PR for the Police – The London Economic

By Toby James 

Public Perception of the police

We need the police. They keep us safe, keep crime off our streets and bring criminals to justice. Their job is somewhat thankless, however, and they are under fire more often than not. At the time of writing, the current scandal is the inquest over the 1985 shooting of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, which found that a series of police failures contributed to Groce’s injury.

Police officers searching for her son had entered her home and an inspector had shot her in the shoulder, leaving her paralysed from the waist down until her death in 2011.

The inspector in question is Douglas Lovelock, who told the inquest that he “shouldn’t have gone on that raid” due to nerves. If he himself can tell in hindsight that going on the raid was a mistake, the real question is over how the police allowed someone unfit to be carrying out such a delicate job to take part in the raid.

This is not to say that the police didn’t pay a price for this mistake. The shooting triggered the 1985 Brixton riots, in which shops were looted, police were attacked and cars were ignited with petrol bombs. Over 200 people were arrested in these riots, and with over 50 injuries and a fatality.

Bear in mind it has been found that the shooting of Groce, and therefore this riot, was partially triggered by police failures.

More recently, riots in 2011 were triggered by, or blamed on, the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by a police marksman, who was part of a team intercepting Duggan’s vehicle, believing him to be armed.

The riots that were ignited by this shooting quickly spread throughout London and the rest of the country. Of course, many of these rioters no longer cited the shooting of Mark Duggan as a motivation for their rioting, and instead cited local police disagreements, and accusations of police racism.

This is a disease that seems to have plagued the police for decades. It is perceived by many that random police searches aren’t as random as they claim to be, and that the police are at odds with the black community.  These accusations are not eased by recent findings that even within the force, black officers have been discriminated against.

Carol Howard claimed that she was discriminated against on the grounds of her race and gender by her superiors. A tribunal sided with her, and the Metropolitan Police can now expect a compensation claim from the 35 year-old firearms officer.

It is not just brutality and racism accusations that affect public opinion of the police, however. Last year, it emerged that the Metropolitan Police had taken on the identities of dead children in the past few decades, yet they have refused to state which families would have been affected by this questionable practice. The scale of its use is unknown, with the police admitting to having used it between 1981 and 1994, but there are indications that it may have been used as early as 1976 and as late as 2003.

The so-called ‘Plebgate’ affair is another example of questionable police practices, with police officers standing guard outside Downing Street claiming the then chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, had insulted them at the gate, upon their refusal to let him take a bike through.

Unsurprisingly, it is not as clear-cut as this, however, with Andrew Mitchell accusing the press of libel for the way the incident was reported, and members of the police labelling him with the same accusations.

Mitchell had denied calling the officers plebs, and leaked CCTV footage cast doubt on the police’s claims about the length and severity of the incident, yet Mitchell had apologised for his conduct and subsequently resigned. These are not necessarily the actions of an entirely innocent man, so the degree to which the police’s claims were false may never be known.

When the police are so frequently slandered and plastered with accusations it is easy to forget that they really do play a vital part in our society. Of course you cannot report every success the police experience, yet it a necessity that the press sheds light on the police’s failings. We can all hope that one day the police are no longer in the news for their mistakes, but are instead praised and recognised as the crucial part of society that they are.

This is not a task that should be left to the media. It is not down to them to cherry pick incidents to report. It is down to the police to improve their own public image. They need to be seen as more inclusive. They need to take visible action against racism, not only in the force, but also in general, so as to dispel any rumours accusing them of discrimination. They need to be seen as more approachable, the cold façade that is adorned by most police officers must be lifted and people should feel safe, not scared, when they are in the vicinity of the force.

Most importantly, they need to prevent crime. That is what they are there for, and if they spend their resources on lawyers for tribunals and inquests into their own actions, there will be a knock on effect on their capacity to bring criminals to justice.

It is down to the police to change public opinion. If they can minimise failings, and deal with those that arise swiftly and effectively there will be nothing for sensationalist media looking for a scandal to report.

Once the police behave as they should, the media will report on them as they should, and people will see them as they should.

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