Italian police at an anti-lockdown protest, Circo Massimo, Rome, 6 June 2020; (Photo by Matteo Trevisan/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

In Praise of Plod

How our police lost their way, and why they’re still better than the alternative

When I was a kid, my parents decided to drive to Greece. We lived in London so this was no small matter. In fact, the only small thing was the Fiat 127 into which we packed for our trans-European odyssey.

Obviously, we spent a lot of time on the road so we saw varied and exotic policemen. Far more than on the roads of Britain where the occasional Rover would perch on a roadside hump conspicuously enough to have a deterrent effect on motorway speedsters.

In France, the police were permanently astride large BMW motorcycles. White Sam Brown belts, jack boots, disproportionate side arms. They stopped motorists regularly, one leaning in while the other took down the licence plate. “Vos papiers?”. We never saw this in England. Not unless McVicar had escaped again.

In Italy, the polizia chose Lancia or Alfa Romeo cars. Sunglasses. Ostentatious insignia. Berettas. By Yugoslavia, things were distinctly Soviet and, by Greece, non-existent.

Foreign policemen were, well, cool. Nice kit, guns, stern, detached, aggressive. What they weren’t was approachable. You didn’t ask them the time, except perhaps in Switzerland, or for help finding your dog. There were reasons for this, of course. France was in a permanent flirt with revolution and the Union Corse. Italy with the Red Brigade and the Mafia. While Yugoslavia just had bad Communist habits.

Coppers at home were different. Unless the Flying Squad didn’t like the cut of your jib or you had Irish propensities that interested Special Branch, they were on your side. They drove Panda cars and saluted your mother.

But the big difference, of course, was that while everywhere else saw their police forces as a means of state control, our police were “of” us. As founding father Robert Peel said, “The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

For me, being “of us” was particularly true. I grew up and went to school in south east London. My fine educational establishment – a grammar school until ruined by the ILEA and the educational reforms of the 70s – had originally been set up by a religious order to help boys from Bermondsey to read and write and, by the time I arrived some hundred years later, its catchment area encompassed Lewisham, Catford, New Cross, Rotherhithe, Peckham and Eltham as well as the greener fields of Blackheath and Greenwich.

That rich mix made it a fertile recruiting ground for the Plod – and, indeed, the opposition – leading to faintly comic moments of former school mates nicking each other. Classmates joined, family joined, fathers were already in “the Job” as it’s known.

What the boys in the Job knew and understood was that it was largely about rough working-class men keeping rough working class men in line. A blue-collar trade. Anyone who wasn’t a criminally-inclined, rough working class man knew that, backed the police and thanked God for the “thin blue line”. It was about the law. And in case you were in any doubt that’s what the police were called: The Law.

But south east London was potently primed to produce the circumstances to change policing forever. A large immigrant population, a white working class fully steeped in the culture of the terraces at Millwall and Charlton and angry Eighties politics. Shake and what do you get? An explosion. And they happened frequently. By the 90s that culminated in the murder of Stephen Lawrence in Well Hall, Eltham.

The botched investigation that followed was condemned in the subsequent Macpherson report as “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership”.

There was obvious truth in all three points. “Is this your car, sir?” was a standing joke for any “IC3” pull over and, on TV, Not the Nine O’Clock News mocked Constable Savage for nicking a Mr Winston Kodogo for “walking on the cracks in the pavement”. The Filth were bang to rights for being filthy.

Unsurprisingly, “institutional racism” applied to the police in such a way as to politicise it. It might have made officers more sensitive to race, and did see more black and brown faces on the Job but within the force it also meant mutual suspicion and an increasing fearfulness about how conducting its duties might in some way be perceived as racist.

The manifestations have been obvious from the wax and wane of “stop and search” – even when specifically designed to stop black deaths from knife crime – to the reluctance properly to investigate Asian sex gangs in northern cities and, most recently, in the face of Black Lives Matter disorder in London, Bristol and elsewhere.

A school friend – decorated twice for bravery on London’s streets and now sadly departed – shook his head wistfully at me at his retirement do at a sports club a few hundred yards from the site of the Lawrence murder: “it isn’t the job it was, Pat” he said. All former coppers think that. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

In trying too to remedy the failure of leadership, the police used various schemes to suck in more rapid-rise graduates. Being bright sorts they soon spotted that ambition was best served with one eye on the political climate. And the weather was no longer set by the favouritism Maggie Thatcher had bestowed on her “Boot Boys”. A wise PC was very PC indeed.

That increased detachment form the concerns of the law abiding public and more towards the preoccupations of political masters could only lead to that most dreaded of phrases to the average copper’s ears: “Haven’t you got anything better to do?” Easier to police Twitter than nick a criminal, easier for a chief constable to take the knee than confront the mob, easier to applaud on Westminster Bridge than enforce the tricky contradictions of lockdown.

People, told that “burglary is no longer a priority”, worried that their son – it will be their son – might be knifed on London’s streets are amazed to hear of policemen visiting citizens to “check their thinking”, shocked to find they have the time to perform blue light dances on TikTok or put up drones over walkers in the Peak District. They do as my late lamented friend did and shake their heads sadly. “It’s not the job it was.” The police are losing their constituency.

And yet who would you prefer on your streets? The sort of Minneapolis officers who kneel on a man until he’s dead for having a forged bank note? Or the unsmiling paramilitaries of Europe? Whatever the current flaws of our own police, they’re still better than that, aren’t they?

And for every dipstick Bristol senior officer describing criminal damage and public disorder as “understandable”, it’s always worth remembering the daily heroism that marks a spell in the Bill. My old school friend interrupted and prevented a terrorist arms exchange. Other officers do things on a scale more human every day in this city.

An off-duty acquaintance came across a crowd gathered in the road. A girl had been hit by a bus. He crawled underneath to find her, very obviously, dying. He lay there with her, under a bus, in the wet and the oil and the blood and he held her hand till the end. Do you fancy doing that on a Friday night?

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