The thin blue line is too thin and we do not sufficiently punish those who attack the police

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I’m going to sound like a misty-eyed old fossil now, but often I find my base reference point, with respect to the police, was the actor Jack Warner playing “Dixon of Dock Green“.

Yes, I know most people under 60 years old won’t remember him. Yes, I know “Dixon of Dock Green” probably gave an idealised version of law and order even when it was broadcast from 1955 until 1976.

But many of us watched “Dixon” for decades. The series was created by the great TV scriptwriter, Ted Willis. You can see an example episode below from BBC4. There was the great police constable at the start, after the reassuring theme music, whistling a light tune, saluting the public and saying “Evening all”. All cheerful and reassuring. You knew where you were with PC George Dixon (later promoted to Sargeant). Physically, he was large and reassuring. The Goodies and Baddies were clearly marked. The Baddies had a grudging respect for “the old Bill”.

At the end of the shows, our friendly PC came on to reassure us all that, at the end of that night’s story, justice was served and there was no reason to have nightmares. The Baddies were caught and banged to rights. “Good night all”, was the friendly farewell at the end. All was right in the world.

Contrast that series with “Police Code Zero: Officer under attack”. This modern-day reality show is pieced together from “shoulder cam” footage and interviews with police officers. It is broadcast by Channel 5 and four episodes are available to watch on the “My5” catch service. The series follows a number of real cases where police officers have been attacked by members of the public. The footage is always frightening and, often, harrowing. We see people suddenly turning violent and attacking police officers. There is a strong under-current in each attack. It almost seems that some people see the police uniform as a target for violence. They see red and attack an officer or officers. “Police Code Zero” is the button that police press on their communications gear when they are under attack. It brings other officers to the scene as quickly as they can get there.

It is conceivable that during the time of the “Dixon of Dock Green” shows, there was some grudging respect for the police uniform. Nowadays, the situation has been reversed and some see the police as a target. There seems to have been a sea change in attitudes.

Last week we saw the death of PC Andrew Harper in the line of duty. As an aside, by chilling coincidence, he died just a few yards from the site of the 2004 Ufton Nervet Rail Disaster.

But watching “Police Code Zero”, it is a wonder that more police officers are not killed. And what is very striking are the ridiculously small sentences which offenders receive. Officers are left with life-changing injuries or long-term mental harm, and the offenders walk free with the judicial equivalent of a rap on the knuckles.

What is clear to me is that the police in general are, in the words of their federation, “courageous, caring and compassionate”. But the thin blue line is too thin and we are asking too much of officers, without sufficient back-up and stiff enough sentences for those who attack them.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Yes, I did watch Dixon of Dock Green. Yes I did enjoy it. No I did not think it was realistic. The fact is that the police have always been in the front line as far as the problems of society are concerned. The vast majority of people support and value the police.
    We do urgently need a recognition that there is a need for a visible presence on our streets. We need to find out from the police what they need.
    We also need to recognise that there is a responsibility to look at the underlying issues in our society. We need to look at the issues as a whole.
    We should not start with looking at entertainment on the TV.

  • Britain does not treat violent crime seriously enough. This is a country that puts a monster like Colin Pitchfork in an open prison.

  • Gwyn Williams 19th Aug '19 - 11:00am

    I used to watch Dixon of Dock Green with my grandfather who had been a policeman and was almost an exact contemporary of Jack Warner. My grandfather had retired from the police in 1947 so it destroyed the illusion to watch an actor in his 70s playing a policeman. Just in case there was any chance I was still taken in by the programme, he would then find his handcuffs, truncheon or his wartime police revolver, which he had neglected to return when he retired and tell me a story of some horrific incident of his time in Wrexham. Today reality TV means that we all see what happens . Whether it is worse than what actually happened in the past is open to debate.

