Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The day I became a Nazi

This blog has never really had a corporate message or format. I use it to highlight stuff I find funny and fascinating, to promote artists and designers, and to show anyone who might be interested what I'm currently writing, drawing or painting. And, just occasionally, I turn a little bit serious and discuss a subject that I feel a degree of passion for or against. In the past I've talked about the importance of libel reform, the need for healthy scepticism, the disgrace that is factory farming, my annoyance with wilfully ignorant religious zealots and my horror in watching literal creationism finger its way into US schools, despoiling a generation of future scientists and doctors. I've occasionally touched upon my 30 year career as a police officer too. It's not something I talk about a great deal - 90% of it was as dull as ditch water everyday policing - but events of the past week have pushed me towards writing a short piece about public order and, in particular, the way that police officers have been described by some observers.

The student disorders around the UK have deeply saddened me. Without becoming too politically embroiled, it is a national disgrace that the most important thing we all deserve from society - an education - is seen by some as a commodity rather than a right. Only the wealthy may be educated? What an appalling prospect. Some of our most brilliantly insightful and inventive geniuses were from working class backgrounds and poverty stricken childhoods. My kids are all grown up now but I couldn't afford to send them to university these days. At least not without them and me accruing major debts. The money being stripped from the education system is going where? To bolster up greedy banks that pissed on their own strawberries? To fund a war overseas that began with lies and misunderstandings and which doesn't affect the security and sovereignty of the UK? It's madness. No, let me make this absolutely plain; nothing is more important than education and every resource that can be scraped together should be diverted into ensuring that our children and grandchildren get the best education possible. In this I am resolutely 100% behind the students and their protests.

However, there are protests and there are protests. What part of the argument is made more persuasive by vandalism or graffiti? What political purpose is served by throwing a heavy steel fire extinguisher from a roof into a crowd of police officers and fellow protesters? This is utter madness; anarchy of the worst kind and exactly the kind of behaviour that will lose public sympathy for the students. What if that fire extinguisher had hit someone? It would certainly have killed them. If it had hit a protester would they have become a martyr? If it had hit a police officer, would anyone give a damn? Hell no. One fewer fascist police officer on the street. Yeah! Go student power. Let me tell you something about that police officer who, just a few years ago, could quite easily have been me.

That police officer isn't a faceless, robotic, programmed minion of the state. He or she is an everyday person just like you and me. They leave work and go home to partners and children. They shop in Tesco and watch The X Factor. They follow their favourite footie team. They go to rock gigs. They poo and pee, laugh and cry. They're straight, gay, Christian, Muslim and atheist. They also voted in the last election because - believe it or not - they're not the helmeted and gloved paramilitary wing of the government. They have free will and independent minds. Many, like me, didn't vote for the party that's now in power. And a lot of those cops have kids who are in the education system right now. Some of their kids were among the protesters.

The same blinkered stereotyping that makes racists see black people as inferior, that makes homophobes see gay men as perverted, that leads one kind of religious nutjob to declare war on a rival faith that actually worships the same god, is the same manifestation of stupidity that makes some people see cops as nothing but a uniform. Trust me, I've had a lot of experience of this. I can remember, at the tender age of 18, turning up at my first domestic incident and being expected to sort out the tangled mess of a broken relationship riddled with lies and accusations. These people had been married for longer than I'd been on the planet. Their kids were older than me. But all they saw was the helmet and boots. In the early 1980s I found myself standing outside fur shops in Bond Street trying to prevent angry, missile-throwing anti-fur protesters from smashing the windows and destroying the stock. I actually agreed with everything they were saying. Back then the fur trade was terribly unregulated and all manner of cruelty was being committed just so that some posh bint could wander around in snow leopard. I was a member of Greenpeace (and still am), the newly formed WSPA, the WWF and ZSL. I was probably more informed and more politically active in animal rights than they were. All they saw was a uniform supporting the fur trade. During the 80s and 90s I was a participant in most major public order events in and around London. I was petrol-bombed and bricked at Broadwater Farm, Notting Hill, Brixton and Southall. I have a splendid five inch scar on my head thanks to two nice gentlemen who pinned me down, dropped a paving slab on me and left me unconscious. I'm hoping I never lose my hair; if I do I'll look like a giant cock. Well, more than I do now. I was at Greenham Common where protesters pelted me with used tampons even though I agreed with them about US nuclear weapons being sited on British soil. I was sent up to the miners' strike on several occasions. My sympathies were very much with the miners. I'm from Cornwall, which was on the periphery of the whole political battle because Thatcher and Scargill were the focus. The whole of the Cornish mining industry was run down to nothing, creating abject poverty in what was, and still is, the poorest county in the UK. The Metropolitan Police, having always been somewhat cosmopolitan, boasted thousands of officers who came from mining communities in Cornwall, Wales, Yorkshire etc. and we all felt the pain of the miners. All the press and the more vitriolic pickets saw was 'Maggie's Boot Boys'.

