A Response

This is not a regular blog-post, it is the response to a comment on this blog. I don’t intend to do this very often, so please bear with me; normally scheduled programming will continue next week!

Recently, somebody misguidedly left a comment on my “Kind Words” page, with something that was anything but kind words. I deleted the comment, not because of any conspiracy, but because it was posted to the wrong place.

However, because it was such a deep, heartfelt, well-reasoned and insightful comment, I wanted to reproduce it here, front and centre, for everybody to see, because it eloquently explains a rarely-discussed challenge police constables face…

Comment by mr. Ian M

Just read your guest ‘column’ on Telegraph website. [link added -ed] Clearly I’m in the minority of (published) comments, but I find it staggering…and not in a good way. You have written about how you approach and attack an innocent man. Then, along with several strong-armed colleagues, you drag him to the ground, restraining him while cuffing him and then you perform a fruitless search of him. How noble of you. Well done.

I’m not sure if your constant references to ‘Hakeem”s swearing is merely your thinly veiled attempt to portray him as the lout, the yob, the subversive, the villain -or if it’s your way of portraying yourself (and your likeminded chums) as some sort of White Knights in Shining Armour? There is nothing Hakeem could ever say – if he spent the rest of his life with a pen and paper crafting the words with all the Gutter Press venom he could muster – that could be more offensive than your portrayal of him, your treatment of him and, of course, your utterly patronising retelling of his apprehension. And it’s not just patronising to Hakeem…it’s patronising to anyone who reads it (particularly the ones who are too ignorant to realise). However, what I find infinitely more frightening are the pathetic middle-class back slaps you’re receiving from the misguided readers of your tripe. Please, don’t mistake these adulations as affirmation that you’re doing a good ‘job’. You’re simply making them feel better about the fact that their prejudices are exactly the same as yours.

Your ‘column’ does nothing to dispel the notion that English police forces are inherently racist, despite what vomit Cressida Dick might spew on the lunchtime news. “We’ve moved on…we’ve fixed things…we’re nice to black people now…all’s well…return to your sofas and turn up the volume on Dancing on Ice. Thank you…”

Remind me…the spark that lit the summer riots was what? Sorry…can’t hear you? Oh yes…the police murdered an unarmed black man, then steadfastly refused to help his family understand why. Reminds me of someone else…one Stephen Lawrence. Fortunately, for us all, Stephen’s parents refused to sit down and “shut up” – something you were only too glad Hakeem did. Mark Duggan’s family have also acted with dignity and humility in the face of the Met Police’s Institutional Silence. Hopefully, they will find answers to their questions quicker than Neville and Doreen Lawrence. What kind of country demands that the parents of a young murder victim spend the next 18 years of their lives fighting for justice for their son? Well, justice of sorts.

Your country Matt. And I’ve no doubt you’re proud of it.

As for your hopeless sign off: “Hakeem is right, it isn’t fair – but I’ll be damned if I can think of a way to make it better.” – how convenient for you. How long have you been thinking of ways to make it better? Five? Ten? Fifteen minutes? Here’s an idea. It’s radical, though, so strap yourself in. How about you get a little bit of tact, a touch of diplomacy, a big helping of intelligence, a sprinkling of humanity and a dollop of humility. Then, the next time you’re about to rugby tackle an innocent man on a housing estate, you might, instead, be able to treat him as if he was a human being, with rights, and morals, and a family, and friends, and loved ones, and a life. You never know, he might even turn out to be innocent. Sorry…I know…it’s ‘out there’, innit!?I

Of course, one day you might come up against someone brandishing a knife, or a gun (or a placard)…and when you do, you’ll have a much better understanding of why they’re carrying it, what they might do with it and how you might alleviate any risk to them, you or the rest of us. That’s the challenge facing policing today…how to deal with potential criminals without referring to their skintone.

To finish, may I just remind you of my utter distaste for you, your ‘blag’ and your sheep followers.

Yours

White male wearing hoodie without a knife in my pocket. Not that it would matter if I had…you’re not about to stop and search me.

</comment>

I was going to let this stand unchallenged, but as I’m re-reading it now, it’s making my blood boil. I realise this is probably just an internet troll from someone who doesn’t know any better, but nonetheless…

You have written about how you approach […] 

Correct. We approached him. That’s our job – to act on the information we have available to us.

