Why not be a police officer? Perhaps because having close personal contact with victims and perpetrators of cruel or violent acts does not appeal. Or because needing to be civil to rude or obstructive members of the public is not your cup of tea. Or because you have detected preferable paths to job satisfaction than facing occasional threats to your physical safety, even your life.
Now, mix in the demands that would be placed on you by the pandemic, like breaking up groups of people wilfully or stupidly passing on a potentially fatal virus, including to you as you try to make them stop. It’s one thing to hiss and boo the anti-lockdown arses of Clapham Common from a safe distance. But get in amongst them and sort them out? After you, constable, if that’s OK.
It’s easy see how policing London might feel completely thankless of late and why, according to the Metropolitan Police Federation, about 1,300 Met officers are off sick with Covid-19 or self-isolating – a tidy chunk out of around 32, 000. Reports that police might be moved up the national vaccine priority list – along with the equally-deserving schoolteachers and shop workers – are welcome. I’m quite high up the jab queue at present, but wouldn’t object to giving way to the men and women of the capital’s police service.
There are, though, qualifying clauses in this bill of appreciation. Just as the coronavirus has highlighted and worsened the deep social and economic inequalities of London, it has underlined the gaping difference between brave and selfless London policing and less impressive kinds.
During the virus crisis, we’ve learned of Met officers sharing photographs of murder victims, a failure to investigate a vicious racist attack, and recurring complaints about racial profiling and excessive use of handcuffs, stop-and-search and force. The London Assembly has heard ugly accounts of black officers being targeted for abuse when policing the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, but AMs and MPs have also received troubling testimony about police powers being misused at the same events.
Long-standing criticism of Met priorities and tactics have been sometimes angrily revived, perhaps most crisply summarised by the phrase “over-policed and under-protected” – the argument that those Londoners and London neighbourhoods most in need of effective policing are, instead, those most likely to feel oppressed or let down by it.
The Mayor, whose job includes being the capital’s police and crime commissioner, has been walking a fine line in public between speaking up for the Met (along with finding extra funds for it) and acknowledging that not everything the Met has done during the crisis has built confidence among the “under-protected” or looked very good to everyone else, especially in the chilling context of George Floyd’s death.
Met commissioner Cressida Dick, who must heed the Mayor’s wishes, has trodden the same narrow path by pledging to increase public trust in the service, stating in November her recognition of the disquiet stirred by Floyd’s killing and expressing regret that “trust in the Met is still too low in some black communities”, along with a commitment to putting that right.
Those responses had to strike delicate balances between different and partly conflicting objectives: admitting that room for improvement exists had to be done in a way that didn’t hit the morale of good officers, especially at a time when they were being asked to deal with new public order challenges and deal with particularly passionate examples of the conventional variety.
Perhaps as a result, the words of Khan and Dick felt, at times, a little forced, as if over-drafted by a committee. Similarly, the Mayor’s promise of an “action plan” to drive up further the representation of black Londoners in the Met’s ranks could hardly help but have a “heard it all before” quality because, after all, we have, and there are questions about how much difference change in that regard would make.
The environment in which the Met functions is now changing again, and could change a lot more in the months to come.
In the operational sense, police across the land have begun taking a more direct approach to breaches of Covid restrictions under Lockdown 3, and handing out bigger fines. The darker, colder weather will make things easier in some ways, with fewer outdoor gatherings. But a harder line also means a heightened scope for conflict. Officers will need to exercise their powers and judgements carefully.
And there’s a highly political backdrop to the policing of London too. It’s been reported that the government will insist on crime rate targets being imposed in return for honouring its vaunted pledge to recruit 20,000 more officers nationally – an approach which, in the past, has been blamed for the distorting of crime figures and the neglect of some serious forms of offending.
The setting of targets for lowering categories of crime was at the core of Boris Johnson’s policing plan when he was London Mayor, prompting deep scepticism among senior criminologists. One of the more worrying things about Johnson as Prime Minister is that he and some of his lieutenants seem to sincerely believe their own dodgy publicity about their record on crime when at City Hall. Johnson’s government has demonstrated without shames its readiness to try to run London remotely from Whitehall. Why would they stop at messing with the London Plan and TfL?
Amid all these demands and pressures, it’s worth looking back at another part of Cressida Dick’s November statement: “Lower levels of trust create challenges to keeping Londoners safe – be it a reluctance to share information, to report crime, or to support our work to tackle violence.”
That analysis, though composed in response to the policing of black Londoners, also applies to Londoners and London policing as a whole. And trust comes from a police service whose officers do their jobs fairly, efficiently and well. In very simple terms, good cops are the greatest, and bad cops are the worst. As London strives to survive and recover from Covid, it needs plenty of the first kind and none at all of the second.
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