My job was never to defend the fur industry. Nor was it to provoke the Peace Camp women or to be the physical embodiment of Thatcher's political bullying. My job was to keep the peace. My job was to keep order. My job was to defend life and property no matter whose life or property it was because that's what happens in a civilised and balanced society. Everyone is entitled to protection from harm, distress or loss. And I mean everyone. I've had to protect paedophiles going to and from court. I've had to keep angry crowds from lynching National Front members. I find such people abhorrent and hateful but if we let the mob rule we may as well be living in Hell. There have to be rules of acceptable behaviour. There has to be a fair and just legal process to establish guilt and innocence. There have to be punishments and penalties for those who transgress. If I happened to have been standing between you and the person, thing or premises that you wanted to torch in your anger and frustration, I make no apologies. Just because you think something is wrong doesn't give you the right to circumvent the rules that govern society. If I suddenly decide that I hate the colour green, it doesn't give me the right to kick down your nice green front door.

I'm not so naive as to suggest that all cops are perfect. As I said earlier, they're just ordinary guys and gals. Cops don't go through any kind of anger management training. Cops don't get any special superpowers. Any one of you reading this could apply to become a police officer today, go through the training system and be a fully-fledged cop within two years and you'd be exactly the same person you are now with all the same emotions, hopes, fears, strengths and flaws. The only difference would be that you have a uniform. Because of that you'll quickly have to get used to people only seeing that uniform and not you. You'll be spat at, punched and kicked. You'll be called names, terrible names. You'll have threats made against you and against those you love. You'll often be called upon to protect someone or something you dislike to the core of your being. You'll see death every week. The press will attack you for doing your job. Whole sections of society will hate you just for putting on the blue serge. You'll risk your life for people you don't even know. No one will ever say 'Well done' or 'Thanks'. And almost every single second of every working day you'll be scrutinised by CCTV, people with cameras and phones, TV crews and anti-police organisations. And if you put one foot wrong, you'll most likely lose your job.

I've seen police officers lose their tempers. Of course I have. I've seen cops lash out in fear and anger. I've done it too. I remember being cornered in a small street in Brixton with two colleagues and being surrounded by a group of 30 or so guys baying for our blood. I took my truncheon out (then, a 12" long vaguely phallic lump of wood) and I hit anyone who came near me as hard as I possibly could. I'm not ashamed to say it. What else should I have done? It's easy to forget that, on the ground, large public order events are not about groups and factions. They're about individuals. They're about cops doing what they can maintain order, often when hopelessly outnumbered. And they're constantly provoked by a small percentage of angry activists. Occasionally one of those cops will make a spur of the moment decision to deploy a shield or baton or CS spray. When that cop takes that decision, they know that they'll have to answer for it. Sometimes they make a bad call. Sometimes they just lose the plot. Police officers are not robots.

I also know that there are bullies in the police. There are thugs who let power go to their heads and who believe themselves to be above the law they serve. However, they are few and far-between and are generally rooted out. There's nothing a copper hates more than a bent copper. Yes, there are bad 'uns. But let's keep a sense of perspective; the Met has 35,000 police officers and the majority are altruistic, genuinely brave men and women who dedicate the major part of their adult lives to trying to make this country safer for you, me and them to live in. You never hear about them of course. That's not newsworthy. You cannot judge the whole because of a few rotten apples. By that thinking, all doctors are potential serial killers, all truck drivers are prostitute murderers and all ex-Glam Rock stars are paedophiles. Cops are individuals - don't let prejudice make you see everyone in a police uniform as a clone. Underneath the clothing, cops are people; as different and varied and unique as individuals from any other walk of life.

All of which brings me to the reason why I wrote this blog post. During the student demo in London last week, there was a lot of talk about 'kettling' and a lot of abuse being directed at the police officers doing it. Despite having been a cop for three decades (I only left in February), I had never, ever heard that term used within the police service. I wasn't even sure what it meant so I looked it up. It turned out that it referred to the long-established practice of using a cordon to keep groups separated or to keep a group contained. The emotive term 'kettling' is a recent addition - probably coined by some tabloid -and seems to have been chosen to create an image of repressed heat and boiling rage. As a tactic, it's indiscriminate in that it treats everyone, troublemakers and lawful people, alike. However, and more importantly, while it may be uncomfortable and sometimes distressing, it doesn't result in permanent harm to either protesters or police. The alternatives - used widely in almost every country outside the UK - are more aggressive dispersal tactics involving baton charges, bull whips, large scale gas deployment, concussion grenades, water cannons, plastic bullets etc. We have the least offensive police service in the world. Every piece of equipment they carry is defensive, rather than offensive (contrary to the international norm). It's impossible - unless you have one police officer for every protester - to maintain control over a crowd without some form of cordon. 'Kettling', as we're now calling it, isn't fun for anyone - including the police - but it does prevent crime and injury. I'm not condoning the use of the tactic on Wednesday. I believe that it was over-used and unnecessarily prolonged. But, to be fair, I wasn't there so it's not for me to make judgements on the rights and wrongs of it. My opinion isn't valid. Kevin Rawlinson, by contrast, was there. Here's what he wrote for The Telegraph:

'To some, 'kettling' is an affront to civil liberties; to others, a protection against violent disorder. To those on Whitehall on Wednesday, it was just cold, boring and frustrating. In the biting winter air, efforts to break through the police lines didn't last long. Initial fury turned into stoic resignation. And that, of course, is the point. Abandoning their attempts to push through to Downing Street, groups of people began to huddle round small bonfires, burning any papers or pieces of wood they could lay their hands on. Others danced – anything to keep warm. Police initially adopted a 'robust' attitude. They brandished batons in a bid to push the crowds back, even where there was no effort to resist. The front row, which included me, was locked between police shields and the protesters behind. Later, though, they relaxed; some even indulging in jokes with protesters: they didn't want to be there any more than us, they said. "Let us out," some cried, while others cheered the few people who managed to break the lines.

Elsa, a 16-year-old high school student from London, said that, if the police had interacted more readily with the protesters, there would have been less anger directed at them. "If you are shut in like that, it is scary, especially when you can see they have officers on horseback," she told The Independent. Another, also named Elsa, who was held for seven hours, said that she and her friends tried for a long time to get out but were unsuccessful. "We got bored and started just milling around," she said. She was not alone as thousands huddled together to wait it out.'

Please note that those paragraphs were written by someone who was actually there, on the ground, as it happened. The tone is strangely at odds with the kinds of comments I was seeing on Twitter. They included such things as 'Children are being held by armed police', 'Students are being held hostage/captive and denied their human rights' and 'Children are being abused'. Strong words indeed and there was a lot of it ... and almost all from people who were reporting it from their sofas and laptops and nowhere near the action. By contrast most of the tweets from the scene were far less inflammatory.

