law was not written to repress people but to protect them. That includes people from all walks of life. In the line of duty I have been threatened, abused and assaulted but I have also been earnestly thanked for the hard work I’ve done and been told I’ve made a difference in people’s lives. So why is it that people who claim to love freedom criticise the police so much?

There have been instances in the past where police officers have acted dishonestly, broken the law and even been responsible for deaths. Believe me when I say terrible events like these are just as abhorrent to the average constable on the street as it is anyone else. Police officers make mistakes, we are human, it is wrong to try to cover them up but it is also wrong to judge every police officer as unsafe, criminal or incompetent because of the misconduct of a few. The majority are hard working and decent.

The police have to operate in a certain way to tackle crime and the manner in which they operate can sometimes bring them into conflict with the public over a misunderstanding. By way of example A police team will be told by their supervisor that an area has been targeted for burglary; a particularly nasty crime which is devastating to the victim. Intelligence says the burglaries are happening late at night by someone on foot. An unmarked car is sent to that area with specific instructions to stop and search (if grounds exist) anyone found in that area. This is the exact situation I found myself in when I stopped a young man last week. I was polite and courteous to him and explained why he had been stopped, I told him what police were hoping to achieve that night. Despite this he was unhappy about the situation and very curt. A colleague tried to make small talk to reduce tension and be friendly. The man rudely interrupted him and said “Why are you talking to me?” my colleague, a little taken aback, said “Just trying to be friendly” the man replied, with some venom “You’re harassing me, I don’t like coppers” I said “Why?” he replied “I don’t like any coppers after that De Menezes shooting” this man wasn’t a criminal, there were no records of him on our database, he had been stopped but not searched and informed we were trying to tackle burglary in the area he lives in but he still felt the need to be confrontational. This is what we face every day; a public who increasingly dislike cooperating with and understanding the position of, the police. From a police perspective stopping this person was perfectly lawful and reasonable under the circumstances but to him it was an unnecessary invasion of his privacy. He probably went home and told his family and friends how he was ‘harassed’ by the police for just going about his business.

It is vital a good relationship exists between the public and the police. There is a popular saying in the service that we could not do our jobs without the consent of the public and it’s perfectly true. Instead of pointing fingers and criticising, both the public and the police need to work harder at building and developing mutual respect, understanding and support for each other.

I know the Liberal Democrats value the police; it is reassuring to know that Liberals in government will continue to strive to support us in these challenging times.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* The author is a serving police officer writing under a psudonym

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32 Comments

  • The Police should only hassle members of the public when they have good evidence for doing so. Suspecting that something bad might happen in an area and therefore stopping people randomly is both unhelpful and illiberal.

  • I’m sure you’re quite right that the vast majority of police officers are great people with a strong belief in serving the public. The ones on my local SNT who I’ve the most contact with seem that way and only fringe lefties really think that Simon Harwood is a typical officer. The difficulty I have is an impression of a general culture which puts solidarity above accountability. The De Menezes incident would perhaps not have given the man you describe that negative impression if officers had not lied and the Police Federation had not supported industrial action to block anyone being held to account.

  • “… the public and the police need to work harder at building and developing mutual respect …” No. The public do not have to work to earn the respect of the police. It is our right. The police do have to work to earn the respect of the public.

  • Just as a matter of interest, what grounds existed for the stop and search you describe? Presumably more than the fact that he was walking along the street at night?

  • Is it any wonder people react the way they do when they are stopped, questioned and perhaps searched for no reason at all? You won’t gain any respect by treating people like criminals just for walking down the street. The police need to seriously reconsider the tactics they use to fight crime and be more far more respectful of people’s civil rights.

  • Btw, this stuff is exactly why policing is inherently political and why the party was wrong in not standing liberal PCC candidates in so many places.

  • I’m a law abiding middle aged man. I’m the sort of person who you’d expect to be a strong supporter of the police. I’m not. In every dealing I’ve ever had with the British police they’ve been aggressive nasty and dishonest.

    The Jean Charles de Menezes case puts jam on it. A member of the police force, apparently in a frenzy of aggression, pumped dumdums into the head of an innocent man and all his colleagues could think of to do in response was to try to lie their way out of responsibility. The fact that the killer of Jean Charles de Menezes is still free shames every single police officer in this country. Don’t expect any help from me. You’re not on my side.

  • “The police represent authority, discipline and justice.”

    i started laughing out loud here and just couldnt continue sorry,

  • To all those above, may I ask what you would do if you found an intruder in your house?

