Matthew Norman: The police and their protection racket

Any accountability for a fatal mistake and these selfless public servants will withdraw their labour
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The Independent Online

With Valentine's Day almost on us, the leading political chat-up artist of the age steps up the campaign of seduction. Almost every day brings a fresh sign of love from David Cameron for those of us who have never before toyed with supporting the Tories. One minute it's a breathy declaration of his intent to eradicate poverty, the next a whispered promise to oppose identity cards, then the promotion of climate change to the top of his agenda, and so it goes on.

The battle-hardened cynic, recalling that this erstwhile public relations guy wrote the recent manifesto he's now so frantically turning on its head, will wonder how sincere he is. Randy young men will say anything to get a girl into bed, after all, and there is a rather mechanical quality to his wooing. It's as if he sent off for a checklist detailing the disaffected Labour voter's every erogenous zone, and is hurriedly ticking them off.

The jury remains out on this silver-tongued schmoozer, then, as we await a decision from the Crown Prosecution Service as to whether the jury will ever be in to hear the case against those who killed Jean Charles de Menezes. Before we consider this matter, and the gushing billet-doux to wobbly Labour voters that was Monday's attack on the police by Mr Cameron, I must issue a warning: if you are a copper, on no account read on, since the ensuing is liable to persuade you to join the bewildering percentage of your colleagues currently off work, on full pay, due to stress. The exact proportion of officers currently unavailable for duty is unknown (it is generally estimated at up to 30 per cent), but it takes little these days for Plod to take to his or her bed with a fit of the vapours.

Once it was different. George Dixon of Dock Green managed to report for work for many years despite having been shot dead in the pilot episode. These days, if a mounted policeman so much as hears his horse fart, it's seven years at home on the sick. Of course, if an officer hears a pissed student suggest the horse is homosexual, he'll nick the drunk under thought crimes legislation, but that's another matter.

Or is it? One of the gravest problems with our police, as Mr Cameron pointed out in his speech, alongside the scandalous levels of absenteeism and the appalling crime clear-up rates, is their utter lack of accountability. At its most trivial and comic, this means that the Thames Valley officer, naturally unnamed, who summoned patrol cars and six colleagues to arrest a Balliol student for asking if he knew his horse was gay won't be punished for his idiocy.

Nor were those of his colleagues who recently arrested a teacher for eating an apple while driving to work; who had an unemployed actor charged for theft for taking a copper's cheese sandwich from its Tupperware box during an identity parade; and who deployed many cars and men to arrest a vegan peace protester for reciting, by the Cenotaph, the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq.

Then again, how could you rebuke these geniuses for wasting what we're always told are desperately overstretched resources when no officer has been convicted for any of the 1,000-plus deaths in police custody in the past four decades. Here you have to feel not only for the law of the land, degraded and dishonoured as this fact leaves it, but also for the discredited law of averages. Over a thousand deaths, and not a guilty person. That's a hell of a statistic.

However clear cut a case may appear, it makes no difference. Seven years ago, an ailing grandfather called Harry Stanley was shot dead in Hackney, east London, while walking home from the pub, carrying a chair leg in a carrier bag which hawk-eyed officers mistook for a gun. Last October, the Crown Prosecution Service decided, to the disgust of Mr Stanley's widow and the surprise of no one who has studied the form book, that there was "insufficient evidence" to charge those concerned with manslaughter by gross negligence, despite the second inquest concluding that he had been unlawfully killed.The decision was quashed by the High Court.

Yesterday, the CPS received the long-awaited report on Mr de Menezes's shooting from the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and there is no reason to believe it will come to a different decision. The argument against prosecution used by the Police Federation and others is the same one used in Mr Stanley's case: any prosecution would be against the public interest since other armed police would feel so betrayed that they will refuse to do their jobs.

Any accountability for a fatal mistake, in other words, and these selfless public servants will withdraw their labour. Is it any wonder that the Police Federation, the closed shop every officer automatically joins on entering the force, is celebrated as the sole surviving torch bearer for mid-1970s union militancy?

No one sane would suggest that carrying an automatic rifle in pursuit of a suspected suicide bomber can have been a pleasant job. But if and when the CPS, bullied by the Federation and senior officers, decides there is insufficient evidence to prosecute, the message emitted will be that this country places a higher value on protecting its police from the law they nominally uphold than on providing even a façade of justice for a dead Brazilian and his grieving family.

Protecting the police is what successive governments have slavishly done since Margaret Thatcher politicised them during the miners' strike 20 years ago. Whether they should be better paid than teachers and nurses is debatable. What can hardly be disputed is the danger of allowing them to remain answerable to nobody but themselves, and completely unsackable.

The marked dislocation between public and police is only increased by the ritual platitudes that dribble from the lips of craven politicians. "The police are doing a magnificent job under very trying circumstances" is the one routinely trotted out in the wake of a fiasco, but are they?

Since there is no real independent body reviewing their work, one tends to rely on anecdote-fuelled suspicion... in this case that the British police are overindulged by government for reasons of pure political expediency; that fuelled by the resulting sense of invulnerability, they are increasingly arrogant and hostile towards the public; that they are overpaid (which other public service gets lavish overtime these days?), prone to idleness, and more susceptible to stress than the very queeniest of stage actors; and that it will take a politician of exceptional courage to break their trade union and sort them out.

Whether David Cameron is that politician, we may or may not get to find out. If he proves his sincerity by spelling out in hard detail exactly how he plans to reform the police, it will become at least a little more likely that we will.