A lot of comments talked about people's rights. There seems to be a view among many younger people that everything is their right. It's something wonderfully spoofed by Armstrong and Miller's two airmen characters. I'm sorry but you don't have the right to do whatever you want. Society doesn't work that way. If you think for a minute that it's your right to 'push through into Downing Street' then you're deluded. In any other country you'd be shot for trying. And the more you try to do stuff like that, the more your rights - freedom of movement etc. - will be taken away until you stop. We've had quite enough of our civil liberties removed by the past two governments (for a great explanation of just how much we've had taken away read Dan Kieran's excellent I fought the law; an expose of the truly shoddy actions by the people who are supposed to represent us) - I'd hate to see any more be whipped away. But for every violent protest, another MP will vote to bring in stronger measures to curtail our freedoms. And protest isn't just physical action; it's also the words people use.

Angry inaccurate reportage by people who aren't even at the scene annoys me and some of it was so out of order and so one-sided that I felt the need to counter with some more balanced views. So I wrote things like 'The police officers don't want to be there either', 'Hang tight, behave and it'll all be fine', 'None of the police officers are armed I assure you' and even 'I'm sorry that you're all having a tough day but I support your stand for the right to education'. What I got back in return was abuse, some of it really very nasty and personal, and a substantial drop in my follower count. I had already declared my solidarity for the students. I had already stated that I wasn't sure that the police tactics were right for the situation. I had 'retweeted' every comment I read that was from worried parents and friends anxious for news of their loved ones. However, simply because I once wore a uniform and was prepared to say that not all coppers are bastards who want to hurt or humiliate our kids, I became a target for ridicule and abuse. I didn't understand, they said. I was part of a government cover up. I was a fascist. I was old and stupid. I was a Nazi. It was the perfect demonstration of that prejudice and stereotyping that I spoke about earlier; mindless angry polemic from uninformed and ignorant children, 99% of whom weren't even at the scene. It is those kinds of people saying the things they say and doing the things they do that leads politicians and senior police officers to employ tactics like kettling. It gives the impression that every demo is going to kick off. And every graffiti-covered van, every smashed window, every thrown fire extinguisher just goes to confirm it.

The vast majority of the students who went to protest on Wednesday were law-abiding and peaceful. The vast majority of cops who were there were professional and just wanted the day to pass as peacefully as possible and get home to a warm meal and loved ones. No one wants hassle and violence unless they're insane, surely? Some protesters misbehaved and will be punished accordingly. Some police officers misbehaved and will be punished too. The law doesn't just work on one side of the fence. Any officer who abuses his/her position of trust deserves all that they get. The uniform comes at a price. The fact remains, however, that no one ever speaks up for the police officers.

Having walked a mile in their boots, I decided that it was about time someone did.


Karen said...

I agree with the vast majority of what you say but have to take issue as follows - "Some protesters misbehaved and will be punished accordingly. Some police officers misbehaved and will be punished too"

The problem is that far too often police officers do not get punished for their misbehaviour, ask the parents of jean charles de menezes.Some see themselves as being above the law and the law supports this attitude by not bringing prosecutions against police officers when crimes have clearly been committed.

If we could have more belief that the police were doing all that they could to root out miscreants rather than closing ranks to protect them, then maybe it would be easier to see beyond the uniform.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Karen

Blimey. Several very difficult things to answer in there. And a lot of generalisation on your part.