  • Just to be clear Tabman in your scenario, the intruder isnt the police abusing its position of trust and authority right?

  • Richard Dean 7th Nov '12 - 6:02pm

    Of course the Libdems support the police i their lawful actions. The police are the people who hopefully catch the bad people, direct traffic, and help with crowd control. They are necessary, and are necessarily rather tougher than some of the people (us) who employ them. It is not surprising there are sometimes misunderstandings.

    I have been stopped and questioned a few times in the UK and was never really bothered by it much. I was hauled off to a police station in France on suspicion of something I cannot translate, but was just given a warning that was equally incomprehensible. Perhaps it helped that I was friendly, mellow, and high as a kite at the time, which meant I was not aggressive at all. Luckily they forgot to search my back pocket! The Nigerian police are tough though, oh yes! You really don’t want to spend a night in the cells in Port Harcourt.

  • I’m the author of the article and would like to address some of the points made in the comments section:

    Thomas: Police officers have to act on the information they have in relation to crime. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, this information is not always detailed enough to effectively target specific criminals. Often officers won’t even have a basic description let alone a name. This means police have to ‘fish’ for offenders and evidence based on the information available. This can mean stopping innocent people in order to speak to them. This causes them some inconvenience but I would disagree it is ‘hassling’ them.

    Phil: Thank you for your support, trust me when I say it is very much appreciated by police. You are quite right; there is a strong element of solidarity in the police service. This is because of the dangerous, stressful nature of our job but I will say (as I stated in the article) when police officers are exposed as having lied or covered up an incident they are responsible for there is a general sense of outrage from police. I was furious over the recent court decision to release Alex MacFarlane without charge. I believe a miscarriage of justice.

    Sid: I agree that the police should respect the public, and we do, but that doesn’t mean the public should not respect us back. The respect of the police is not something that should be abused. I’m sure you agree if somebody shows you respect it is only decent and honest to show it back? Often both the public and police fall short of this. We need to work together. I’m afraid you appear to have missed elements of my article; I stated the reason police stopped the man. He was not searched as he gave good reasons for being in the area at that time. The conversation lasted less than five minutes and he went on his way.

    John: You say people react negatively because they are stopped and searched for ‘no reason at all’ and yet I have provided the reason. Police officers cannot search people for no reason, not any more. We have to justify every search we make and document the reasons. Members of the public are given paperwork detailing why they were searched. The police have the right, and the need, to speak to the public. It’s how we find out what our communities need from us. Most of our intelligence led policing is guided by what the public tell us. Sadly criminals don’t always stand out. They often try to hide from us in order to avoid detection. If they lined up for us it would be easy but we have to search for them. Naturally innocent people who have done nothing wrong will be stopped and yes, sometimes searched, because criminals look like normal people. This is the nature of policing. If people expect to be safe in their own homes the police need to be in the community speaking to people and searching for criminals. What about the victims of these crimes? Don’t they deserve for the police to do their jobs and find criminals? This is the entire reason police have legal powers to stop and search anyone under the correct circumstances; because it is necessary.

    Chris: I’m sorry you’ve had negative experiences of the police and I’m sorry you seem to harbour a lot of anger towards police. I hope one day you may meet an officer who can change your opinion.
    Richard: We do catch a lot of ‘bad people’ but are only able to do so because of the support and information we receive from the public. I hope that never dries up.

  • The example in question is clearly not a misunderstanding, Richard. It’s a disagreement between the police officer and the member of the public about what is reasonable.

    In my view, it’s not reasonable to stop and question passers-by unless there is grounds to believe they’re up to no good. That the person under scrutiny is a young man on foot doesn’t cut it! If he fits the description of the perpetrator of a burglary just reported, which I guess is what Tabman is getting at, fair enough. But a fishing expeditions – no.

  • the guilty till proven innocent attitude expressed by the author, is part of the reason, the police will not be getting respect, well of course its the public are guilty untill proven innocent, for themselves its innocent until proven guilty, and even then they will probably get away with it,

    and the police do catch a lot of “bad” people (well debatable tbh, but thats issues with the law, not the enforcers) but only by fishing through lots of good and innocent people,

  • “It is vital a good relationship exists between the public and the police.”

    This is precisely the attitude which gets my back up.

    The police are not above the public, they are people too, yet all too often (and encouraged by all forms of officialdom) individuals officers start to believe they are above ordinary ranks. And as soon as members of the police stop viewing themselves as members of the public this gives members of the public who are not employed enforcers of the law just reason to doubt their manner of upholding it.