[…] and attack […]

I can see where you are coming from with this, but it saddens me to say that you are incorrect. He was unharmed after we laid hands on him, and I am perfectly, 100% happy to stand up in court and swear that my actions were proportionate (i.e. our amount of use of force was reasonable, given the threat we had assessed), legal (s117 of the Polcie and Criminal Evidence Act and common law self defence) , accountable (I can – and have – explain exactly why he was detained for a search, and am happy to defend my actions), and necessary. (As far as we knew, this gentleman had a knife. According to the information we were given, he didn’t just have a knife, he had just left the scene of a knife fight, which would indicate that he would be unscrupulous about usingsaid knife.)
The bolded words above (Proportionate, Legal, Accountable and Necessary) are crucial in the discussion of any use of force – whether it is by police, governments, or even your local ambulance service – and will be familiar if you’ve done much reading about powers of government, human rights, or IHL.

[…] an innocent man […]

Correct, he turned out to be innocent. And that was why he wasn’t arrested.

[…] along with several strong-armed colleagues […]

There’s a funny thing about fighting, that not a lot of people are aware of: People are much more likely to get injured in an one-on-one fight. If you stop to think, it’s relatively common sense:

The risks of facing a violent criminal on your own

Well, if I am facing a person who is apparently hostile, in a situation where I am one-on-one with them, and it looks like a confrontation will be imminent, I cannot afford to take any risks. There are a lot of unknowns. The person I am fighting might never have been in a fight before, or he might be a black-belt in Karate. He might intend to fight ‘fair’, or he might have a knife or knuckledusters hidden somewhere on his person. His judgement might be impaired by drugs or alcohol. He might just be posturing, but he might also have a deep-felt hatred for police, and a desire to do some real damage.In general, when I am facing an opponent like that, I weigh my options. If I have no other options (such as running away or calling for backup), I have to strike to incapacitate, because fights are by their very nature deeply unpredictable. I could be a fit, healthy police officer in full personal protective kit, but the person I am trying to defend myself from could conceivably get in a lucky strike, and the confrontation would be over.

The problem is that in a violent, physical confrontation, is that the outcomes intended by my assailant and myself could very well be out of sync. Put differently: I know that when I have ‘won’ a confrontation, I will stop, make my arrest, and the episode would be over. My opponent might not afford me the same courtesy, which means that when we reach the point where I would have considered the confrontation ‘over’, they might decide to produce a knife and stab me, or keep kicking me until I stop moving.

Or, by applying some game theory to this:

  • If I ‘win’ a confrontation, I potentially ‘win’ an arrest, at the cost of my opponent’s freedom and any injuries we both incur during our altercation.
  • If I ‘lose’ a confrontation, my opponent ‘wins’ his freedom, and I am at risk of losing my life, or being seriously injured.

If you were to model this asynchronous approach according to game theory, you’d come up with only one sensible conclusion: Because we don’t play by the same rules, as a police officer, you have a lot to lose but little to gain from entering into a confrontation. As a criminal, you have a lot to win from entering into a violent confrontation.

With that conclusion at the back of our minds, let’s return to the commenter’s issue with me using ‘several strong-armed colleagues’ in this particular situation

Nobody in their right mind would go into a fight mano a mano if they have weapons available to them; as a police officer, I carry a full set of Personal Protection Equipment, including CS spray and a baton. For various reasons, the CS spray is rarely a good option for me (it affects me very strongly, and there is a 10% chance it won’t affect my assailant; the odds don’t stack up), so I will draw my baton, and use it if required. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this fight is going to end in injuries, and because weapons are involved, the injuries can be serious.

In the case of this particular anecdote, I had to assume that the young man had a knife, because assuming he didn’t have one would put me and my colleagues at undue risk. If I were on my own, I probably would not have confronted him; I have a family to go home to at the end of the day, and I don’t particularly fancy meeting the business end of his stainless steel blade. If I were threatened by him, and I were on my own, my first tactical option would be to move away, but I would also draw and rack my baton. If necessary to defend myself, I would use it.

Taking down a suspect using more than one officer is safer – both for the suspect and for us.

So, if you have an issue with me using my colleagues, here’s the counter-argument: With several people there, we were able to resolve the situation without drawing any weapons, without even threatening the use of weapons, and without having to use  violent means to subdue him. We simply