You say 'far too often police officers do not get punished for their misbehaviour'. What grounds for that statement can you show me? Within the police service you feel like you're walking on eggshells all the time as there are so many people scrutinising you within and without the organisation. There are random integrity tests for example. I can't think of any other organisation where the staff would put up with the constant monitoring that cops have to. The one case you do highlight, that of the tragic death of Menezes is a fraught one. Anti-terrorism officers are taught to go for a head shot as it's the only definite way of preventing a bomber setting a bomb off. I wasn't there so I can't say what happened for sure. Nor, I would suggest, can you. All I will say is that every officer I've ever known who has shot someone has been through the living hell of investigation, suspension from duty and even private prosecution for doing what they thought was in the public interest at the time. If Menezes had have been carrying a bomb - and the intelligence at the time suggested the possibility - and it had been detonated after the officer had failed to shoot, the officer would then have had to live with the guilt of that forever. I'm not sure what you want me to say here but the police are damned if they do, damned if they don't. As I say, I wasn't there. But I will ask you this: would anyone shoot someone so publicly like that unless they were absolutely convinced that what they were doing was right? I should also point out that this kind of shooting is rare thing in the UK. It happens hundreds of times every month in the USA. 99% of all police firearms incident don't end in death.

You also say that 'Some see themselves as being above the law and the law supports this attitude by not bringing prosecutions against police officers when crimes have clearly been committed.' Are you suggesting that the judicial system lets police officers off if they've done wrong? If so, you're being terribly naive. although cops are just ordinary people, their position of trust means that any misdeed is stamped upon hard. If you got done for drink driving, you'd be disqualified and get a fine. Unless your job depended on driving, you wouldn't lose your job. Cops do. Every time. and that's a loss of pension too that has seen 11% of their wage stashed away every month of their career. all gone. Police officers convicted of crimes usually get harsher sentences. I'd ask you to go away and independently verify that. You'll see that I'm right. To be caught doing something illegal stains the whole judicial system.

And as for 'closing ranks' ... you've watched too many cop shows. I've personally sworn statements against dodgy colleagues and arrested several for drink driving. It happens all the time. There's no cover up. The police complaints authority was moved from being an internal body (which, believe me, scared the crap out of us like Internal Affairs does in the US) to being an external independent agency. I'm not sure what else the police could do to show openness and transparency.

I'd be interested to hear your suggestions.


Stevyn Colgan said...


Oh and it's also worth pointing out that almost every police action is on camera these days and there are indelible audio recordings of all police transmissions. Also, lay visitors can inspect police stations and watch procedure at any time and always turn up unannounced.

It may seem that I'm biased. Of course I am. a bit. But only because no one ever says anything about the good stuff police do. Everyone's always quick to criticise despite the fact they won't get off their arses and do the job themselves. And, sadly, TV cop dramas have done a lot to make people believe things are a lot more dodgy than they are. The same bad journalism and nonsense conspiracy theory that has half the country believing that the Moon landings were fake (which they so patenetly were not) has people seeing secert police societies and a corrupt legal system when, frankly, they don't exist.

Chris Hale said...

Funny, ain't it? In the same way that every football fan thinks s/he knows better than the referee, almost every member of the public is an expert on what the police should or shouldn't be doing, and has total insight into their alleged misdeeds. Imagine the anger if the situation were reversed and police officers were heard to say, 'all women are poor drivers' or some other ludicrously sweeping generalisation.

Once again, you have produced a post which is clear, intelligent, cogent and balanced. Well done.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris -

Thanks for that. I know the system isn't perfect. I know that cops mess up sometimes. That's what being human means. But you're right - to label all cops the same is both insulting, close-minded and prejudiced. I do get fed up with armchair critics. I'd love to see them do the job themselves for even six months and then criticise.

I stress again that no police officer is above the law. But I also maintain that the vast majority do a great job for which they recieve little praise and endless snarking.

Anonymous said...

Good post. And, no, I don’t think you’re a Nazi. Nor do I think that everyone who dons a uniform is one either. That would be stupid. Your post is intelligent, articulate… and you write from the heart as much as the head. Two members of my family were policemen. One was CID in Essex (also acting number two there for a time, until he retired) and the other was a dog-handler, so I fully understand the human element (from different ends of the policing spectrum) in all of this.

My concerns are directed at two areas. The first is the covering up of identification numbers by some individuals. What worries me is the nature of pre-meditation in such an act. Why would any police officer want to do this? There can be only one reason, sadly, and that is to make it difficult for him/her to be recognised. Especially when dressed in riot gear. And why would an officer not want to be recognised?