    I don’t want small talk from a bobby. I want to know my local bobby’s name. I don’t want prowlers picking on passers-by, I want preventative measures. I don’t think a badge merits automatic authority, police authority is the product of improving relationships – yet police relationships simply do not exist with vast numbers of the public, and there is no discernable effort on the behalf of the police to develop any sort of relationship.

    As and where the police make mistakes this undermines the legitimacy of the police force.

    The police must police the police before they can police the public. The police must get their own house in order before they can start to deserve public respect. Who watches the watchers etc…

    Why has Sir Norman Bettison not been stripped of his knighthood and prosecuted for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice?

    Where is the community in this polis?

  • Oranjepan: Thanks for your post, I have not said the police are above the public and I do not believe it to be the case. Of course the police are members of the public as well. We have husbands, wives, kids and lives outside of work just like anybody else. We also have special responsibilities within society and legal powers that other members of the public do not have. We are also expected to be routinely abused and assaulted to protect the public. This is not the case with ordinary people. There is no need for me to list the ways a police officer differs from an ordinary member of the public as they are obvious.

    I do wonder if anyone making these kind of comments would have objections to police stopping and speaking to people if it was there own house that had been burgled. This wasn’t one isolated case of burglary. There had been (and still are) numerous burglaries going on in that area. If police aren’t out there stopping people the public will complain we aren’t doing enough and when police stop and speak to people in an attempt to find the burglars we are criticised for abusing peoples civil rights.

  • Chris, as a victim of a burglary myself, believe me I wish the police would do more to catch them. It’s four years ago now so I’m over it, but it was quite distressing at the time. When the police came out all they did was take a list of stolen goods give me a crime pack (or whatever it was called) and basically say there was no hope. Never heard anything since. However, that does not mean I want the police out there basically shaking down random people on the street! That’s not the way it should work.

  • obviously, everyone who doesnt show patriotic support for the police has never been a victim of crime…. /rollseyes

  • John: I’m sorry to read nobody got back to you in regards to what was being done about the crime you were the victim of. I can imagine that was very annoying and distressing for you, believe me when I say I would feel the same way.

    I would like to repeat that I did not ‘shake down’ that man. He was spoken to, asked a few questions and then went on his way. He was not searched. He was walking late at night in the middle of an area with a high volume of burglary and he was asked briefly to account for his presence in the area. If it is your view that this brief transaction done with the best intentions for the community was an unaccepable infringement on this mans civil rights and disproportionate action then I do not know what else to say to convince you otherwise. This is my failing and for that I’m sorry.

  • Chris, look at the euphemisms you use like “speak to people”. But by “speak to people” you really mean demanding that people account for themselves under threat that if you’re not satisfied you’ll root through their belongings. It doesn’t matter how polite you are about it – people are not gonna like it.

  • Chris (not author) 7th Nov '12 - 7:21pm

    Tabman: If I found an intruder I’d attempt to frighten them away. If I called the police they’d come too late anyway. I’d probably have to tell the police because the insurance company would insist on it. The best response I could expect from the police is that they’d do nothing (it would be rubbed in by a ridiculous letter from something utterly pointless called ‘victim support’). They would also be likely to accuse me of breaking some law – mostly the one they love most that says their egos have to be massaged. There would be no advantage to me in involving them.

  • “best intentions”…..road to hell remember?

    good intentions are not good enough,

  • It’s not your failing, Chris. There’s no objective way to determine what is the right balance between security and liberty. But like most liberals I instinctively favour liberty and require very compelling reasons for allowing it to be compromised. That’s why the party opposed so much of what the Labour government did in this area. However, per your article, you see people oppose and be alienated by these tactics in the course of your work. Maybe that’s a reason not to use them even if you believe they are ethical?

  • Andrew Suffield 7th Nov '12 - 8:00pm

    Much of what the opening article says is true on the face of it, but missing the next step. Liberals don’t dislike the police per se – they dislike abuses of power, and that only happens in groups which have power. So criticism is often aimed at the police because they’re the only ones who are capable of abusing lawful force.

    I can accept in general that most police officers are trying to do the right thing, and it is most certainly the case that it is wrong to cover up or protect those who abuse their power. But the fact remains that when abuses happen, it is covered up and they are protected – which, as stated, is wrong. There is a cultural problem here and it needs to be fixed.

  • Chris,
    I apologise if what I wrote was capable of being misinterpreted. I too in no way suggested that the police are above the people, nor should they be anything but democratic. However it does become difficult to present this to the public with a straight face when members of the police who make mistakes are rewarded and protected where members of the public are punished.

