Guest Blog “Coppers” – 1

At 9 pm on Monday 16th January 2012 Channel 4 screened “Coppers”. This is the second series and was episode 2 entitled;

“They hate us. We spoil everybody’s day”

You can watch it on 4oD here

I have my own views on this programme as you would expect but felt it might be good to host a blog series on this and get a number of views from different perspectives. The first guest blog in this series is from Peter Kirkham. This is Peters first blog.

Peter is a former police officer serving with the Met from 1979-2002. During his career he covered many roles in ranks up to Chief Inspector including CID, flying squad, response teams and SIO on a murder team. I therefore hand you over to Peter.

“Coppers” and the Nottinghamshire Police

So where to start? The beginning, I guess: how I came to be writing this. Well I watched “Coppers” this week and it caused me considerable unease. It seems from some comments on Twitter that it caused concern to some other serving officers too and so I decided to share my thoughts.

The introductory paragraph on the Channel 4 website reads: “Coppers captures shocking scenes as Nottingham’s frontline officers..” As you’ve probably worked out, the episode followed officers from Nottinghamshire Police.

I think that by “shocking scenes” Channel 4 meant the extreme violence directed towards the police during the August riots but there were several other, much more routine incidents in the episode which shocked and, to be quite frank, appalled me. They involved actions, attitudes and the use of coercive powers by several officers, though the producers focused on three or four in particular. There were several OMGOL moments for me (like LOL, but with an OMG!) and I re-wound and watched a couple of them again and again to check I had seen and heard things correctly.

Officers (speaking in calm pieces to camera) referred to some of the people they had to deal with as “SNAF – Sub-normal and fucking useless”. They openly talked of a stabbing amongst a group of known offenders as a “shit-on-shit” crime and they boasted about being the “the biggest gang in Nottingham”.

In incident after incident, they not only failed to use any conflict resolution skills to de-escalate the situation without using force, they actually seemed to deliberately wind it up. As a result they ended up using force, and making arrests, in many situations which could possibly have been resolved in other ways. I got the distinct impression that some of them at least revelled in having to do so.

Some of the force used seemed excessive or unlawful. There were several occasions when people were held, and even handcuffed, without apparently being arrested, something which the principles in Collins v Wilcock [1984] 1 WLR 1172 make perfectly clear are unlawful. A 14 year old girl was sent sprawling face first on to the road without any apparent attempt to arrest her whilst she remained standing. A man who appeared to be in his sixties and possibly suffering from some mental illness or learning disability (as well as being drunk) was repeatedly pushed backwards for no apparent justifiable reason, at one point falling backwards, heavily to the ground.

As always, it’s difficult (and inappropriate) to make judgements based only on the content of a programme such as this – it was plainly edited in some places and even where it was not there may have been other information known to the officers. When dealing with the use of powers and force, it is always necessary to know the officer’s state of mind as their “honestly-held belief” is central to the issue. It is always possible that the programme makers have selectively edited the footage they obtained to portray things in an inaccurate and unfair way. The whole feel of the programme, and the number of officers expressing similar attitudes, make me fear that there are some genuine, serious underlying issues.
The attitudes were not expressed in the heat of the moment, or in the aftermath of a roll-around. More worryingly, the officers did not seem the slightest bit concerned about expressing them openly – they did not appear to consider them in any way inappropriate. More worryingly yet, they seemed to stereotype on the basis of them, allowing them to colour their actions. The way that the father of an injured child was dealt with perhaps illustrated this most vividly. As he expressed how he felt about the way he had been treated there was more than a flicker of recognition from the officers that they had misjudged the situation.

The absence of any attempt at conflict resolution and the seemingly peremptory use of force seemed to be part of a standard approach, adopted by many of the officers. This suggested that they did not properly understand their role and, more importantly, the limitations of their powers, opening themselves and their force to the possibility of legal action as well as breaching the rights of the people they dealt with. Some of the officers talked of being engaged in a “war” on crime and the way they went about their business suggested that they may also subconsciously feel they are at “war” with some parts of their community. For me, it was reminiscent of the siege mentality of the precinct cops under attack as depicted in the 1981 movie “Fort Apache: The Bronx” except this was Nottingham and, no matter how bad things are there, they cannot be that bad!

