A Policeman’s Lot is not a Happy One by Trevor Plumbly

The Police under Scrutiny

Wherever you are these days, not many weeks pass without allegations being levelled at the police ranging from incompetence to corruption. Such allegations are usually whipped up to a frenzy by the media and eagerly lapped up by a scandal-thirsty public. It’s interesting how the relationship between the public and the police has altered over time. Not that long ago the idea of an ‘Independent Police Conduct Authority’ would have been judged as unnecessary by the judiciary and the force itself, but now questioning police performance is regarded as an essential component of the system.

Birth of the Police

The origins of today’s police stem from London in the middle of the 18th Century with the formation of ‘the Bow Street Runners (BSR)’. Unlike their unofficial counterparts, the ‘thief-takers’, who were paid a fee by an aggrieved party, the BSR were employed by the magistrates and paid by government-sourced funds, thereby forming a cosy partnership with the bench that lasted well into the 20th Century. Initially, the BSR served writs and executed arrests (perhaps the origin of ‘getting run in’?), but later performed patrol duties. In those days, magistrates held significant powers, as did the BSR as an extension of their arm. Communication was limited, so apart from the political and legal fraternity and, of course, the wrongdoers, the general public either didn’t know or didn’t care about their performance, so little scrutiny or criticism occurred.

Sir Robert Peel’s Influence

It took until the middle of the 19th Century before the police became an organised, regulated body. Under Sir Robert Peel they were trained, uniformed and became a reassuring presence patrolling the streets, nicknamed ‘bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ after Sir Robert. They were trusted by the law abiding public, and were often portrayed in literature and song as overweight, avuncular figures. They enjoyed a popularity in the community that sadly doesn’t seem to exist today. To be fair, they were in a position to exercise summary justice: if the offence warranted a clip round the ear, it was generally given and received without lasting rancour and the case was solved. Also, at the time, drugs, street crime and domestic violence were either rare or kept in-house.

Modern Day Policing

With the new century, the ‘bobbies’ became ‘coppers’ (hence ‘copping it’ perhaps?). But with huge advances in communication and transport, the beat copper faded away in favour of the patrol car. Whilst this served to speed up crime scene attendance, it also distanced the police from the general public as the obliging go-to man on a bicycle disappeared to be replaced by rule-driven strangers in a squad car. With the onset of ‘reality’ TV police dramas showing the gritty side of law enforcement, the gap widened. Whilst their methods and motives were laudable within the plot, there was little in these TV characters for the public to really like or place a community value on, and the accepted term ‘coppers’ morphed into the almost derogatory ‘cops’.

Erosion of Trust

Then came the computer, along with budgetary restrictions, trimming down, outsourcing jobs and small police station closures, all of which served to make public access to the police more difficult. The police now have to deal with a raft of new laws and the complaint that was once ‘dealt with’ on a personal level has to be ‘processed’ through the legal system so that trivial cases now clog up both police stations and courts. Sadly, progress always seems to demolish something, and though some things are replaceable, I believe this is difficult where public/police trust is concerned. I sincerely believe that whilst ‘a policeman’s lot is not a happy one’, work is needed by both police and public to improve confidence and cooperation for all our sakes. And this needs to happen with the utmost urgency.

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