What on earth are the police doing in their response to the recent spate of mob violence and vandalism? I don’t mean the rank and file officers particularly, rather the commanders who issue their orders. Time and again in recent days they have succeeded in sending out messages that undermine rather than reinforce public order.
Despite the swaggering warnings issued to law-abiding people across the country for buying Easter eggs, or sitting in their own front garden, during the previous weeks of lockdown, the Metropolitan Police decided to stand by as thousands of people broke the laws intended to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.
The reason given by the Commissioner was that to require people to follow the law risked “serious disorder…turning into a violent situation”.
The implication was clear. Gather illegally in a small enough number, sufficiently peaceably to pose no threat of “serious disorder” or “a violent situation”, and the police will require you to stop and disperse on pain of arrest. If on the other hand the police become convinced that enforcing the law will be met with violence by some of those present, then they’ll allow you to proceed.
The weekend after Cressida Dick’s remarks, 49 police officers were injured, and peaceful protesters were endangered by – guess what – serious disorder and a violent situation. Oddly, given that she had cited concerns about the prospect of violence, officers do not appear to have been equipped with the requisite kit to face that threat when it emerged.
This week, the superintendent who led the operation during which a mob tore down the Colston statue – criminal damage against a listed heritage structure – declared that “Bristol should be proud of itself” because “no one got hurt and we had no arrests in the whole protest”, particularly given that the crowd were “passionate”.
It feels, shall we say, unusual for a police officer to measure success by not arresting people who committed a crime. What impact did he imagine it would have on the standing of the law which Avon & Somerset Police are supposed to uphold, to boast that officers were ordered to stand by as crime and disorder was permitted?
Predictably, other vandals have duly gone on the hunt for memorials to attack and destroy. In Bristol, the city’s first ever statue of a black person has been defaced with bleach.
Well done, Avon & Somerset Police.
This is why Peel included in his principles of policing the idea that “The police seek and preserve public favour, not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to the law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws”. Perhaps the police have chucked him in a metaphorical harbour already, as just another old bloke from history.
Nor are these isolated cases.
Ben-Julian Harrington, Chief Constable of Essex Police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on public order, attempts to draw a tension between preventing crime against property and protecting the safety of people when dealing with mobs like that in Bristol. He is reported to have argued that “…the officers will be there looking to make sure that people don’t get hurt in the first instance, trying to protect property if that’s the right thing to do, but people come first, making sure officers and those taking part are safe.”
The thinking seems wrong-headed. By definition, mobs are not “safe” things to indulge. Rather obviously, mobs that are in the business of tearing down big cast bronze monuments with bits of rope and their bare hands are even less safe than your average mob. A man in the United States is currently in a coma after a statue toppled on top of him.
It should be quite clear by now that undermining the law in one area undermines it in another, just as abandoning consistent policing of the law undermines police authority generally.
Conditions have not become safer for officers, members of the public, peaceful protesters, or for private and public property, as a result of this approach. Quite the contrary.
Finally, today Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, the Cenotaph and other illustrious memorials suffer the indignity of being closed up in boxes, hidden away apparently at the behest of the Mayor of London, working with “partners” including the Met. Why? Because, in the words of Sadiq Khan, “I’m extremely concerned that further protests in central London not only risk spreading Covid-19, but could lead to disorder, vandalism and violence.”
Again, retreat seems to be the default. If you want something concealed from view, threaten to destroy it with sufficient force and the authorities will hide it for you rather than challenge your criminality directly.
The buzzword used by so many senior officers to justify these calls is that they are “tactical decisions”. No doubt they are, but there appear to be two misapprehensions at work.
First, “tactical” does not mean “correct”. Calling something a “tactical decision” seems to be intended to lend an air of official wisdom, but it simply describes the decision without managing to justify it. Worse, these appear to be solely tactical decisions, without any view to strategy. Letting crime slide one day to avoid a confrontation might be tactically appealing, but doing so without regard for the resulting effect the next day, or the next week, is strategically foolish. The results are all too clear.
I find it hard to believe that every copper is happy with this. If it’s a flaw of policing philosophy, or the culture among senior police officers, how might it be corrected? oliticians clearly have to do their part, from PCCs – who are disappointingly quiet – through the Home Office, and still higher. As our Editor wonders: if, as the Prime Minister asserts, Churchill’s statue is “a ‘permament reminder’, why is it being temporarily covered – rather than safeguarded?”