During their attestation, police officers declare that they will serve with fairness and impartiality, according equal respect to all people. Their Code of Conduct requires them to act with politeness and tolerance and to avoid bringing discredit on the police service. There is an argument to be made that the programme provides prima facie evidence of breaches of that Code by several officers. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that the Nottinghamshire Police Professional Standards Department have commenced investigations into some conduct matters as a direct result of the programme being shown.

I know it’s not easy dealing with drunk, aggressive and agitated people. I know it’s not easy trying to separate the warring parties, or to prevent people trying to interfere and dissuade you from arresting their friend. I know it can be extremely annoying, provoking and upsetting to be on the receiving end of abuse and uncooperative, challenging behaviour. However, it’s the job of a police officer to deal with it professionally, using only their lawful powers to use force and making full use of their communication and conflict resolution skills. Where lawful powers don’t exist they can’t just invent them, or rely on the Common Law, no matter how much it seems sensible to do so.

So how could the situation shown in the programme arise? I would suggest four possible contributory factors:

    Changing attitudes in society generally, especially in relation to how we interact with and respect each other.

    Increasing socio-economic inequality, increasing the tendency for people to see our society in terms of “us” and “them”.

    Modern personal protective equipment and tactics, which have the unfortunate (and entirely unintended) effect of saying “aggression” in terms of non-verbal communication.

    Reduced levels of supervision of officers on the street, due to sergeants and inspectors being given ever more bureaucratic, office-based duties.

Obviously the police service can do little to address the first two of these directly, but in my view they need to work on the third and fourth to prevent other officers and other teams developing similar attitudes and behaviours to those seen in the programme. Leadership and supervision are the key. It was particularly noticeable that although there were sergeants present in many of the situations there was little, if any, “grip” on the incident, direction of the constables present or challenge to the way in which they were acting. To use a phrase often heard in policing circles nowadays, they seemed little more than “PCs with stripes”. Police officers, just like all other small, tightly-knit teams operating in high-stress, high-risk situations, need strong, clear, ethical leadership. Otherwise they can easily go off on a tangent, developing corrupted and aberrant attitudes and behaviours. They need to be helped to understand how they are perceived by their communities, how to better understand and interact with them. Some of this requires awareness training, much of it simply requires teams to be led by example. To quote something I was told by a very experienced sergeant when I was first promoted, the sergeant’s job is “To encourage, to guide and only then to supervise”. Behaviours and attitudes in particular can’t be “supervised” into officers, they need to be demonstrated by strong leaders at all levels.

Are the attitudes and behaviours seen in the programme typical of the whole of the UK police service? I really hope not, though I suspect they may be more common than many of us believe. I suspect they are not even typical of the Nottinghamshire Police as a whole. There were even indications that acceptable values were only just below the surface of the officers themselves, with them commenting on how the actions of police officers arriving at the scene of an incident may sometimes make things worse and that officers must earn respect by their actions.
But be in no doubt – the appalling attitudes and behaviours of some of the officers in the programme will have had a very detrimental effect on how the police service generally is viewed across the UK. It will not be restricted to the people they actually dealt with, nor even their families and friends. It won’t even be just those who happened to be passing by and who witnessed what was happening. The fact that it has been shown on prime-time TV (and will undoubtedly be repeated frequently for years to come) mean that its negative impact will be felt far and wide.

Something needs to be done and done quickly to address the issues so obvious in the programme. At a local level, I hope that Nottinghamshire Police have recognised the issues themselves in relation to these particular officers and teams. More widely, I hope that all other forces have learned from the experience (thinking “It could have been us!”) and are carefully looking to see if officers and teams in their areas are displaying, or are in danger of developing, similar attitudes and behaviours. All forces need to carefully ask themselves whether or not this type of “fly-on-the-wall” documentary is actually helpful to the delivery of policing services and the maintenance of the police-community relationship. If so, deliberately or not, Coppers will have done a great favour for the police service of the UK and the people they serve.

