Policing by consent

We often say that policing in this country is by consent. What we mean is that what the police do is broadly speaking what we want them to do.

They tackle crime and anti-social behaviour. They manage public demonstrations and control crowds at football matches. And they do all this in ways that we think are fair and proportionate.

And if they get things wrong – and all organisations sometimes get things wrong – we are not afraid to say so.

This is why, of course, it is possible for our police service, almost alone in the world, to be mainly unarmed. They police by consent and not, on the whole, by force.

Even so, we may not always realise how fortunate we are to live in a country where policing is like this. On the day I am writing these words, two things have happened to me to remind me of this.

First, I was invited to one of our inner-city schools to present some junior school children with ‘citizenship’ awards. They were a wonderful group of young people – very polite, very attentive and very enthusiastic. They were also very diverse, coming from almost every continent in the world, drawn from different faiths and speaking – one teacher said – seventeen different languages. (If only Ofsted had a way of recognising the fantastic work such schools do.)

The teacher also explained how for some children, who had come from very troubled parts of the middle east, the sight of a police officer was not something reassuring, but frightening. They were having to adapt to what we take for granted: the police are here to serve us, not to intimidate and frighten. They police by consent.

When I returned home, the President of the United States, Barrack Obama, was just making a speech to a gathering of people in Dallas where five police officers had been slain by an African-American gunman because they were white and he wanted to retaliate against the seemingly casual shooting of non-white citizens by white police officers.

In many of the large conurbations of that country, policing is not by consent. All officers are armed and resort to force only too easily. Some white officers in particular have treated black and Hispanic citizens with brutality and contempt. Social media has enabled us to glimpse what that all means in practice.

One African-American mother in Dallas explained how she feared for her junior school-aged son every time he went out of the house. Would she ever see him again?

It’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like to live in those places where policing is not by consent, but by force.

For all our criticisms of the police, from time to time it’s good to remind ourselves how fortunate we are in having officers who are not armed because, by and large, they police as we would want them to.