Those of us of a certain age will also remember, possibly even fondly, a time immortalised in anecdotes when that same typical “bobby” could enforce the law with nothing more than a word of caution and, if necessary, the threat of a truncheon.
There was a general respect for police officers, and even villains knew that you didn’t even threaten them, much less assault them.
We see that style of policing employed by the otherwise jovial character of Inspector Thomas Brackenreid in the Canadian police series Murdoch Mysteries set in Victorian Toronto, who keeps a pair of leather gloves in his desk drawer for those occasions when he anticipates needing to get a little “persuasive” in interviewing problematic prisoners.
Fast forward from those days of truncheons only and we now see our police officers loaded down with all the protective gear they are required to carry and to wear in an age when no one cares any more whether, or how, they assault an officer of the law, and tragically highlighted by Sergeant Matt Ratana being shot dead by a suspect under arrest at a police custody suite in Croydon just last Friday.
We see it every day on the news as the police try to enforce the law and are kicked and punched and often end up in hospital as a result of trying to do the job we ask them to do in our name in maintaining law and order on our streets.
And it’s not just in this country. There was that recent incident of a police officer in Australia having her head repeatedly smashed against a concrete floor by a woman she challenged for not wearing a face mask during the pandemic. And it was in Australia again that we saw young men protesting about the renewed lockdown in Melbourne violently assaulting police officers.
If we expect the police to put themselves in harm’s way like that armed only with truncheons, pepper sprays and possibly Tasers, then as a society we need to give them the protection of the same law we ask them to fully enforce.
For anyone convicted of assaulting a police officer, this should result in an automatic custodial sentence, and the courts using the maximum sentencing laws at their disposal, otherwise what are we doing as a society expecting the police to protect us but without offering them the protection they need?
I’m not advocating this style of policing, but there are countries where officers are armed and have no qualms about using their weapons if they are being physically threatened. In Spain, demonstrators are given a verbal warning once and if they take no notice then the police will retaliate with whatever force is required.
In Hong Kong, we have seen the police holding up signs warning demonstrators that tear gas would be fired if they didn’t disperse and it was, but at least no one could say they weren’t warned.
But of course we don’t do that sort of thing – it wouldn’t be British – and the police should be commended for employing a lower profile in the way they enforce the law. However, if certain elements in our society are going to take advantage of that to the point of assaulting police officers and causing them actual bodily harm and even, tragically, to taking officers’ lives, something needs to be done.
At the moment the scales are weighted against the police because they know everyone is carrying a smartphone and if they retaliate in proportion to the violence with which they are being threatened, their actions will be all over the media and they will be the ones held accountable by the law – which is an outrageous situation when they are only doing their job, though hopefully doing it according to the law.
At the moment our police are trying to do their jobs in a violent 21st century society but using 20th century methods with, if anything, less protection in law now than they would have had back then.
At least there used to be a degree of respect for the police and the job they were doing, but now that seems to have gone out of the window along with respect for a lot of other things we used to hold dear.
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.
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