  • Laurence Cox 19th Aug '19 - 11:08am

    You need to remember that the character of George Dixon was ‘brought back from the dead’ to appear on TV. The character originally appeared (also played by Jack Warner) in the film “The Blue Lamp” (1950) where he is shot and killed by Tom Riley (played by Dirk Bogarde). That was a much darker and more realistic portrayal of police life than Dixon of Dock Green.

  • William Fowler 19th Aug '19 - 11:09am

    Do the Liberals have the heart to follow up on this, a reasonable sentence for killing a police office might be fifty years in solitary confinement, a bare cell with no recourse to any entertainment etc, no early release, a diet of gruel… at the moment you have the huge problem that prisoners merely replicate the hierarchy of the world they have outside, with a predictable result that a few brutal prisoners end up “running” the prison.

    Dixon was probably out of date by the time the series started but it was, in many ways, a bit of social programing for the populace to help keep them in-line and the cops could instill a bit of fear in miscreants back then which seems to be missing these days but, again, Liberal politicians have emphasized human rights above all else so how do they match that to the current anarchy?

    Minimal policing comes with the expectation that the populace will step up to the demands of being a good citizen because it is in their collective self interest to be able to meander around freely and without fear; if people can’t or won’t do this what do you do with them?

  • If you have had most of the glass in the business where you work smashed overnight and the police officer says that they will not be doing anything about it you might just feel a little bit angry as you have paid for the service in your taxes. They do not like those who try to do something with their lives and make that very clear. I am sorry for what happened to the officer who was killed but society must deal with law breakers and anti social people much more firmly. I have noticed that the police will respond if you shout the place down but you should not have to do that.

  • Nonconformistradical 19th Aug '19 - 11:49am

    nvelope2003 has a good point about the police not doing anything about certain crimes.

    I suspect the only reason most property crimes are reported to the police is to get a reference number for an insurance claim.

  • In the days of Dixon if you attacked a police officer they would have kicked the shite out of you at the station, that doesn’t happen now so the deterrent is the sentence you receive and most of them are non custodial. As to complaining the police don’t do much, well you get what you pay for and under Maybot the police force was slashed, social support was slashed and surprise, surprise it leads to crime rising. It’s not rocket science but seems to be to hard for our poltical class to grasp. They fell for the ” less is more”, well partly right ” less police, means more crime”.

  • It must come as a shock to many who believed that cutting social spend, the police etc would continue to drive down crime, but the mantra of “Do more with less” actually ment “Doing more crime, because of less police”. Get what you pay for, don’t adequately finance the police don’t be surprised when they are not available when you need them.

  • Peter Martin 19th Aug '19 - 1:42pm

    Yes we need the police. And we need to protect the, usually, lower ranks who are simply doing their job. But we need better policing at the higher levels which can command the respect of everyone. They are far too focused on securing convictions rather than solving crime.

    The case of Colin Stagg is possibly the most blatant and well known example. Colin Stagg would have been serving life now had the police had their way. That wasn’t the worst of it. Colin Stagg was rightly acquitted and later compensated. The police were so focused on Colin Stagg that they completely missed Robert Napper who later killed Samantha Bisset and her four-year-old daughter, Jazmine.

    Ask anyone who is involved in miscarriages of justice cases they’ll tell you that this is how the police work. The senior officer in charge decides at an early stage who is responsible and the order goes out to find evidence to support the case. Anything that doesn’t fit is discarded. Obvious other suspects are given an free pass. It’s not a scientific or rational approach. If OIC gets it wrong then the inevitable result is that the police are working towards a miscarriage of justice.

    IF the miscarriage of justice is then later overturned we’ll get a statement along the lines that the police are “not looking for anyone else”! The meaning is clear. So we have the nonsensical situation that an innocent person can be put through the legal mincer but denied compensation because they aren’t “innocent enough”!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Aug '19 - 1:56pm

    The article is very sensible and highly moral.

    These are in very few posts on such topics in this party.

