The police make me angry. The police keep me and my family safe. The police breach our rights. The police are professional colleagues I respect. The police are the bad guys. The police are public servants facing cuts too.
It’s a conundrum.
I first put on my marching boots in the 1980s. I’ve been subjected to physical force by uniformed officers who couldn’t be held accountable because they wouldn’t display their badge numbers. More than 20 years ago I was squeezed with other protesters into a breathless crush on Hungerford Bridge before the term ‘kettling’ had ever been used to describe this containment technique. I spent years thinking of the police as, at best, a necessary evil and, at worst, ‘the enemy’.
Then my work brought me into professional contact with the police. I found exactly what you find whenever you start to work closely with an organisation you didn’t understand before: the police force is stuffed full of people who are, in their own way, as dedicated to excellence in public service as I am. There are people who are passionate about child protection; people who are energetic activists pushing to see that perpetrators of domestic violence are brought to justice; there are those who have arrived at just the right balance of humour, cynicism and wry boundary-setting to enable them to engage really well with young people who would otherwise find themselves in big trouble; front-line officers who work hard to get to know and understand the communities they serve; backroom staff who go the extra mile to support their front-line colleagues, despite frequent lack of credit. Of course, I’ve met the thuggish, the discriminatory, the obtuse, the stereotypical too. But on a day-to-day basis, the police are among my professional partners, earning and deserving my respect.
Now, like so many other public sector workers, their profession is under attack. They are among those who are – as Mervyn King (Governor of the Bank of England) points out – paying for this financial crisis, despite being in no way responsible for causing it. Staff numbers will be cut, terms and conditions will be worsened. The same amount of work will need to be done by fewer people, who will – generally – be worse paid than before. If policing suffers as a result of this crisis, the public – the whole of society – will suffer too.
I will be marching again on March 26 in support of all our public services; to protect them from decimation, to protect them from politicisation; to protect them from inappropriate privatisation. This includes policing. I hope to be marching in #solidarity with those who want to protect our police.
And yet… and yet…
The behaviour of UK police towards protesters and demonstrators in the recent (and distant) past has significantly undermined that solidarity. Of course the police must uphold the law and keep the public safe, but our democratic rights include a legitimate right to protest. In many cases the police have used spurious powers, dangerous tactics or outright violence to inhibit people’s ability to excercise that right.
For solidarity to be possible, this must stop.
The police can manage large crowds and difficult situations without resorting to kettling; football violence has been contained without mounted police charges. Policing doesn’t have to be thuggish or intimidatory in order to be effective.
The police are now asking for public support in the face of cuts. On twitter the hastag #protectourpolice is up and running and I have been following the responses and engagement with interest. Among many very good arguments for throwing our support behind the police, I have noticed three unwelcome threads. The first is a tendency to single out the police for support while seeming relaxed about the other cuts. Here is a good example: “The irony is, those policing the demos face harsher cuts than those protesting #ProtectOurPolice”
Let’s not get into a ‘my cuts are bigger than your cuts’ competition. We need teachers and nurses, social workers and sexual health workers, local government officers and coastguards, civil servants and family support workers as well as police. And we need them all to be respected and properly rewarded for the vital work they do.
Second, I have seen some police commentators denigrating other emergency services – stating for example that the fire brigade or ambulance service won’t attend incidents unless the police are there first. This may sometimes be true, although in my experience it depends on the nature of the emergency, but even where that is the case, it’s not necessary to knock another service in order to make the case for your own.
Let’s show some mutual respect for the important work that all our organisations do, by standing together in support of a network of public services that collectively provide the robust social infrastructure that enables all of society to function well.
Finally, I have seen some commentary that suggests that it is only cuts to front-line officers that matter. As someone who works in a service where back office staff have been subjected to efficiency measures (by which I mean that jobs have been cut), I know only too well that the work these people have been doing is real, necessary and doesn’t go away. When back office jobs are lost, that work gets passed instead to front-line workers, compromising their ability to do their own jobs well and in most cases leading to the use of an over-qualified and more expensive resource to do work that could be more effectively carried out elsewhere. This will be true in the police service too, where cuts to back office staff will inevitably impact on a front-line, which is in any case facing cuts too.
Let’s tell the truth about the value of so-called ‘back office’ work and let’s value our colleagues who help to create and sustain the environment in which front-line staff can do their jobs well.
In Wisconsin, some really dastardly tactics have been employed to attack public services and public servants. This video shows what happened when the police were asked to clear protesters from the Capitol building in Madison:
As you can see, the police in Wisconsin saw themselves as part of a bigger picture and showed solidarity with other public service workers. They fairly, squarely, safely and respectfully took sides.
I value the police service, both personally and professionally. I would be pleased and proud to march against cuts to policing at the same time as I march against cuts to the other hugely important services that so many of us take for granted. As twitter is used to organise and manage support for the March for the Alternative on 26 March, I think marchers should be considering showing support for the police as part of that march. As for the police, I don’t think that the hashtag #protectourpolice should ever be tweeted alone. I believe it should always be tweeted with #solidarity in support of other public service workers too.
It’s time, maybe, for our police to take sides.