Wildefire: Life in the Police Force by The Lord Paddick
Posted on 31 October 2014.
Posted in: HT Blogs
‘Are you in the job?’ is the question a police officer will often ask someone who he believes to be a fellow officer. It was a standing joke when I was a constable that you could sense whether someone else in the pub was a criminal or a police officer but you could not be sure which. In those days, the mid-1970s, the days of Life on Mars, the pub featured heavily in the life of police officers.
The Sussex Arms, a traditional pub a short distance up Hornsey Road from Holloway Police Station was where we went after work every Late Turn (the 2pm to 10pm shift), even after a quick change-over. Having worked night duty for seven nights in a row (10pm-6am) we were back on duty at 2pm on the Monday afternoon for another eight hour Late Turn. Despite the tiredness, the ‘jet lag’ of being awake all night for a week and the pressures of the job, we needed to relax in the pub after work. A crate of light ale from the pub taken around to one of the officers who lived locally would allow the drinking to continue. Drinking and driving did not have the same social stigma that it has today and although we climbed onto our motorbikes or jumped into our cars having consumed far too much alcohol, we were not hypocrites. Back then, when we were ‘on duty’, most motorists we caught, who turned the crystals in the glass tube of the ‘breathalyser’ from yellow to green, were told to lock up their cars and get a taxi home rather than being arrested. Those were the bad old days! Much changed from when I was police constable 543N (my shoulder number) in the mid-1970s to when I retired from the Metropolitan Police over 30 years later but some of the challenges of policing remain the same.
There is much debate about neighbourhood policing and the need for the police to be part of the local community. There are a number of issues that militate against that ideal. The shift work is just one of them. When you are working anti-social hours, late nights, early starts, weekends, it is difficult to keep a normal social life. The group of mates that meets every Thursday evening, the team that plays every Saturday afternoon, the late night party the night before you have to be smart, sober and with it for the next 6am shift, all become difficult to remain part of. When your partner is a 9-5 ESSO man (every Saturday and Sunday off) and you work long and irregular hours, sometimes the only time you see each other is when one of you is asleep. Of course, there are others whose working hours coincide perfectly with yours. The colleagues on your shift and those at adjoining police stations who you encounter regularly as you operate across the geographic boundaries. The opportunities for relationships to develop with other police officers can be greater than those who are not, including those you may happen to be married to!
Then there is also the social stigma. 30 years ago we might have said, albeit in jest, ‘trust me, I’m a police officer’ but now it would just be seen by many people as a bad joke. The failure, until recently, of the police to bring anyone to justice for the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, their apparent attempts to shift the blame for their own mistakes over the Hillsborough disaster and serious questions over the way the police handled investigations into phone hacking by journalists and child abuse by Jimmy Saville and others, have done serious damage to the reputation of the police. From strategic decisions made by the most senior of police officers to the actions of an off-duty constable who falsely claimed to have witnessed the altercation between the then government chief whip and a Diplomatic Protection Group police officer in Downing Street, no level of policing escapes untarnished. Akin to the most devout, religious and law-abiding Muslims who are stereotyped as terrorists, the overwhelming majority of brave, honest, hardworking police officers, who only want to serve the public to the best of their ability, they despair at the actions of their misguided colleagues. Bad enough when the police turn up at a fight in a pub, the combatants’ hatred of each other is superseded by their hatred of the police as they start attacking the officers. Bad enough when a motorist driving dangerously fast says ‘can’t you find anything better to do, like catching burglars?’ The fact is, it is not until your daughter is killed by a speeding motorist that you realise how important speed enforcement is, or when your innocent teenage son is glassed in the face in a pub fight, that you realise that the police really are on your side.