    Paul is a mainstream and intelligent man in middle age. I am a little, maybe seven years, younger, but do know and admire Jack Warner from the tail end of that series and his terrific film appearances, his original Dixon was killed off in The Blu Lamp, with and by assailant, Dirk Bogarde, the character Warner portrayed was, Bobby like from Dallas, revived as if never shot, then given a series, Warner was years too old for the role later, the oldest cop in history but much liked as a man, actor, character.

    The cultural appreciation put where it belongs, what of the political ?

    Paul as few do, actually refers to punishment. Tim Farron often did, he has a moral compass.

    A pity Lord Marks and German lack one, or Ed Davey, on corrosive substances and longer sentences for horrible deeds. The paper to appear before conference, by the Peers, mentioned is appalling. The motion to not have minimum sentences and to not support this or all government decisions to punish, that word again, those who carry acid, is outrageous.

    When this party treats violence more seriously, than upskirting , when it sees victims as more to be supported than offenders, when it sits in the terrain on these issues that most people do, it can then lay claim to be a party worthy of greater support than it gets.

    Sadly the Mail yesterday has picked up on the paper written by Marks and German, and blames, wrongly, the leader, Jo Swinson, who is good on crime and violence, and should sack the spokespeople or rearrange the roles.

  • Every generation tends to say, “better in my day, not like it is now etc”. I fear Paul has fallen into this situation. I can recall two policeman being murdered in my youthful London days, the notorious hanging of Bentley and another less well know one outside a club in Seven Sisters Road, would be 1956/7, then a third in Leeds in 1969/70, there were others. Then there were “Teddy Boys in the 50’s, displaying their knives etc. The reaction is nearly always the same, not enough police, they need to be protected, more arms on the streets etc etc. Actually we do not know for a fact the latest incident was murder do we?
    Having said the above it is a natural, emotional reaction after such events to feel as Paul does. BUT would extra police have prevented any of these incidents?
    Do any of the submissions in this thread come from persons actively involved in the criminal justice system today? If not could I suggest a more cautious approach. I have been in it for over 40 years in one capacity or another, have seen puishments get more severe, people being kept in prison longer and longer, but does it make a difference to the situation Paul is describing?

  • Roland Postle 19th Aug '19 - 4:47pm

    Disincentive to commit a crime is straightforwardly built from two complementary factors:

    1) Negative consequences of committing the crime (principally criminal justice aspects like the punishment, probability of being caught & convicted, but also guilt and societal exclusion and so on).

    2) Positive consequences of *not* committing the crime. (Ideally the happy and fulfilling free life someone can live, but sometimes a hopeless tortured disconnected life which doesn’t feel free at all.)

    If either factor is missing entirely then there’s no practical disincentive to commit the crime. If either factor is too small then trying to compensate by increasing the other has very little effect. Hence even billionaires with perfect lives commit petty crimes because a few points on their license is no big deal, and even the death penalty does not stop those with nothing to lose going on the most horrific murderous rampages because their lives are already unlivable. Many of the recent mass-shooters in the US even voluntarily choose death after their crime, and very few make any serious attempt to evade justice.

    In a simple mathematical model there’d be some kind of multiplicative effect between these two factors, and the most ‘efficient’ disincentive is reached when the factors are in some kind of ‘balance’, maximising the geometric mean for some appropriate quantified measurement of the two. Crucially, because the second factor is person-specific, the effect of a constant first factor varies greatly between different members of society.

    Since they’re intricately linked in this way I’m always confused when someone makes an argument about raising (or lowering) either aspect without even tangentially referencing the other. Surely these factors have to be talked about together to make any coherent argument about crime disincentives? What does a ‘stiff sentence’ actually mean for an individual who firmly believes they’re happy to be in prison?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Aug '19 - 5:12pm


    Excellent commentary herein.

    If prison reformers could realise that we could avoid reform by not sending anyone to prison who has not committed a violent or threat of committing violent offense, we could make some headway.

