Trust is an unusual attribute. It can take an eternity to earn and be lost in the blink of an eye. Once someone or something’s credibility is eroded, it is gone and the notion of trust is lost. We see this everywhere in daily life from marriage breakdowns to chapters of employment drawing to a premature conclusion. It is something we all accept, a common social norm, cardinal to the rules which define the society we live in.
So why is it then that the vast majority of people in this country still reject these social rules when it comes to dealing with the police?
Certain police forces resemble the serial adulterers at times (you know the ones I mean). The one who breaks their partner’s heart a thousand times or more, and yet they are taken back time and time again. We all look at the downtrodden partner with bemusement, many with pity. But we are in no doubt that they are foolish and should stop placing their unwavering faith in this untrustworthy person who deserves their loyalty no more.
And I must at this stage make the distinction because unfortunately one can make lazy sweeping generalisations which place everything together and it is wrong. For example I have lived in the East Midlands for eleven years now, ten of those in Nottingham. Reflecting on that period, I do not hold the dossier of stories which I have previously highlighted.
In some ways Nottinghamshire Police are very different from their London counterparts. I do not remember seeing Nottingham officers on duty for the carnival performing an embarrassing “wiggle” which looks like your uncle at one of those 90s family reunions. Like the boring images that are so cliché of Notting Hill Carnival for example. I can be tedious and highlight Nottinghamshire’s failure to apprehend James Brodie, but one can forgive such a blemish when remembering that there is little concrete evidence to support the theory that Brodie is even still alive.
The way in which Nottingham has been rehabilitated from the lawless wild west of less than a decade ago is an achievement which they must also take credit for. Not solely. But they deserve to be commended all the same.
No. This is not about Nottinghamshire Police. This is specifically about two police forces, one of which I have written about twice in the past. The other is a force who I hold in the same contempt as the Thatcher government for their role in the miners’ dispute of the mid 1980s.
The reasons why I hold the views have been addressed previously so will avoid going over old ground again. Instead I wish to focus on recent news, and how related to the context of those historical events, the time has come to approach the issue of our relationship with these two forces in a more enterprising and contemporary way.
The release of the Hillsborough files have confirmed what people who relate to views outlined in my previous posts have long since suspected. That South Yorkshire Police deflected attention from their own failures in the disaster by slandering the reputations of Liverpool fans in the form of doctored evidence and downright lies. Actions which took place 23 years ago granted, but which were as good as repeated during Sir Norman Bettison’s initial reaction to the report last week with the following response:
"Fans' behaviour, to the extent that it was relevant at all, made the job of the police, in the crush outside Leppings Lane turnstiles, harder than it needed to be.”
The obvious suggestion will be to throw Sir Norman out of the force, despite his subsequent apology, which naturally should be welcomed. But how on earth does this solve the wider problem which led to the culture of corruption that didn’t just affect a police officer here or there, but practically everyone who was involved with the investigation into the Hillsborough disaster. And what about those who helped to conceal all of this? We are no longer talking about purging a few bad eggs, we are looking at an entire force decayed to its roots.
This, coupled with conduct during the mid 1980s at the time of the miners’ dispute, poses severe questions as to whether this force has the confidence of the public it is supposed to serve. The scars of these episodes will serve as reminders for years to come, anytime an issue arises questioning the integrity of this force; people will question whether they are being furnished with the full story. This break down in trust will not be repaired. It will be borne into the collective DNA of anybody in that part of the country, and indeed anyone else who for one or reason or another will have dealings with this force in the future. It will haunt them like the scar of Cain from the biblical tale for generations to come. The term South York’s police will become a paraphrase in modern popular culture which will be defined as corruption, dishonesty and serial abuses of authority.
It is a lot like the Metropolitan Police in London, although they are a bit further down the road. They have already had their “Hillsborough report moment” in the form of the Macpherson Report. But we have the benefit of being a decade down the road to realise that this force is just as loathed as it was then, if not perhaps more so, if that was even possible. Names of victims of their disgraceful conduct when attempting to conceal their mistakes are so imprinted on our minds that a collection of terms require no further explanation: Sylvestor, De Menezes, Duggan, Tomlinson, Hackgate. All of which took place after the force was supposed to be improving, when the mistakes of the past were supposed to have been addressed.
Recently Andrew Mitchell has found himself caught up in an almighty row over a bicycle and a Downing Street gate. It is alleged that he swore at a police officer who was supervising the entrance gates. It has all boiled down to a politician’s word against that of a police officer. Politicians don’t exactly have the best reputation but it is still interesting to see how the public immediately takes the police officer’s account of events at face value, as if it is inconceivable that a police officer would lie.
I mean why on earth would a police officer lie?
We then hear the reaction of the Police Federation and all of a sudden there is a fishy smell of manipulation in the air. The same kind of stench that was billowing out across the country last summer during social unrest as politicians lined up to denounce the cuts against the police.
So what do we do?
The solution is staring us in the face. When institutions have become discredited, they cannot be saved. To return to the theme of an unscrupulous lover who lets us down: we need a divorce- a full and final settlement. We can’t go on pretending that they will change their ways when history shows us that they never will. The names and victims will change, but the similarities are frightful.
Now before anybody wonders, I am not proposing we abolish the police as an institution and live in a society which resembles the scene from Robocop 2 when law and order breaks down. A vacuum from the absence of a police force would lead to social mutiny and cannot be tolerated in any modern society. Not one that would be expecting to function with accepted social rules anyway.
However the time has come to have an informed debate about adopting examples set in Northern Ireland and assessing the merits of a long term solution to the issue of credibility. This is the territory which had a police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), who sometimes appeared to be an extension of the Unionist movement and were not considered to be meeting the needs of the Catholic community. By the end of the 20th century they lacked the authority to perform their roles. The proposal to disband the RUC was met with derision at the time but over a decade on the replacement force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), doesn’t possess the same historical baggage. It is allowed to perform its day to day duties without the shadows of human rights abuses against children for example.
Were all of the RUC dishonourable? That’s a difficult one to answer with any degree of certainty. I prefer instead to use the fruit bowl analogy, and I repeat it a lot when I talk about institutions like the Metropolitan Police. The theory goes that good, honest and honourable people go into the Metropolitan Police with the best of intentions: to uphold the law. Sadly they are exposed to unethical, usually illegal, behaviour within a culture of corruption. The end result is that they too eventually become part of the landscape. Just like a fresh healthy selection of fruit, placed in a bowl of rotten produce long past their best, which should have been hurled into the garbage many moons ago. We hope that the new fruit will bring healthy life back to the rotten flesh, that in time it may indeed become edible again. But it’s not. The result is that the entire bowl becomes contaminated and inedible. Do we throw the bowl away? We should. But instead we go back to the shop and purchase even more fresh fruit under this misguided philosophy that somehow we can reverse the laws of nature.
We cannot make rotten fruit good no more than we can hope that a bad police force can be turned around. We have to finally reach the point where we say enough is enough and draw a line and start again.
It will be expensive, disruptive and will upset a lot of people. But it is a short term pain to ensure that we find a long term remedy. To carry on, in the vain and deluded hope that “this time they will change” is not just silly but pathetic. We have to face the truth and shut down the police forces which no longer retain the faith of the public. To not do so is living in denial and resembling the gullible partner who takes their philandering partner back “one last time” despite accepting that the final chance had long since been spurned.
I am not hearing this anymore. It is like white noise to me. Because as Sunshine Anderson once said so eloquently, I really have heard it all before.