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23 thoughts on “Guest Blog “Coppers” – 1”

  1. A good blog, thanks for sharing.

    Echoed my thoughts exactly, where some I’m sure was eye opening for the abuse we take from members of the public to the wider audience, other bits were awful. I’m sure everyone has referred to certain ‘shit on shit’ crimes etc, to publicise it and let it alter the way they policed so easily was A bit concerning.

    I remember saying after the first series, how had the chief con allowed this to go out? I still ask the same now. Some aspects are needed to show public a more realistic view at what we do, other bits were a little play acting and a bit like an itv2 only was is Essex type awful tv

  2. ‘As always, it’s difficult (and inappropriate) to make judgements based only on the content of a programme such as this…’ Didn’t stop you though did it?

    Seriously though, take this for what it is: something written by someone who hasn’t had to actually deal with drunken, aggressive buffoons for many years.

    I was genuinely shocked by the level of hostility and aggression directed towards police. I work patrol in big-city Canada and I have to say that if you thought the force used by those cops in ‘Coppers’ ‘seemed excessive’, try getting lagered up and disobeying a cop here: you’ll wish you were back in Nottingham.

    1. I carefully distinguished between reaching judgments and expressing views. The former is inappropriate. The latter is not when the weight of evidence is there.

      And don’t rely on the views I have expressed from my perspective: look here and at Twitter for the feedback from currently serving officers.

    1. There has been a niggling thought in my mind that these officers were not response. It seemed like they were public order patrols but they were in Volvos etc and not typical PSU’s which confused the issue. There are occasions where comment is passed that “division” or “local” staff have arrived which again suggested force resources. I hadn’t noticed firearms. I will watch again.

      1. They were wearing tactical helmets too. I hadn’t been looking for firearms and was multi-tasking but that seemed very odd to me for response cops.

        Honestly, I thought that particular episode was inconsistent with the others. I actually quite like the programme itself. I really liked the custody suite and response episodes in the first series. I thought they gave as much as a realistic view as possible. I also quite like the fact that cops were able to speak more freely.

        I wasn’t a fan of some of the force used (particularly on the elderly drunk) in this episode either but I wasn’t there so my thoughts are of no relevance without all the evidence.

        I did think there were some spectacularly poor examples of policing and leadership in it. There was a scene where their subject made off out the back of a premises. They had no apparent cover at the rear (thus failing police 101) – when the female skipper came out she was openly criticised by a PC and she didn’t challenge him. There was clearly something wrong with that set up.

      2. I considered the whole armed thing – not knowing Nottinghamshire’s exact set-up, and knowing the problems with gun crime they had in the City Centre which at one point led to far more widely available armed officers, I didn’t want to characterise them as specialist firearms ARV officers.
        The number, and nature, of routine incidents they attended also suggested to me that they may not be quite the typical UK model ARV unit.
        If they ARE specialist ARV team then it raises two additional points for me: (1) It provides another possible answer to how their attitudes have developed (specialist teams are particularly prone to dysfunctional cultures and need ever stronger leadership to prevent them developing) and (2) it is of even more concern to me … should they ever have to shoot someone in contentious circumstances I can hear the barrister now … “Now Officer Nickname, perhaps you could just watch this clip of you dealing with an incident a couple of years ago … were THOSE the conflict resolution skills you are telling the Court you exercised before shooting the deceased?”. NOT good!

  3. Peter an excellent blog that echoes my thoughts exactly. As a former Head of Professional Standards, I was thinking to myself what would I be doing if this was my force?

    I fully concur that we only saw what the editors decided was of interest to the public, and the levels of violence and abuse shown towards officers seem worse now than I recall when last on patrol. However something has to be done to educate these officers about what their role is and the concept of policing by consent, which they risk severely damaging by their actions and words.

    Well done.

