Brian Cathcart: The problem with British coppers is that they're not like the rest of us

The uniform can be practical, but it can also be a barrier

Share

Like a weary patient whose condition the doctors are having trouble diagnosing, the Metropolitan Police Service is bracing itself this weekend to begin another round of unpleasant poking, prodding and general intrusion.

This time it is an investigation, to be chaired by a QC, designed to find out why it took six years, two investigations and three trials to convict the killers of Damilola Taylor.

It will be the second time outsiders have scrutinised the handling of that case. The first was chaired by John Sentamu, now the Archbishop of York, and concluded that the initial investigation was broadly well-run but that the key witness - a girl identified as "Bromley" - was not handled well.

Behind the scenes, both Damilola investigations were also subjected to routine internal police reviews - formidable procedures involving teams of specialist officers running elaborate checks to make sure everything has been done by the book.

And that's just one murder case. Besides the big set-pieces and its own internal reviews, the Met is keeping the Independent Police Complaints Commission pretty busy: the IPCC is currently investigating no fewer than 76 complaints against it.

Sometimes, in fact, it must seem to the Met that it is the target of almost as many investigations as it itself is conducting, and you could probably say something similar about other forces around the country. It is hardly ideal, and the Met Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, had problems of this kind in mind when he called recently for more public debate about what sort of policing the public wants.

For me, one of the underlying causes is that the police are too different and too distant from the rest of society, and that is something that could be fixed.

They have a unique career structure. It's not just that they tend to join young, stay for 30 years and retire on full pension often before the age of 50, which is strange enough, but it's also that this is pretty well the only career pattern in the police. Every officer begins in uniform, with a spell on the beat, and works his or her way up.

More than that, this one body of people does a great variety of jobs; indeed almost every job that doesn't require some rarified qualification (pathologist, accountant) or that isn't entirely backroom (IT manager, librarian, nurse). From detective to front-of-house reception to interviewer to victim liaison officer, when it comes to policing in its widest sense, they are usually all coppers from the same mould.

It is also hierarchical and militaristic. I remember the surprise of discovering, when following the Stephen Lawrence case, that the incident room was not a free-for-all of information and ideas like, say, a newspaper newsroom. Junior (but not necessarily younger) officers did their shifts and pursued their allocated "actions" or tasks with greater or lesser efficiency, while only senior officers had an overview; only they were in a position to do any thinking.

I am told things have improved, but I would be surprised if modern incident rooms normally accommodate the sort of open dialogue that is so essential to the writers of television detective dramas.

As for militaristic, I do not understand why officers of any rank ever need to wear uniform unless they have a special need to communicate to the public who they are. In some circumstances, the uniform is practical and enhances respect; in others it can be a barrier.

The world of the police in general is more unlike the world of other workers than it needs to be, and the effect is to set the police apart, both in our minds and in their own. That makes it harder for us to understand and trust them, and it also tends to make them more resentful of criticism, so the distance grows wider.

We would benefit from a more varied and shaded police service, in which people didn't necessarily join young, didn't lock themselves in for 30 years, and were far less likely to drop out at 50, when they may be at the peak of their abilities.

And instead of drawing so heavily on one pool of people recruited in a standard fashion, and then spreading them around such a variety of jobs, the service could hire and train people specifically for those jobs.

If you advertised for victim liaison officers who never had to wear uniform but enjoyed police rates of pay, you would find good people. If you advertised for trainee detectives on similar terms, you might well be swamped. And if you advertised for deputy chief constables, whose jobs are often dominated by management and strategy, you might find excellent people from other parts of the service industry.

And people could move in and out of police work much more freely, bringing ideas and new mindsets in, and taking out with them a better understanding.

Many in the police service would welcome such change, and many, sadly, would oppose it, but that's not really the point. It is our police service. We are not looking for "coppers' coppers", but for GPs' coppers, van drivers' coppers and schoolkids' coppers. The constant chain of reviews, inquiries and complaints is telling us that things are not right, so let's make them better.

Brian Cathcart is assistant editor of the New Statesman

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion this leading designer and sup...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a friendly, confident i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Primary Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: At Tradewind Recruitment we are currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: Physics Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment is currently working ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would tackle our looming dementia crisis

Susan Greenfield
 

Letters: NHS data-sharing is good for patients

Independent Voices
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee