The Sunday Post: An Ordinary Copper

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by Petunia Winegum on April 26, 2015

The Bobby on the Beat – the evocative vision of British policing politicians are prone to promoting in speeches whilst simultaneously scything away at the funding that enable this reassuring figure to patrol the highways and byways of Albion. Since the Con-Dem Government came to power five years ago, the police forces of Britain have suffered as much as any public service; the NHS may have a monopoly on collective sentimentality in the minds of the people, but take a look at the figures for Old Bill.

In short, 16,000 police officers and 18,000 staff axed since 2010; 12% fewer officers since 2010; almost a fifth of forces shed of more than 10% of officers between 2010 and 2012; Warwickshire, Cleveland and Derbyshire have each lost 12%. If the anticipated constitutional chaos following May 7 results in a return of the same administration that has overseen the cuts of the last half-decade, projected estimates suggest a further 34,000 officers will go, leaving the overall body count of the Coalition at 68,000. However pitiful any signs of improvement seem to be in the NHS, governments continue to throw money at it, yet for such an equally essential service, the police force has not received the same special treatment; instead, it has been stripped to the bone at an alarming rate.

Of course, bureaucracy is as prevalent across the police stations of the nation as it is across the nation’s hospitals, the flaccid layers of middle-management meddling that get in the way of the job that needs doing; but when cuts are applied, these levels tend to escape unscathed; instead, it’s the bits of the service that the service is supposed to be there for that suffer. And, ultimately, it is the public that suffers more than anyone else. Forget the headline crimes – the bank jobs, the terrorist incidents, the dramatic murders; these relatively rare occurrences are not what most of us regard as especially relevant to the day-to-day running of our communities. The commonplace crimes that don’t make for a particularly exciting episode of ‘CSI’ are what the police call ‘signal crimes’ – the burglary, the lost pet, the graffiti, the loud music at 3.00am; and dealing with this kind of crime is most under threat when resources are slashed.

Despite Hillsborough, despite Rotherham, despite the dubious political motivations of Yewtree, and despite a host of other high-profile examples of incompetence in recent years, public confidence in the police remains unexpectedly high. Last year, an Ipsos MORI poll found that, of those asked, 65% said they trusted the police, the most positive response to that question in over thirty years. Such figures should be cause for celebration when it comes to a public service that has endured so much bad publicity over the past couple of decades – largely, it has to be said, as a result of its own ineptitude; but the one way in which the police could capitalise on this would be to not merely invest in high visibility on the street, but to infuse that high visibility with a feeling of being at one with the people the police are supposed to serve.

There have always been areas of the country, or at least certain neighbourhoods of towns and cities, where the police have traditionally been viewed as the enemy, even during the ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ era of post-war policing, when a heated situation was allegedly diffused with a jocular clip round the earhole; this will probably remain the case where some urban enclaves are concerned, though that’s not to say the police cannot at least put those at ease who feel more threatened when the force is mistrusted by a majority by ensuring they have a notable presence pounding the pavements.

PC Andy Hocking was perhaps the archetypal officer to play this role – an old-school community copper patrolling the streets of Falmouth in Cornwall for the best part of 20 years. When he suddenly died at the criminally young age of 52, those same streets were lined with a staggering 6,000 people to pay their respects – the kind of numbers one would expect to attend the drive-by of a funeral cortege for a celebrity or prominent politician. But PC Hocking evidently made a difference to those he served by doing what many of us expect the police to do – simply being there.

If ever affability were detectable on the countenance, the photographs of PC Hocking paint a portrait of the Bobby we’d all welcome to our neighbourhood; and PC Hocking was as familiar a face within his patch as any local shopkeeper or publican, a vital element of that community. Yes, one could argue Falmouth is hardly the crime capital of the country – 6,000 crimes were recorded there in January 2015 compared to nearly 20,000 in London’s Tower Hamlets over the same period; but it is perceived police opinion that the kind of policing PC Hocking embodied is the kind that diminishes the prospect of persistent antisocial behaviour, the cause of far more misery to the public than the more sensationalistic crimes that end up being the lead story on the news bulletins. This could, and should, be applied across the board, regardless of whether the beat is urban or rural.

Unless we emanate from a family and environment where being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure is the sole career prospect, we are taught as children to trust the police and to see them as friendly, approachable adults with whom we will be safe. In the current climate, where every adult male is viewed with suspicion and avoided, this role is more precious than ever. Yet, one’s faith in the police can often be shaped by one bad experience with one bad copper; he or she is somehow held up as representative of the entire force. It’s an instinctive gut reaction and I should imagine we’ve all done it; I certainly have. All the trust we were encouraged to have in the police as children can be dispelled by a rotten apple with attitude; but if the local Bobby was someone we passed on a daily basis when out and about, someone we actually knew by name, isolated incidents would probably be seen as precisely that rather than as an example of the force as a whole.

If you live in a town or city – and, chances are, you do – perhaps the litmus test as to the state of post-cuts policing is to count how many coppers you see on your travels through your neighbourhood. I would imagine the ‘Starsky & Hutch’ siren and speeding patrol car will figure at least once, but what of the PC pounding the beat? Probably not as visible as his equivalent on wheels, I’d guess. I’m out of doors most days, walking up busy thoroughfares thronging with pedestrians, yet will maybe only see a copper on foot no more than once or twice in a whole week. I’ve no idea if I’m seeing the same one every time either. Would you recognise your community policeman or woman by sight? Do you know their name? I’d recognise the staff who serve me in supermarkets and would even stop and say hello to some shopkeepers; but the policeman or woman one encounters seem to have an aura of anonymity about them that makes them less approachable. Even if they just said ‘Good morning’ when they walked past would make them feel part of the local wallpaper.

The successful career of PC Andy Hocking, getting on with job in a modest, unassuming and yet utterly effective manner, shows that it can be done; and the moving reaction to his untimely death from those he walked amongst shows the public respond to the police when they get it right. This, surely, is the blueprint, and one that needs investing it, not pruning.

© Petunia Winegum

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