  4. I’m a UK cop, my other half is from America and I’ve been out with US cops on several occasions.
    One thing they find hard to understand is how much abuse a Police officer has to take over here, and not be able to do much about it in most cases. Its getting worse as well, most of the decent public can’t understand how we take such abuse, I’m lucky in that I work quite rurally, but I used to be a beat officer on a rough estate, and being sworn at, and being called every name under the sun I can see how it can get to you, maybe its the officers reaction to all this daily abuse if they do work in a busy area.
    On the contrary I’ve been out with US cops, and the people they’ve talked to are calling them Sir, with no hint of sarcasm even though they obviously hate the officer they’re talking to. I asked one officer once why they command such respect, and he said the public don’t like them being sworn at. Its an offence and the courts would back them up if they nicked someone for it, which would not happen over here. I had someone make death threats to me, it was in custody at the time, so ‘didn’t count’. Suffice to say a response plan was put in place and I had to tell the wife that if I saw that person I’d tell her and move away as the last thing I’d want is to see something happen to me in front of the kids.
    Can’t see that happening in the US somehow, but maybw that’s just me.

    1. I’ve always disliked the US habit of calling everyone Sir….it is just like the “have a nice day” bit, totally without sincerity.

      As for cops being threatened in the US, although I think comparing us to them is chalk and cheese, you only have to watch their cop shows to see that they are often not treated with respect. There isn’t a day I wouldn’t rather be one of us than them. I just prefer how we police. Whenever I have met a US cop the first thing I get asked is “is it true you don’t carry firearms?” It is almost impossible for them to see this as a reality. I love the fact I don’t need to carry one.

      There will always be exceptions (and they are the ones that make good tv) but I am enormously proud of how the British Police work.

      1. Please don’t get me wrong. I am immensely proud of the UK police and I am immensely proud to have worked as a UK police officer. It is precisely BECAUSE I am proud of them and their reputation that I think it right to speak out when I fear it is being endangered by the actions of anyone, including serving officers.

        Bad policing, as everyone knows, is a thousand times more impactive than good policing on the perceptions of the police amongst the public and drowns out all the good work of the vast, vast majority of officers the vast, vast majority of the time.

  5. Good well written insightful blog… I also had many moments in this particular episode where I felt the officers demonstrated the worst kind of attitude. I am also aware that I was not in possession of all the facts.
    I felt there was more shown here that called the force into disrepute than Nick Manning’s tweets.
    Again I acknowledge that this is my own opinion and I only have the footage that Channel 4 showed for maximum effect as my basis for that opinion.
    As a ‘Police supporting’ member of the public it really concerned me. I hope and pray the positive outcome of this programme is that each officer viewing it take’s time to reflect on their own behaviours and adjusts them to one’s that improve their policing by being more discerning in the use of their powers.
    I do not wish to cause offence or be judgemental part of my character is to be mindful of my own behaviours in order to improve my humanity…I have a LONG way to go ask my kids and Hubby!

    1. Thank you for your comments. The impact of the programme on ordinary members of the public is of particular interest.

      Fascinating comparison with the action taken (albeit by another Force) in relation to Nick Manning’s comments on Twitter (search for his name on Twitter if you haven’t picked up the story).

  6. A great piece. I am glad – as I thought on the night – that it was not just me watching this programme with a degree of revulsion. My own force was featured in the first series of Coppers (tactical aid unit) and the depiction of them did not not go down well with command. I doubt this latest episode will go down well with Nottinghamshire command either.

    There were three main scenes that appealed me and Peter has alluded to them above – the street drunk pushed around like a pinball until falling over, the ragging around of 14 yr olds at a party that spilled out in to the street and the father of a young lad prevented from seeing him in an ambulance. This last one had me shouting at the Telly – no one would stop me from tending to my family in such a situation and they way he was dealt with was disgraceful. As Peter noted, the cops seemingly started to try and backtrack but the damage was done.

    I agree with you Peter about the levels and standards of supervision. The fact some of the sergeants were making the post incident comments to camera typifies this. I would argue that in addition to the reasons you raise, you could add a fifth – arrogance. Police officers have a tendency to think and act arrogantly. We are the law. We can do what we want and you must do as we say. We can seldom be wrong. Certainly at street level I have found this to be the case. The references to the big gang that is the police would back this up. It may also explain why so many stop/search encounters go wrong and are loathed by the public – the public are often treated with contempt by police.

    I love this programme but think it is damaging our reputation more than enhancing it. The first episode of the 2nd series – whilst better than this – was hardly glowing either. Comments about dead bodies and burglary victims won’t have gone down well.

