We’ve all heard of covert policing, the type that involves cops tackling wrong-doers without anyone noticing. We now have Covid policing, which sometimes seems to involve cops doing wrong for everyone to see.
There have been some prize examples of this. Last week, a whole bunch of Old Bill gathered on Westminster Bridge to “clap for carers”, seemingly unaware that hanging out in groups of fellow humans with whom you do not live can mean getting your collar felt and being fined. Photos have appeared of clusters of constables bearing down on barbecues in Camden because barbecuers aren’t meant to cluster there. Complex constellations of boys and girls in blue have been witnessed in close-knit, cross-cutting formations bellowing at solitary walkers in London parks to “go home!”. Is this how to protect the NHS?
There is a frothier side to this. An Inner London shopkeeper who does a tidy trade in take-out coffee is delighted that regular patrons now include a van of jolly rozzers, who stop by to place bulk espresso orders. Their visits are street corner comedies of social distance inconsistency: first, they all emerge from the intimacy of their vehicle; they then completely fail to spread out; one of their number strides towards the gurgling Gaggia, causing masked bystanders to scatter. “Don’t come any closer, officer!” a saucy female customer exclaimed the other day as a rugged man in uniform approached. “I don’t want you to raise my temperature!”
It would be good, though, to get out more – pause for ironic laughter – and arrive at a longer view of how the Met is handling the all-new London street environment. In some ways, there is less for officers to do: if it’s any consolation as the lockdown lengthens, street crime in its different forms – stabbings, robberies, burglaries – have become less frequent. Scams are booming, though, and there are obvious grounds for worrying about what might be going on behind closed doors: the Met commissioner said two weeks ago that the figures did not, at that stage, point to a rise in domestic violence. But if you’re trapped indoors with somebody who beats you up, it must be harder to summon a policeman.
Finally, wouldn’t it be strange if police and politicians have not gone into metaphorical huddles and made contingencies for bursts of opportunist outdoor villainy or outbreaks of disorder and unrest? A point is surely drawing nearer when pent-up impatience among those who believe themselves immune starts to run out. Think of gung-ho young males missing their mates and the pub. And crooks have to make a living too, you know.
Joshing aside, the Met Plod do seem alive to this. Last week on a street corner, a team of them in plain clothes emerged from an unmarked car and stopped and searched three young lads out on a stroll. The other day, during my approved daily constitutional, I passed a parked car with its kerb-side front window smashed. Those two sightings felt incongruous and eerie amid London’s current mass civil obedience. It was a reminder that, below the surface, the contest between nefariousness and those who combat it continues in pretty much the same old way.
John Vane writes word sketches of London. Sometimes he makes things up. He also tweets.
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