Thomas Sutcliffe: The problem with old-fashioned policing

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The Independent Online

"Nick him" said The Sun front-page headline yesterday, over a picture of the young man who had decided to attend a demonstration outside the Danish embassy in London dressed as a suicide bomber. In just two words that blunt imperative made a much larger argument.

Don't give us your Hendon College niceties about the complexities of fast-moving situations, it said. And don't waste time working your way through the clauses of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, wondering whether he could be charged as being part of a Trespassory Assembly or under Powers to Stop and Search in Anticipation of Violence. Just get a couple of beefy bobbies in there and nick him. You can sort it all out down at the station later - and if the restraining has to get a bit vigorous, if you know what I mean, well, serve him right.

What The Sun wanted, in other words, was some Good Old-Fashioned Policing, a convulsive reflex that most of us have experienced from time to time - and which convulses particularly violently when we fear that we may be singled out as the target of a crime. To paraphrase the old saying, a liberal is just a conservative who hasn't been threatened with butchery yet. And though The Sun is a natural outlet for this sentiment, it also finds expression in less obvious forms. Take the BBC's unusual new police drama Life On Mars, for instance - in which John Simm plays a modern police detective who finds himself transported back to a Seventies police station after being hit by a car.

Life on Mars is proving pretty popular with the viewers - some of which can be put down to a soundtrack aimed like a sniper's bullet at the heart of anyone who was a teenager in the Seventies. But it also owes a lot to the ambiguous culture clash of Policing Ancient and Modern. Simm's character gets very funny looks when he suggests running up a psychological profile of a serial killer or employing the WPCs to do anything except fetch tea and absorb sexual innuendo. And though these laughs are essentially at the expense of the past, there's something at the core of Life on Mars which exploits our furtive longing for a rougher kind of justice.

Modern policing is unimpeachable but endlessly frustrating. Old-fashioned policing is dirty but efficient. So, while Simm's character eventually persuades his colleagues that it's unacceptable to take backhanders from a local crime boss in exchange for a quiet life ("he keeps his streets spotlessly clean, no burglaries, no sex crimes"), he doesn't demur when they bundle a witness into a meat freezer the better to extort the information that will lead to a conviction.

That's fine in fiction. The problem in life is that cutting corners becomes so commonplace that you lose track of the right angles altogether. If you want to feel nostalgic for Seventies policing remember that you get sharp practice over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes as part of the package. And remember too that Good Old-Fashioned Policing - blunt and impatient with compromise - can go wrong with startling speed.

I would have loved to see the young demonstrator, Omar Khayam, pinned to the ground on Saturday, even if I wonder what he could possibly have been charged with (carrying an offensive accessory? Wearing webbing in a built-up area?) But I'm glad that policemen are now trained to keep public order rather than deliver audience satisfaction.

We have television for that.

A sad numbers game

Sadly, it didn't take long to get from 100 to 101. Last Thursday, Trooper Carl Smith, right, was killed south of Basra as a result of a road accident, although his death did not receive anything like as much coverage as that of Corporal Gordon Pritchard, who had died two days before. This wasn't, I take it, because Tpr Smith's life mattered less than that of Cpl Pritchard, or even because his death wasn't directly combat-related - as far as that's concerned he is representative of nearly one in three British soldiers who have died in Iraq. It was because he didn't make a nice round number. And his relegation to the Other News columns reinforced a queasy sense that this kind of numerology really shouldn't be applied to the deaths of human beings. It's fine for record companies boasting about sales, or for children watching a mileometer on a boring journey - but if the media needs a hook on which to hang a discussion of the human cost of the war what's wrong with that old journalistic standby, the anniversary?

One of the things I like about the internet is the way it rewards bare-faced chutzpah. This unpredictable feature of the system has already been exploited by the man who bottled Loch Ness water and sold it on eBay and by the student who made a million dollars by selling pixillated ad space on a catchily-titled web page. Both had first-mover advantage - the curiosity value of their ideas being a big part of the attraction. I suspect the same is true of Canadian Kyle MacDonald who, on 12 July last year, posted a picture of a red paper-clip on his site (oneredpaperclip.blogspot.com) and invited browsers to swap it for something better. His aim is to work his way up to a house and after eight trades, he has bartered his way to a 1995 Ford box van. Offers of a house in Newfoundland and an apartment in Tel Aviv are on the table - proving that you can get something for nothing, as long as you ask first.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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