    I’m certain that the command will have had little editorial right over this. So I’ve no doubt they too will have reeled at what we all saw.

    Great post Peter. You’ve reassured me I wasn’t alone in my thoughts!

  7. I note from the start of this blog that the phrase ‘extreme violence directed toward the police’ Thus showing immediately which side of the fence the writer is on. But that’s immaterial … there is a point to be made in fairness to all that the police are often seen and really do carry on in real life as seen on the telly … ( yes maybe it was edited to show only what the producers wanted us to see ) . But the police have, for a long time believed they could treat the public badly, and then wonder why they get so badly treated back! But i must take up one classic piece ‘we are the biggest gang in nottingham’ Oh how i laughed! the same phrase was being used by the local constabulary where i live ( but not nottingham) 30 years ago. And it is a worrying phrase, But also there were pieces of film showing possible excessive use of force BUT even as shown on that programme the police know if anyone went to to the IPCC to complain, the complaint would NOT be upheld, which basically is why the police are totally mistrusted by the public and then the oldest argument of all comes up .. If the police are not going to respect the public then it can not be reciprocated. Oddly this is something the police believe should be the other way round ..That the public should respect the police to earn their fairness and gentleness!

  8. Christopher, having had a quick search of other postings you have made I understand why you perceive this as a “sides” issue. It isn’t. You’ll note that most people here criticising how the officers behaved are police officers and feel uncomfortable in what they witnessed. In fact, Peter’s original posting is almost entirely critical of the behaviour (with the mitigation that the full circumstances are not clear.)

    I don’t know where you get the idea that we think that the IPCC investigations will automatically clear us. It certainly isn’t the case. Further to this the, often false, claims made against us take a huge amount of time to be investigated and can be devastating to us. For instance, I had a member of public claim that I assaulted them and pushed them to the ground and that they broke their ankle. I wasn’t even present for most of the incident. It was all on CCTV and it was proven that the person making the claim was absolutely lying. However, even with that CCTV proof, the investigation still took months. On top of that I can almost guarantee that people reading this will assume that I was just lucky and got away with it.

    Whilst I am sure you have points to make it would appear your vitriol gets in the way. You appear to assume that all police act in the same way and all the public feel the same way about them. My experience says that this is far from the truth. Perhaps if you could provide the evidence to support your claim then it would help us understand?

  9. Great blog! There were some unfortunate incidents shown which have not gone down too well amongst serving police officers and members of the public but as some people have quite rightly said the programme has been edited and we are not aware of all the facts. I hope the officers involved in some of these unfortunate incidents have watched it back and taken note of how they could have behaved differently. On the whole the boys in blue in the UK do a fantastic job and should get more support!!

  10. Enjoyed reading this Blog, both myself and partner are serving special constables with 13 years service between us.

    We both thought the tactics and language by some of these officers was over the top and unnecessary. On the other hand we also have to remember that you do have to talk to some people in a language that they understand, and lets being frank they dont understand politeness all that often.

    We will continue to follow this program as it is very eye opening and at times gives us all a good laugh.

  11. Police here should be more like the rest of the world where we are armed and take no shit from people. Support form govt and senior officers would be nice rather than concentrating on their own promotion and careers. I accepts there are idiots in this job that make us all look bad but let’s be a force again rather than a service and bring order back to this god forsaken country.

  12. may i please reply to jon … NO the public do not want an armed police force. the prospect of more tasers is bad enough let alone guns. BUT there is a very valid point also … what the public want to see is police that they know and trust, let us be honest most police are strangers to their arestees and other ‘customers’ and vice versa …. but i dont just mean front line officers it goes to for the senior officers too , stability itself causes and helps trust! This is not a godforsaken country it is Great Britain and long may it remain so !

  13. I was in the police 20 years ago. I left because of the police brutality towards the public. Before joining I thought that police officers were great. Once in I saw so many arrogant narcistic and psychopathic personalities. The reality is police forces attract psychopaths who enjoy power. I saw a sergeant smash a mans head into a desk. An officer break a 15 year olds arm because he was skate boarding it goes and on and on and that always will do. Yes there are some great officers and some average but the psychopath element will not change that is a reality.

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