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  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.