    I believe far from making prison a nice place, we should only lock up those who deserve what they get there, a really harsh, cold, sparse place, full time work , little facilities but learning, much of this, about why and in what way they did wrong, then prisoners , no longer , happy, to go to prison, might not reoffend, also, having been forced in restorative ways, to understand their wickedness.

    Instead we lock up non payers of licence fees to watch tv, tax dodgers and fraudsters on a whim.

  • I understand from newspaper that PC Harper died when he was hit by a police car. It’s very tragic.

    However, this is probably one of the least important issues for the UK police. Let’s start with having a representative police force that reflects in local terms the communities which it polices.

    As a minority I will no long tolerate being policed by what is effectively an apartheid police force drawn from a narrow social spectrum of white British people. Other ethnic minorities – white, Asian and black – feel the same.

  • Dixon of Dock Green was definitely a rose tinted view of policing.
    When I started work as a young engineer in the seventies, one of our fitters told me about growing up in Ancoats (Manchester) in the thirties. He regularly saw police foot patrols of three policemen, otherwise “they would get beaten up.” Such was the distrust back then.
    Having over the years delivered so many editions of Focus, demanding community policing, we need to get back to that to remove that growing distrust.

  • Julian Heather 20th Aug '19 - 9:20am

    Thanks Paul. I am very pleased you have raised the issue of the very light, non-custodial sentences handed out to criminals who attack and injure the police. And you are quite right to encourage people to watch some of those documentary “Police Code Zero” episodes. It’s a real eye opener, in terms of the serious assaults that take place on police officers, like Manchester dog handler PC Gareth Greaves, and his police dog, with both Greaves and dog seriously injured, but with the offender receiving only 80 hours community service, rather than a custodial sentence. I thought this light sentencing must have been an exceptional case, but it seems like it is the norm. A very unsatisfactory situation.

    We are rightly very critical of those, thankfully rare, cases of police brutality. But we also need to ensure that the police who protect us are themselves protected when they are going about their duty, and that anyone who does assault/attack them does get a custodial sentence.

  • John Marriott 20th Aug '19 - 9:57am

    Oh, happy days – when you could go out and leave your front door unlocked, with a policeman armed with whistle and truncheon on every street corner, ready to give you a clip on the ear when you did something wrong! And if he didn’t, your dad would when he found out! We had proper villains in those days.

    Seeing that picture of Jack Warner as PC George Dixon ( incidentally, at over 80 at the end of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, the oldest serving copper ever) certainly brought back memories. As Lorenzo has said, the policeman killed by a delinquent Dirk Bogarde in ‘The Blue Lamp’, George was resurrected for TV and it’s the black and white version of him that I remember on our Phillips 12 inch. Jack came from a famous show biz family, being, I think, the brother of Music Hall comedy duo, Gert and Daisy, otherwise known as Elsie and Doris Walters.

    I’m sorry if some of you might think that I am making light of what is undoubtedly a serious issue, and indeed perhaps only my friend, David Raw, might have any idea what I am talking about. Perhaps you should concentrate on my first paragraph, as the irony there is intended to emphasise how those, who hanker after some Golden Age between around 1948 and 1960, are deluding themselves.

    We don’t necessarily want more ‘Bobbies on the Beat’. We want ‘more Beat in our Bobbies’. By that I mean that we need to give the police the skills and ‘intelligence’ to counter the kind of crimes that, while different in some ways, are not dissimilar to the ones that old George encountered in the 1950s. The bottom line is that, if you break the law, whether it’s breaking a window or embezzling millions, you should get caught and punished. End of story.

  • frankie: The incident I referred to was before the financial crisis of 2008 and there were plenty of police so your argument that problems are caused by lack of money is not valid. We need to investigate these issues more thoroughly and not superficially. I have met several policemen and what they say is not represented here. Peter Martin made a good point about the way the accused are selected before evidence is produced.

  • Paul did not mean you said “murder”, it was the media. Someone may have been charged with oiffence A, does not mean that he will be convicted of it. Again I suggest a case of being careful.

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