How do you govern and police the Disunited States of America?
I put ‘govern’ and ‘police’ together because they are inextricably linked and the question of law and order has become such an issue for the governing authorities, not least over these last months – from the killing of George Floyd in May to the riots following the shooting of Walter Wallace by Philadelphia police just days before the Presidential election.
I can only assume that the policing model we have in the United Kingdom is not as embedded in the USA as it is here. But this has to be the starting point.
There are two aspects to the British model: first we police by consent and second we have neighbourhood policing as the foundation on which everything else builds.
Policing ‘by consent’ rests, as we have noted before, on ‘governing by consent’. This is why the present time in the UK is fragile. We are compelled to surrender some basic civil liberties and the police are charged to enforce the restrictions. We will accept this willingly if we have faith in the government’s ability to lead us through the health crisis. That has been an issue in America with the President’s seemingly casual attitude to coronavirus, and it has become an issue here with the sudden abandonment of the regional tier approach in favour of a national lock-down – something we were told was unthinkable only days before. So some are becoming a little less sure – a little less consenting – about what is being asked of us. And the police are in the middle.
We also have neighbourhood policing. We have officers who are rooted in a place, unarmed, and are known, sometimes by name, long before incidents happen. They are not people in uniform who turn up only when some incident happens, weapons drawn.
We lost neighbourhood officers a few years ago during the time of austerity. Forces had to save money year after year and found much of it by abandoning local teams and having only response teams – who did only turn up when incidents happened.
If we are to get through the next period well, we need to have confidence that the government is following a strategy and not just being reactive, because that enables the police to maintain support at the neighbourhood level. The United States has faltered in both these respects and has a long journey to make to put it right.
The Presidency of Joe Biden – with Kamala Harris as Vice President – gives the USA the chance to reset that dial.
An unintended consequence?
Requiring police officer recruits either to have a degree or to acquire a specific police degree during training, may have an unintended, but beneficial, consequence.
I came to see this while talking to one of our Assistant Chief Constables, Tim Forber, about those now starting to join the force in numbers – something that will continue until 2024. He spoke about the quality of the new, relatively young officers – their thoughtfulness, their keenness – and how this could be a time when the number of officers from Black and Minority Ethnic groups (BAME) increased.
How might that come about?
One way – the unintended consequence – may be the result simply of moving to the graduate entry scheme. Many minority ethnic parents I know are very aspirational for their children and grandchildren. They encourage them to work hard at school and to apply to university. They are particularly keen for them to join one of the professions – medicine, law, accountancy – which all demand a degree.
In the past, when I have said to them, ‘And what about the police?’ they have not really considered it as something to aim for. It might be a good career, but it lacked the prestige of the graduate entry professions.
Perhaps this is about to change. Being a police officer now is also about joining one of the graduate professions. And an unintended consequence, therefore, might be an increase in recruits from a BAME background. Time will tell.
People in numbers, lighting bonfires across an entire county, with material that can cause explosions, is never going to be risk free. So we know that the emergency services – police, ambulance and fire – are all going to be busy on 5 November.
But in the last few years there seems to have been a growing tendency for a few people to turn a family event into an occasion for utterly reckless behaviour. This year, despite, or perhaps because of, the lock-down matters seemed to have been even worse with instances of what can only be called low level terrorism.
In Rotherham and Sheffield in particular, a few gangs of younger people set fires going in the middle of the road and used fireworks as weapons against their neighbours, causing fear. In one instance a false call was made to lure officers to a place where they could be terrorised with fireworks. Hopefully, it may be possible to track these people down and deal with them.
But some of the fireworks themselves also seem to be getting more noisy and dangerous. As I surveyed the detritus in one park the morning after, I came across discarded boxes labelled ‘The Weapon’ and ‘Manic Night 169 Shot’ – powerful weapons if misused. And none of it makes sense if we want to reduce the impact we have on the environment, particularly air quality.
The time is overdue for Parliament to look seriously at what is happening more frequently on Bonfire Night. We have to offer better protection for residents and emergency service workers by tightening up the regulations around fireworks. They are meant to give pleasure. But too often now they have become weapons of terror on the streets, needlessly putting officers in harm’s way.
I hope you are staying safe and well.