Damien Green, the police minister, has called on officers to be polite when dealing with the public.
It will be an uphill task. Put people in uniform and invest them with even a modest authority over the rest of us, and human nature soon asserts itself. Consider what the US love affair with ‘Homeland Security’ has done to the officials who man their immigration service with a now almost unbridled arrogance.
Some years ago I wrote a book about the police, and the Metropolitan Police very kindly allowed me total access for six months to a London division. I got to know and like the cops with whom I rubbed shoulders, but I was well aware that they were well aware who I was and what I was doing. It was, therefore, unlikely that anyone would be highhanded with the public when I was around.
Occasionally however, I would be among officers who either did not know me or were unaware of what I was doing, and the mask would slip. I saw a PC swearing at a member of the public in aggressive and unpleasant terms, and put the incident into the book. After publication, a very senior officer asked to see me and went through points with which he took issue, including this anecdote.
The man might have been having a rough patch at home; a relation might have died; he could have witnessed a distressing scene earlier in his shift, he argued. To which I replied that we all suffer from personal traumas, but we would not tolerate extreme rudeness on that account from (say) a receptionist at a hotel or a shop assistant. If such a person swore at us, we would quickly be complaining to his/her boss. With the police most simply bite their lips and move away. And officers know it.
The police reputation (and especially that of the Met) has been much tarnished in recent times by revelations, such as the alleged attempt to discredit Stephen Lawrence’s family. These sins have their roots in the belief (among certain officers) that they are fireproof. This doesn’t start with the major wrong-doings now hitting the headlines, but with the culture into which young officers are plunged when they join.
It may sound fanciful to suggest that there is a direct link between rudeness (the police are extremely class conscious, tending, though not always getting it right, to behave best when dealing with educated people) and serious malpractice. But cops stick together – they spend hours in each other’s company reinforcing their prejudices – so bad practice has time and fertile ground in which to flourish.
The police hold society together; think of the anarchy that would rapidly reign if there were no one to answer our pleas for help and to keep us all on the straight and narrow. But it can be (and often is) done with a smile, not a snarl. Dixon of Dock Green may be long gone, but the occasional ‘Evening all’ would be welcome.
Robert Chesshyre books include ‘The Force: Inside the Police’, and, most recently, ‘When the Iron Lady Ruled Britain'