Many things have been taken or lost in the last 12 months in the name of public health; freedom of speech, freedom to protest, the right to see your significant other, to name but a few. One thing stands out, though, and that is the increasing loss of trust and faith in the police forces of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It shouldn’t need to be said. However, for context before I continue, I have the upmost respect for the police officers who genuinely aim to protect and serve the community. Both of my parents and indeed one of my step-parents are former police officers, and when I have needed assistance from the police force, the officers I have encountered have carried out their job with care and consideration.
I am not attacking all police officers , merely I am pointing out that the actions of a minority of over-zealous officers, a lack of clarity over rules and advice, and the speed of social media has caused a loss of trust in the police; something that may prove irreversible.
Over the past 12 months we have seen clips online of officers acting in a heavy-handed manner with citizens, issuing fines that were not necessary and, in Scotland, forcing entry into the homes of citizens under the pretence that a ‘crime’ may have been committed. We have seen police officers, after being called by supermarkets, remanding individuals for attempting to say that they are exempt from certain legislation, such as the wearing of facemasks, as well as trying to dictate to shops what they can and cannot sell. It all feels slightly sinister to say the least.
The role of the police is to protect and serve. They are, at the end of the day, there to ensure the safety of the public, there to serve and help. Not, as has become more common over the previous months, to enforce and intimidate.
I will again stipulate that large numbers of these instances do not represent the majority of police officers and that social media can at times blow things out of proportion. But, when a police force is using its social media presence to act as ‘Big Brother’ over those it is supposed to protect and serve; that is when you have a problem.
Recent events have hammered this point home even more so than normal. For all the calls for the resignation of Cressida Dick and the anger at the handling of those in attendance at the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard, the officers in attendance were simply discharging their assigned duty, doing what they had been told to do in breaking up protests, however peaceful, under Coronavirus legislation.
There is hypocrisy here though. People have rightly condemned their actions at the vigil. However, where were these public criticisms when an elderly lady was carried spread-eagled by officers into the back of a police van for simply protesting on her own outside parliament? Where was the anger when the police broke up anti-lockdown demonstrations in London? You cannot be selective in your anger, in the same way as the police cannot be selective in how they police events. They took a knee to BLM, danced with the Extinction Rebellion protesters, yet used heavy-handed measures at a vigil and against those who as a whole, have peacefully protested lockdowns. That right to protest is being eroded in front of our eyes and the danger of this cannot be overstated.
I do feel sorry for the officers on the streets, though. They are simply being used as sacrificial lambs, forced into acting in a fashion akin to a militia for a government and senior management machine that is spiralling out of control.
Every officer at the vigil was following instructions to stopping it from occurring.Yes, the actions of some officers were abhorrent, but we cannot forget that they were enforcing the law as espoused to them by senior management, off the back of a policy implemented by the Home Secretary without full parliamentary approval. We cannot forget that the decision to respond in this manner would’ve been approved by senior management, who have since washed their hands of the consequences.
Moreover, the scenes in Bristol over the weekend are deeply concerning. Police vans were seen being set alight, endangering the officers that were there as violent protestors caused chaos at a supposedly peaceful ‘Kill the Bill’ protest. The policing bill that is being rushed through by the Home Secretary and looks, sadly, like it will pass through both houses, sets a dangerous precedent for the right to protest and the right to freedom of speech.
It is not, however, the fault of individual officers on the street, the vast majority of whom are probably as fed up with the current situation as the rest of us. Officers suffered broken arms and broken ribs, police stations were vandalised, and fireworks set off in the street. All of these actions by the individuals there were erroneous to the extreme and prove just how much damage is being done to trust in policing, with officers forced to enter into these situations knowing they have no choice but to apply what has been espoused to them from above. It’s a very dangerous position to be in.
The majority of police officers are genuinely good people, caring about their job and protecting civilians. You will always have bad apples in any walk of life and officers are no different. The major issue though, is how they are being ordered to act by senior officers and by extension, the Mayor and Home Secretary.
All sides of the political spectrum now seem to be aligned in the view that respect and trust in policing in Britain has been lost. As this slippery slope continues, incidents such as Saturday evening will make it increasingly difficult to reclaim that trust.