I accept that police officers are human and have the same faults we all have but therein lies the rub. Call it unrealistic, call it idealistic but I want my police service to be populated by men and women who are *better* than me. I don’t want good ol’ Gary from down the pub to be holding a pint* one minute and a riot shield the next. I want to be able to trust, implicitly, those who hold positions of responsibility and power.

When the horrible and often dangerous job of controlling crowds goes awry, I want the police to not punch protesters, or push innocent people to the ground so that they later die from a heart attack. Or charge striking miners on horseback. Or bully people for taking photos in public places because they don’t understand the law they’re claiming to uphold. I don’t want police men and women who have violent or mean tendencies to be even considered for the job. Cops *should* go through anger management training. They should be intelligent, fit and strong and able to cope with the situations the rest of us can’t.

As I say, it’s idealism. And you’re right, it’s only the few who ever tarnish the rest. The same goes for protesters or anyone else as it does for the police.

By the way, I’m not one to scour the mainstream media for my news. Most of it is rubbish. Just observe just how much air time has been given over to the recent snow! However, with the proliferation of camera phones and handheld video cameras it is now possible to actually see (admittedly, sometimes without context) where the police have overstepped the mark. Indeed, this may be as a result of fear and/or anger (I don’t ever want to face a snarling crowd with only a truncheon to defend myself), but the covering up of identification numbers implies that some are happy to dish it out… or they know they’ll find themselves in situations where they will be doing so.

With the prevalence of media, what’s absolutely necessary is more transparency, not less.

My second worry is that police cordons (or ‘kettling’) are used not only as a reason to contain crowds in a non-aggressive manner, but as a denial of the right to protest. While I’m certainly not supportive of the claim that seems so prevalent today; that I have a right to do exactly as I please (especially storming through to Downing Street), I do firmly believe in the democratic process. Maybe it’s more media sensationalism but the idea of containing a crowd before any crime has been committed doesn’t sit well with me at all.

Sometimes, politicians appear to forget who they serve (or the promises they made). Sometimes, despite the concept of keeping the peace *for all* as primary motivation, the police also forget. As I say, I know how difficult a job it is. I have heard, from family members who were policemen, stories that made my hair curl. Could I do it? No… not for a second. But positions of responsibility require people of great substance to occupy them. Becoming a policeman is more than a job. It is more than donning a uniform. I expect more from those who decide to do so. Is that unfair or unreasonable?

Darren Goldsmith

*I’m not implying that police officers are drunk on duty.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Darren

Good points well made. The covering up of shoulder numbers is a cause for worry. On the one hand, I can kind of understand it. There is a feeling you get as a cop that every bugger is out to get you. And one photo taken out of context can be very damaging. Interesting to note how the public reacted to the idea of ID cards, even if they didn't ever intend to commit any wrong-doing. No one likes the idea of being easily identified. That said, as a cop you are expected to be accountable at all times and covering numbers is totally unacceptable and does send a signal that 'I'm hiding so I don't get caught'.

Secondly I agree that the freedoms we lost under Blair is an outrage. We should all have the right to protest. But we don't any more. It's there in legislation and, much as I hate and loathe the government for it, individual police officers have no more right to break the law than any other.

Lastly, let me say that in an ideal world I'd like police officers to be perfect too. But they're not, never have been and never will be. There's far more accountability now than ever before but it'll never be a faultless system. Training is seen as an add-on rather than a fundamental requirement. Budgets are slashed every year. Experience counts for nothing; everyone over 30 years in service was canned in the cuts this year in London. Equipment is crap and outdated (computer systems are still running Windows 95). It's a shambles. Yet the police officers themselves are still expected to do a job that gets harder every year. And all this with no shift allowances, no right to industrial action, no union, and pretty average pay (and a pay formula the Blair gov welched on).

I still wouldn't want to be looked after by any other police service from anywhere else in the world.

Stevyn Colgan said...
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