Has confidence in the police fallen? Some will surely argue that it has. Crime rates are up, detection rates are down, and with so much recent political and economic uncertainty, our increasingly polarised and unequal society feels like it is moving steadily towards boiling point. Some claim that the police are now ‘woke’ and cite clips of officers dancing at Pride events as examples of an organisation that cares more about identity politics than catching criminals.
Are our police ‘woke’?
The issue has certainly attracted the attention of the self-styled ‘party of law and order’ Conservatives, with controversial home secretary Suella Braverman announcing a resetting of the police service with a focus on catching criminals as opposed to “symbolic gestures”.
Whether or not the police are ‘woke’ depends on one’s world view and the definition of the word that each of us adopt. Often it’s used as a slur or an accusation, implying weakness or submissiveness. But many of those who have reclaimed the word would describe it along the lines of, ‘Awakened to the needs of others. To be well informed, thoughtful, compassionate, humble and kind. Eager to make the world a better place for all people’.
In a modern society, officers need to be many things as they deal with a wide variety of incidents. If the latter definition is your preferred take on the word, then perhaps officers striving to achieve those ends – well informed, compassionate, humble – might not be such a bad thing. It can also be argued that in order to maintain authority (an important part of an officer’s role), a certain degree of calm and on occasions detached assertiveness is required.
It is interesting to reflect that events in policing elicit far more public engagement and scrutiny than the other emergency services. A video clip of an arrest on social media can prompt hundreds of evaluations of the officers’ actions ranging from allegations of racism and the excessive use of force to the officers being timid and ineffectual, such is the range of public opinion. Just consider police actions in respect of ‘Just Stop Oil’ protesters blocking roads and the diverse public views on how they should be tackled.
Police under the spotlight
Officers are very aware that they are under the spotlight. A serving sergeant in one force privately reflected anecdotally that officers are now much less likely to stop and search members of ethnic minorities than they were previously, for fear of being accused of being racist. This at a time when knife crime is much in the public’s awareness.
He cited a recent incident where he and his colleagues were by the side of the road with a black, male motorist. Other motorists were calling out “leave him alone” clearly of the view that yet again the police had singled him out for harassment based upon his ethnicity. If only they had known that the officers had stopped to provide assistance as the man’s car had broken down. This wasn’t a police issue, and it was not as if they were short of other incidents to attend, but they stopped and helped him because that is what they chose to do.
It certainly appears that following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin, the public are more likely to question, intervene and film as officers speak with, stop and search or use force on the streets of Britain. For example, on 4 November this happened in London when police officers were recovering machetes from some teenagers. The encounter saw members of the public shouting abuse and accusing the officers of ‘harassment’.
Progress in society and in the police
Turn the clock back 50 years and there is no doubt that, as with the rest of society, police officers’ attitudes towards minority groups were a far cry from those of today. Diversity training, the requirement to raise issues of colleagues’ misconduct, and the effect of holding disciplinary hearings in public, are just some of the reasons that attitudes have changed.
Opinions held in society – from which officers are drawn – have also progressed over time. There are always exceptions though, and in the case of the Metropolitan Police this has been in evidence recently. The case of officers sharing inappropriate messages on WhatsApp resulting in the dismissal of one and proven findings against three others. This incident has been linked to the early departure of former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick.
Still, could those attending the first official Pride event in London in 1972 ever have envisaged that officers would later engage in dancing whilst in attendance at a later event? In their most recent survey, the LGBTQ+ organisation Stonewall named four police forces in the top 100 employers of 2022. Many in society would welcome this development but have the police taken it too far in positively reflecting these changes in society?
The question is, has the drive for a ‘representative workforce’ – a policy that few would argue against – and the engagement with ‘hard to reach groups’ resulted in the pendulum swinging past the point of equilibrium? Many officers will want to engage in this way for their own reasons of course, as a reflection of the values they personally hold. Others will have been encouraged to engage positively in this way to build rapport. But has this gone too far?
A change in direction?
One notable force appears to have implemented a change of direction. Greater Manchester Police had been placed in special measures, which resulted in the appointment of the current Chief Constable Stephen Watson, whom many regard as an ‘old school’ officer. In June last year, Watson vowed he “absolutely would not” take the knee when in police uniform. He expressed concern that such acts like wearing rainbow laces – a campaign established by Stonewall – could undermine the public’s perception that officers were impartial.
It will be interesting to see whether his ‘back to basics’ approach to policing – a style favoured by many, and one that has already turned the force around – will impact on the work done to build community rapport. Watson’s views on impartiality will surely be held up as an example in Westminster of the direction that policing is to take in the remaining time that the Conservative government has before the next general election.
Will this pose a risk that the work done to improve relationships, certainly with the LGBTQ+ community for example, could take a step backwards? If that is the direction that the police service in England and Wales is required to take, then it should do so well aware of these risks. And forces would be wise to have conversations with partners if the hard-earned confidence is not squandered.
Without fear or favour
When officers are sworn into office, they attest that they will act “without fear or favour”. Like many in the service of the public, they find themselves damned if they do and damned if they don’t. By taking the knee at an event they both find favour with some and alienate others. In this respect, the greatest issue that the police need to address is therefore the requirement not only to be impartial but to be seen to be impartial.
As with all things, there is a middle ground though. Some may have seen the BBC News footage at the time of the Queen’s death showing an officer engaging with the crowd on The Mall in London. He was allowing members of the public to wear his helmet and take photos. The officer has been widely praised for his actions in what appears to be a very natural and seemingly genuine connection.
Where ‘policing by consent’ is the maxim, it is hard to see how any exception could be taken to such a well measured form of engagement. But then maybe the officer showed us that that is the key; to engage but not to participate, a subtle but perhaps important distinction.