Condemning a little less…. (Part 2)

Last night I used John Major's famous sound-bite as the basis for my blog about the riots in London and across the UK. He once said: "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less". I am convinced that the reverse is true.

He was speaking about young people, and last night, so was I. But there is another group caught up in the current unrest who get frequent condemnation and little understanding. The police.

They have been condemned for provocative policing by some, and for being too soft by others. And many people seem to think the army would somehow do a better job. Let's not go there.

I was outside Fortnum & Mason on 26 March when the TSG arrived and could feel the light-hearted atmosphere disappear. The palpable sense of menace transforms the situation; you know that when they arrive, something will kick off. On Saturday night, when Tottenham's peaceful protest started to turn into something else, a police Tweeter urged the TSG to *smash some skulls*. As someone who believes in the right to peaceful protest and the requirement to police with consent, I find that attitude repellent. I could so easily join the queue to condemn too.

Like condemning the rioters, it would cost me nothing to condemn the police. That too takes no time or effort, requires no information or insight. I wouldn't need to find out how they are resourced, the instructions they are given, the expectations placed upon them. I wouldn't need to hear about how their previous experiences of public order policing have shaped their behaviours, sharpened their anxieties, impacted on their decision-making. I wouldn't need to ask myself how it feels to work in the 'rank-and-file' when some senior officers have been shown to be lacking in judgement (or worse) and as a consequence have left the force without the well-established, confident leadership it surely needs. I wouldn't need to consider how it might feel to face unprecedented civil unrest at a time when resources are being cut, experienced officers are pensioned off and a leading politician thinks that what they (and other public servants) need is more 'fear and discipline'. Or when a journalist, from his comfortable seat away from the destruction, can comment that it's time to "..tone down the gushing praise for the police […] it's what we pay them for" (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/benedictbrogan/100100072/what-david-cameron-needs-to-do/)

When the police go in hard, are they mad, bad or dangerous? Or doing the right thing? Are they politically motivated? When they appear to stand back and allow looting or fire-starting are they making a tactical, safety-conscious decisions, or are they afraid? I find this video-clip from Romford on Monday night compelling: On the soundtrack, the young woman watching clearly appreciates the impossibility of the police taking action against what is a fairly small number of looters, because they are so completely outnumbered.

For good and for bad, the police are a product of their culture. I don't believe that we can maintain social order without some kind of police force, so if I want to support and help to improve policing, I must support the development of that culture. I must recognise that police officers are human beings making difficult decisions in difficult situations and not always getting them right. Yesterday, I blogged about some of things that I know impact negatively on the lives of young people which can lead to them getting caught up in and carried along with the riots. Many of the police officers I work with know these things too and often reflect that in the way that they deal with particular situations. I admire them and their work. And yet at times I have been policed inappropriately myself; roughly, disrespectfully, unfairly.

Good policing is able to admit complexity and to be nuanced. It is a learning process and therefore sometimes flawed. It is as fundamentally human in its triumphs and failures as any other endeavour. If I can know that fear and aggression, despair and bravado, vulnerability and challenge are two sides of the same coin for young rioters, then I must also be open to the possibility that they are present together on the police side of the line too.

No police officer should ever use *smash some skulls* as a rallying cry. Nor do I think that police getting their skulls smashed in the line of duty is "what we pay them for". So I will criticise a specific police action if I think it has been conducted badly, but I won't condemn the police force itself. In the interests of a city and a country that can sleep peacefully, I must surely try to understand?

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