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Those who can’t, police

British police are no longer up to grappling with wrong’uns

As a so-called “geriatric millennial” — we enjoyed Oasis the first time round and can remember life without mobile phones and the internet — one of the defining shows of my now alarmingly distant youth was Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Sarah Michelle Gellar played the eponymous heroine, and she spent seven years fighting all kinds of scary monsters.

I enjoyed Buffy. I do wonder, however, whether the show, and its imitators, especially the superhero films in which women beat up the bad guys with ease alongside their male counterparts, helped to popularise the idea that size and strength are relatively unimportant in successful fighting. Gellar is not tiny. She is 5ft4 (around average female height in the UK), and she was obviously in very good shape. All the same her prowess in kicking ass against mostly bigger and stronger foes was less a reflection of reality and more a well-crafted piece of TV wish-fulfilment.

The Buffy illusion and its consequences came to mind when I watched the widely-circulated clip of several police officers struggling to restrain two young men in Walthamstow last week. I found it almost painful. Two young women PCs, along with two slightly built male colleagues, made very heavy weather of an arrest at a bus stop. One of the men — slim, bespectacled, about 5ft9 — didn’t appear to be doing anything to help, instead hovering ineffectually on the fringes, like I do when a mechanic is fixing my car.

Now I should say that I am not questioning the officers’ courage. I don’t claim to be any kind of action hero myself, and I have been in precisely one fight in my life. I mention this to forestall one of the more tedious responses faced by anyone who expresses concerns about the strength and fitness of police officers: “if you’re such a tough guy, why don’t you join the police yourself etc etc.”

I know very well that I am not a tough guy; that is the point. Like a large majority of the population, I would not be difficult for a determined violent criminal to overcome. That is why I think that, by and large, frontline police officers should be big and strong and intimidating. It’s one of the main reasons why they exist in the first place, after all.

There are a number of common responses to the suggestion that we reinstate rigorous height and strength requirements for public order policing roles. The least convincing is the denial or obfuscation of the strength differences between men and women. These differences are  thoroughly attested in the scientific literature, as well as being confirmed by normal human experience and observation.

Consider the famous tennis Battle Of The Sexes in January 1998. Venus Williams, then ranked 22nd in the world and well on her way to becoming one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time, was beaten 6-2 in a single-set exhibition match by Karsten Braasch, a journeyman pro ranked 203 in the men’s game. Braasch was thirty at the time (already old for a tennis professional) and well past his peak, having never ranked higher than 38 in the world. He had never made it beyond the third round of a Grand Slam and occasionally smoked on court, whereas the 17 year old Williams reached at least the last eight of every Grand Slam in 1998 and ended the year as world number five. Nevertheless, Braasch’s sheer physical advantage in power and speed meant a comfortable victory. In 2016 the Australian women’s football side were beaten 7-0 by an under-15 boys’ team.

I mention these incidents not to denigrate women’s sport but simply to illustrate the inescapable realities of physiology (which naturally also apply to weaker men). The reason why so many sportswomen are so indignant about biological males competing in their events is that any moderately strong post-adolescent male is stronger than almost all women. Learning grappling techniques or martial arts is sometimes mooted as a way for women to make up for their lack of brute strength, which is probably true to an extent. In the immortal words of Mike Tyson, however, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.

Another riposte is to query whether physical strength is as important a qualification for police officers as it once was. This is undoubtedly a partial truth in the age of cybercrime, online scams and so forth. There are clearly roles in policing that do not require physically imposing individuals. However, you do not need to be a policing expert — and, incidentally, let us note what has happened to crime and disorder in Britain since the rise of that class — to know that for many officers, pursuit, physical restraint and confrontation will always be a crucial part of the job.

Effective policing depends on the exercise of force

“De-escalation”, the tactic beloved of laptop class liberals unfamiliar with the reality of physical confrontation, is supposedly a particular speciality of women. That is all very well, but what if it doesn’t work? In the final analysis, effective policing depends on the exercise of force. Indeed, the ability to project physical threat is crucial to deterring violence, whereas an unimpressive physique and a diffident demeanour may invite further violence from criminals, whose entire way of life is rooted in intimidation of the weak. We certainly need computer analysts and fraud investigators and CID detectives, but even modern policing is not reducible to those specialisms. At least, it shouldn’t be, given the state of British streets in 2023. When I raised this on Twitter once, someone accused me of having an outdated view of policing, stating with a certain pride that the need to match strength with villains was not a big part of contemporary police work. To which I was tempted to reply: yes, we’ve all noticed.

Serving officers and their defenders will often note that there are still strict physical requirements. To which I can only respond that as a member of the public, whom the police after all exist to serve, it is abundantly clear that a significant number of officers do not meet any reasonable requirement of physical suitability for normal street policing. They do not project confidence and security. It is undeniable that physical requirements for many forces have been gradually watered down during the last few decades. It was not unusual in the mid-20th century for the male height requirement to be set at 5ft10 or higher.

Strikingly, an acquaintance once told me that to their certain knowledge, concerns about fitness requirements were widely shared by police officers, but they were impossible to express publicly because of the political ramifications. I can believe this — the Met, for example, has publicly committed itself to reaching a 50:50 split in men and women officers. This top-down requirement is obviously political rather than operational. It is presumably hard to criticise openly for any London officer who doesn’t want to spend his entire career on the Dagenham anti-graffiti taskforce.

Any attempt to improve the physical standards of police officers is likely to run afoul of equalities legislation, with its insidious doctrine of disparate impact. This principle requires public bodies to treat any differing outcomes for different demographic groups as ipso facto evidence of unjust discrimination. Nonetheless, a wise and effective Tory government could surely circumvent the difficulties, as long as it was willing and prepared to defend its action with regard to public order and safety — and to withstand a certain amount of scolding from the BBC and The Guardian.

The case is not hard to make, even for a Conservative politician. Yes, police recruitment should be as open as possible, and it should be flexible when it comes to the more cerebral roles, e.g. digital forensics. Still, sheer physical presence, along with the ability to impose yourself on a situation when necessary, is absolutely non-negotiable, if we wish to maintain good order and safe streets. This is perhaps a hard pill to swallow for liberal-minded folk in an era obsessed with equality, who are personally unfamiliar with the hard realities of physical confrontation. The price for ignoring such realities is paid, ultimately, in the misery and pain of the law-abiding.

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