you drag him to the ground, restraining him while cuffing him and then you perform a fruitless search of him.
He was dragged to the ground because it’s the safest place for him to be – both for his safety (putting him out of reach of our vital parts means we don’t have to defend outselves viciously if it does turn out he had a knife) and for ours (it’s easier to keep control of a suspect if you have full overview). He was restrained because he was an unknown entity, who was extremely agitated, and was believed to have a knife.
The fruitless search was, indeed, fruitless. That is why he wasn’t arrested.
I’m not sure if your constant references to ‘Hakeem”s swearing is merely your thinly veiled attempt to portray him as the lout, the yob, the subversive, the villain -or if it’s your way of portraying yourself (and your likeminded chums) as some sort of White Knights in Shining Armour?
Sir, I don’t know what you do for a living. In my line of work, I get sworn at. I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely unpleasant to be sworn at. Moreover, it is depressingly common-place. It is a crucial part of this anecdote, not because I want him to be portrayed as a ‘yob’, but because it was one of the reasons why we were worried he might actually stab us. If he had said “Good evening, officers, I believe this is a mistake, but if you must, please feel free to search me. Ensure you give me a 5090 stop slip, because I want to make sure that this miscarriage of justice is correctly reported in your statistics”, he would have been on his way within minutes, without having been wrestled to the ground. Not because he was well-spoken, but because he was polite and would be assessed to be a low threat by me and my fellow officers. Or, to use your own words; he was diplomatic, intelligent, humane, and showed humility.
What you seem to fail to understand, is that when you’re in uniform on the street, you have incomplete information. Any hint given by a person helps you create a fuller picture. In my experience, most people do not swear at police officers. Those who do, raise my threat-level. It makes me think: Why does this person hate me? They do not even know me, so it must be the uniform they hate. Why do they hate my uniform? Is it because they have done something wrong?
[…] How long have you been thinking of ways to make it better? Five? Ten? Fifteen minutes? Here’s an idea. It’s radical, though, so strap yourself in. How about you get a little bit of tact, a touch of diplomacy, a big helping of intelligence, a sprinkling of humanity and a dollop of humility. 
You clearly don’t know me, squire, or you wouldn’t have written that. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I, as one constable, can make policing better, more fair, and more just. I am intrigued by your ‘recipe’ for how everything could be fixed, however. Diplomacy? Intelligence? Humanity? Humility? That was, in my opinion, precisely how we handled this particular situation.
The problem we have on the streets is that we have to balance humility and diplomacy with a very simple consideration: Safety. I know this will disappoint you gravely, but in the process of protecting you, your family, your neighbours and your community, I am not willingly putting myself in situations where I run undue risk of being injured. I’m not going to stand in the middle of a road to try and stop a car by standing in its path. I am not going to fire two guns whilst jumping through the air. I am not going to attempt to arrest somebody who is clearly bigger and stronger than me without additional backup. And, most emphatically, I am not going to take any risks with someone I believe might have a weapon.
At the end of the day, it boils down to a very simple thing: Constables are doing a necessary job that can be dangerous, and most of us have families that would like us to get home to them in one piece. If that safety means that we have to wrestle someone to the ground every now and again, then so be it: I will not apologise for putting the safety of my fellow officer and myself first, and I certainly will not take the ill-informed abuse from an internet besserwisser on my blog.
I bid you a good day, sir, and I hope that you never find yourself in any of the situations I and my fellow officers have to face on a daily basis, because I have to admit I believe you would not be up to the task.
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17 responses to “A Response

  1. Matt, an eloquent, well-reasoned and balanced reply. Unfortunately I fear that some people are probably beyond eloquent, well-reasoned and balanced replies – their mind is made up and that is that.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. A good riposte (?) to yet another immensely ignorant and borderline offensive anti-police anti-reality drivel-rant. Views such as the one expressed by this chap need to be challenged but I suspect his deep-rooted hatred of the police probably cannot be changed in the same way that certain mens rea of some criminals is ingrained permanent and unalterable. The fight goes on against the morons. Kicking against the prices as Nick Cave might say. Stay strong and be safe.

  3. Thankyou for your eloquent very well thought out and clear response. Yes we police do sometimes get it wrong but we do sometimes get it right. Unfortunately that seldom makes the news or gets comments of praise.

  4. Can’t disagree with any of that.
    Your comment on threat assessment is interesting though. I’ve managed to avoid getting into any kind of physical conflict since I was about 11 though the reality of most of the west is that there is a risk of it occurring at any point. While the uk laws call for a proportionate response, as an untrained member of the public unused to physical confrontation suddenly thrust into a potentially violent situation, the only rational response is to assume the guy is armed and intends to do you significant harm and act accordingly by incapacitating him by any means available.
    I’d like to think that should I ever be found standing over the bloody corpse of an assailant that the police and the justice system will actually take these factors into account. I suspect that a significant number of people in the uk don’t believe that would be the case. Or tht could just be too much reading the daily mail.
    That’s not intended as a personal dig just and observation and I can appreciate just how tough your day job is. Enjoying the blog…

    • Reading the daily mail is probably where you went wrong there 🙂

      If you ever are found standing over a bloody corpse,

      1) don’t run away
      2) dial 999 yourself
      3) give yourself up to the cops.

