Jayne Dowle: Blue line stretched thin by poverty and despair

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AS a police recruitment video, it failed spectacularly. The BBC2 documentary Police Under Pressure, filmed in Sheffield, showed a demoralised force hamstrung by bureaucracy and crippled by budget cuts. If I’d been watching it and considering becoming a constable, I would have come to the conclusion that policing has become pointless.

However, if this depressing programme proved one thing, it’s that the police are doing a job we have no right to expect them to do. Their role is two parts social worker, one part nanny, and one part bureaucrat.

What do you think of when you think of a police officer? Someone who seeks out criminals and stops them from perpetuating dangerous and threatening behaviour? Someone who uses their intelligence to suss out a mystery and bring wrongdoers to justice? Someone who is brave, determined, compassionate and fair? A protector of the vulnerable and a seeker of truth?

Wake up and smell the frustration. Most of us are lucky. We don’t come face to face with the police on a daily basis. We have formed our views largely by watching television drama, not documentaries. Some of us are even old enough to remember Z Cars and The Sweeney.

I’d love to know what Jack Regan would make of the daily grind of PC Christine Fisher, whose main job it was to tell a group of youths to move on. You could tell from the weary look on her face that it was a job she did as routinely as someone who spends eight hours a day standing in a factory riveting widgets. “Go and hang around somewhere else,” she said.

That’s really going to scare them. What else could she do though? Tied up in knots by political correctness and no doubt told she must build bridges with the community, she’s stuck. She even asked one lad how his court appearance went. She’s concerned, I thought. It proves she knows these streets well and understands these kids. Then it turned out he was in court for spitting in her face.

Back at the ranch, or rather the police station in Ecclesfield, a senior officer was pleading with his boss to be allowed more resources to implement what’s known as a Section 30. Basically, this was giving him enough boots on the ground to do the job he was paid to do. You could hear the cogs whirring as his boss weighed up the pros and cons, and the cost in overtime.

Eventually he gave in. The senior officer got the people he needed to crack down on anti-social behaviour in Page Hall, an area which has seen a massive influx of Roma families in recent months. There’s trouble with the long-established white and Asian families who have lived there for generations. Locals are incensed that Roma youths are wandering the streets at all hours, scratching cars and generally being a nuisance. The English Defence League turned up and things inevitably threatened to turn nasty. It didn’t take the presence of a camera crew to prove that it adds up to the kind of situation which is brewing up trouble. It didn’t do north-east Sheffield any favours either, but it’s a story which is being played out in towns and cities across the land.

For a documentary about crime-fighters, it noticeably lacked one thing. Fighting crime. Even the EDL march passed off without much incident. What we witnessed wasn’t breaking the law as such, but social deprivation on a huge scale. You could almost smell the poverty. Row after row of rundown houses. Little children hanging out near the shops in the dark. Many of those shops boarded up or shuttered in despair. Young people with nothing to do and no hope. Even the youth club was closed, not that this lot looked as if a game of table tennis and a can of pop would mollify them.

When the voice-over started reciting the level and scale of cuts in police funding and the jobs which must be lost over the next few years, it made it worse. Looking at these streets, not even an economic miracle could save them or give the people who live in them much hope. Yet the police are expected to somehow deal with the problems such conditions throw up. And they will be expected to deal with them with even fewer resources than they have already. Meanwhile, somewhere else in the city, there will be a house burgled or a car stolen or a shed broken into and, when the frightened and angry and upset citizen rings the police, no-one will turn up for hours. Or maybe days. And when they do, they might have nothing much more to offer than a crime number and a helpline to ring.

As a police recruitment video then, it definitely failed. As a documentary showing what is really happening inside our police force, it barely scratched the surface. As a telling indication of all that is going awry with our society and how unprepared we are to deal with it, it was a startling insight.