We often note the way the police are getting younger. But this is just another way of saying that we are getting older. However, I find something else has happened to the police in my lifetime. And this can’t just be the result of my getting older: the police have got smaller.
I don’t mean they’ve been shrinking, just that they now come in different sizes from when I was younger. These days, some are no taller than me and others are actually smaller.
All my memories from the past are of my having to look up when speaking to police officers. This was obviously true when I was a boy, but even after I became a young adult the police were taller.
This was because in the past you had to be a certain height in order to be a police officer.
I remember a friend taking stretching exercises to get himself the extra half inch he needed to apply. Fortunately, the pain paid off and the last time I saw him he was in uniform and taller than ever – though this was because all the police you encountered then wore helmets that added several inches to their height.
But not any more. At some point the height requirement was dropped. Now anyone can be a police officer, however tall. The key to joining is fitness rather than height.
All this made me wonder whether this has made any difference to policing.
My guess is that it made the police have to rely more on the power of their personalities than simply their physical presence for some of what they do day to day.
A police officer who retired from the force twenty five years ago told me recently that in his day his colleagues were all over six feet. If they came across a group of rowdy young people behaving badly in the town centre their physical presence was enough to make them think twice about what they were doing and disperse.
Now, police officers have to be able to engage with people, to persuade with a mix of firmness and good humour – and to know when each is appropriate – to remain calm and sometimes to exercise even more patience than the average parent. This requires a range of skills that make modern policing ever more demanding.
And it’s not only in situations of potential or actual disorder that personality is the important factor. As I listen to what police officers tell me about their typical week’s work I am struck all the time by the number of different types of situation they increasingly have to manage.
At one moment they may be called upon to deal with someone who is aggressive and threatening. It may require a tough and physical response. The next moment they have to be gentle and compassionate with a confused older person who can’t remember where they live or even who they are.
We rightly criticise the police when they get things wrong. We don’t always notice when they get things right.