      You will be arrested for murder, but you’ll be given plenty of chances to explain yourself. Seek legal council, and you stood be fine. You have a right to defend yourself, and if you can defend your actions as proportional and necessary, you’ll walk free.

      It’s all a question of openness and honesty – its what would get you through a scenario like that.

      … but let’s hope it never gets to that, eh?

  5. Fantastic reply Matt. It’s people like that who would be the first to dial 999 if someone was in their house or causing them a nuisance – and would expect you to rapidly confront, detain and challenge them – and would probably not be too impressed if you stood there and were diplomatic and polite to the offender, and didn’t arrest them or remove them from the caller’s property, in case they were innocent.

  6. I often encounter opinions like that of Ian and they don’t worry me that much. We’ve created a (mostly) civilised society where most people don’t carry knives and guns and where the law-abiding form the huge majority. One of the benefits of this society is that people like Ian will almost never have to deal with thugs who want to hurt him, so he can sit in the comfort and safety of his home and write about how much he hates the very thing that keeps him safe.

    The fact that Ian and millions of people like him can’t conceive of circumstances in which the police might need to be violent just shows that we live in a safe place with nice people around us.

  7. For what it’s worth, though… you do a really hard job, and the nature of it is that you’re not always going to know everything — you’re not psychic. You can only go on the information you get.

    With that in mind, you and your colleagues still have the support of the wider community, who are grateful for the work you do in protecting us and keeping the peace. Thank you for being there. 🙂

  8. Matt, you don’t need to justify your actions but you have done so here and you’ve done it calmly, precisely and professionally. If only others in society would take a step back and consider what they’re about to say for at least one minute.

  9. It’s sad that you have to explain what should be obvious. I often find myself trying to justify the actions of the police to friends, family and anyone else who believes the police are motivated by some prejudice, racist or otherwise.

    It’s my father who I have the hardest time convincing, because he’ll always refer to the findings of the 1999 Macpherson inquiry, which described the Met as “institutionally racist”. Those two provocative words don’t adequately convey the meaning of the term, which was defined by Macpherson as “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. Perhaps a rather boring definition for such an inflammatory term.

    I’d just like to know what a policeman’s response to these findings would be. Has the Met changed? How would you respond to anyone who might get the impression that ‘police are racist’ from these findings?

  10. A fantastic response. Your reply is eloquent, calm and clear, and makes the author of the original comment seem frenzied and unreasonable in comparison. The police perform an essential job, that keeps the rest of us safe, and for this I believe we are all sincerely grateful. It’s such a shame though, that this person could not take a minute to consider what they said; to reason through their statements, and to consider the situation from the police perspective. After all, in the circumstances a police constable, as you say, cannot take chances. It is, after all, their life on the line.

  11. I’ll be honest here. I read the ‘comment’ by Mr Ian M in its entirety but only skim read your response to it. I didn’t need to read your response in full because I know that you, as I and as the vast majority of our colleagues will be able to say, that they are always able to justify their actions and know that they are proportionate, legal, accountable and necessary. Those that can’t justify what they do need to be dealt with accordingly.
    Its sad that these days so much emphasis is put onto what the Police do to people from minority ethnic backgrounds despite what said person may have allegedly done. Their ethnicity is irrelevant if they are suspected of having committed a crime.
    As I always say to those that make an issue of their ethnicity, ‘don’t make an issue of your colour because I won’t’…

  12. I want to defend the Telegraph here, I actually found out about this blog from there and have loved it ever since, we aren’t all bloody keyboard warriors like this chap, I have to hand it to you, brilliant response I doubt it will change his mind but I’m quite sure we are all firmly on your side.
    Why such a diehard anarchist as our “friend” mr ian M reads the Telegragh is beyond me, he should probably go back to watching Jeremy Kyle and reading picture books, since he is so absent of rational thought.

  13. It really saddens me that people like Ian have these opinions and just don’t think things like this through fully, but instead just maintain their ignorant opinion and are very hard to persuade otherwise.

    Once people have decided on something and are convinced of it, it is one of the hardest things in the world to persuade them otherwise.

  14. I recall the words of a great statesman, an erudite learned and well read man and well respected
    “…the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done
    Theodore Roosevelt 1891
    I think that fine statesman would have enjoyed meeting you and reading your works
    there compared with him thats a big responsibility but one I think you fulfill already
    as for the other bloke hes a muppet and needs to get out and see life

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