    A fundamental tenet of liberal democracy is that all people should be equal before the law.

    The unfortunate truth therefore is that we don’t live in a liberal democracy.

    Are you happy that an exception has been made for Sir Norman Bettison?

    Is his case not comparable to that of ‘Sir’ Jimmy Savile, and ‘Sir’ Fred Goodwin among many others?

    Are our police forces above criticism, and if not, how else can members of the public adequately express our right to respond except in the immediacy of a confrontation situation?

    23 years is too long to wait for justice.

  • Andrew S: I dislike abuse of power too and in my time as a police officer I have raised objections to my superiors about things I have been asked to do which I felt weren’t right. I am glad you accept most police are trying to do the right thing. Abuse of power isn’t always covered up (although this is certainly what the media like to portray) but when it is covered up everyone is disgusted, especially the average constable. The police are not above the law but I can understand why it might look that way to the public sometimes.

    Oranjepan: I agree it can be the perception of people that the police get away with abuse of power, misconduct and illegal activity but it is not always the case. I have heard of officers being dismissed for breaches of trust and even imprisoned for dishonesty and if an officer is found guilty of this then they certainly should be punished because otherwise it creates the view that the police are somehow ‘untouchable’ which we aren’t (and shouldn’t be)

    I agree all people should be equal before the law and to answer your question; I am not in full possesion of the facts regarding the Sir Norman Bettison case. However on the face of it it looks like there was evidence of misconduct and if that is the case he should certainly face the justice system over it. I don’t believe a police officer, of any rank, should be allowed to resign and not face an investigation if serious breaches of conduct or the law exist.

    No, the police are not above criticism so long as the criticism is fair, proportionate and correct. Which is not always the case.

  • Good, then I’m happy to be on the same page as you.

    However, to extend the discussion in light of current events given the impending vote for Police and Crime Commissioners, would you offer your support in principle to a statutory convention of PCC representatives where they can debate topical issues and be held formally accountable in an open and democratic manner?

    I’m particularly concerned, as many LibDems are, about the political make-up, direction and public engagement which will result after these elections.

    Could a new ‘house’ of parliament exert more effective and democratic control were it to be constituted from the PCCs (and potentially the Justices of Supreme Court or other relevant official public post-holders)?

  • Leekliberal 8th Nov '12 - 10:06am

    I suspect that the majority of Lib Dems are generally more supportive of the police than comes across in these comments. I suggest a question be asked in next LDV poll of members.

  • Chris, the problem with you saying you dislike abuse of power, is that from others point of views, you are saying your abuse of power is just fine and dandy,

    And ” fair, proportionate and correct. ” thats what the police response and attitude should be which how did you put it, ah yes, its ‘not always the case’

    you may think its proportionate, to randomly stop me on the street, to tell my my style of dress is the reason i was stopped( which has happened like 3 times this year ), that i should be thankfull for you stopping me and abusing me, I dont think it is, and neither i would guess do most people who are treated in such a manner, (not to mention the insitutionalsed racism etc that still exists in the police force )

  • Anyone who hasn’t read the David Mitchell article which prompted the above article should do so – it’s quite good … “Another accessory which the Police Federation advocates is the Taser. In June it wrote to the prime minister asking for the number of Tasers to be trebled so that every frontline officer could have one. “They need to have the proper equipment to do the job,” says Paul Davis, secretary of the Federation’s operational policing subcommittee. And officers certainly seem to be getting a lot of use out of them. Just last week, a policeman Tasered an elderly blind man as part of an operation to check whether his white stick was a samurai sword. It wasn’t.”

    Also: Section 60 stop and searches have risen from 7,970 in 1997/98 to 149,955 in 2008/09, with black people 26 times more likely to be stopped than white people …

  • Chris (author) 8th Nov '12 - 5:59pm

    Oranjepan: I would offer my support to the idea, I think the public should have more say in how the police operate. PCCs could be more involved in the day to day life of officers and speak to the public about issues in their areas. They could also pass on any concerns the public have to senior police officers as a more effective way of gaining feedback.
    I’m uncertain of the amount of political influence the PCCs have. I know that some of the candidates have chosen to represent different parties (Including Liberal Democrats) but I am doubtful that they would be able to force party politics onto officers on the street. Ultimately the police are supposed to be neutral in political matters but, naturally, as a government employed resource even the police are told what to prioritise by the government. As to your last point my honest answer is; I don’t know. Sorry!

    Leekliberal: Thank you for your reassurance. I was beginning to wonder! :o) I would be very interested in reading the poll results if LDV decide to hold one.

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