On the 22nd of August this year a Hawker Hunter engaged in a display at the Shoreham Air Show crashed onto the A27 and burst into flames. The road is a busy dual carriageway and was full of traffic. This tragic event sadly claimed 11 lives. It is quite remarkable in some regards that the loss of life wasn’t much higher.
The lives of the families of those killed changed that day and will never be the same again. There will be many people who were on the A27 that day who were able to walk away from it. The scars, memories and trauma that witnessing such an event engenders will live with them forever. There will be people on the airfield who saw the plane go down and the ball of flame balloon into the sky who will struggle to cope with what they saw and will need help. The true human impact of the event will probably never be truly measured. Some may just experience a behaviour change and never actually link it to the events they were caught up in that day. It goes without saying that it is a traumatic time for many people.
The police and other emergency services attended the incident. They worked tirelessly at the scene to deal with the aftermath of the events which included the grim reality of the recovery of the bodies of those killed. This is not a job any of them joined the emergency services to deal with but they all knew that it was a very real possibility. The impact such events have on emergency service workers is often overlooked in the general media. We are just expected to get on with it. It’s our job after all. As an example, the global reaction to the death of Aylan Kurdi was huge and rightly so. It was a real “wake up and smell the coffee” moment for those of us sat watching the refugee crisis sweeping across Europe from the comfort of our armchairs. Yet in the midst of this tragedy who gave a thought to the police officer carrying Aylan off the beach? He was just doing his job but the impact of that event upon him as an individual could be huge and life changing.
In the police (and other emergency services) we deal with tragedy and horrific death every single day. We see the things and deal with situations that many people couldn’t stomach. We aren’t trained for this but we experience it and either build up a way of dealing with it or crumble and leave the service. Worst still is those who think they are coping with it when in reality they are not. One of the methods that police use to tackle such events is to minimise it with humour. A dark humour that is shared amongst colleagues in a small group or team. A way of breaking the tension in what is otherwise a pretty grim situation. This isn’t unique to the police though. FleetStreetFox once wrote of some of the atrocities she had seen in foreign countries as a journalist and how they drank beer and laughed about it in the evening. Not because they didn’t care. Not because they weren’t appalled at what they had seen but because it was a coping strategy. The same sort of behaviour will be present within the military and many other similar organisations or groups.
This dark humour is not something that is promoted by the service but it is something that is known to happen. A necessary and required release valve on the pressure cooker of the job we do. There is one aspect that has always been sacrosanct. It is private. It is in-house. It is not under any circumstances for public consumption. The reason is because it is dark, likely to be insensitive, likely to minimise the tragedy and would be painful and offensive to those affected by the events. It’s not private because we don’t want you to know it happens. Most rational people will know it happens they just don’t want to be exposed to it.
There will no doubt be psychologists and others who would argue that such a strategy is detrimental to officers and there are better ways to deal with traumatic incidents. I think there probably are and many cops will have suffered from undiagnosed PTSD for decades but in most cases such behaviour is just tuning out the awful to allow you to get on with the job in hand.
I’ve been there, I’ve done it and to be fair, when the situation arises I still do. Yet it always remains private. Between people I know and trust and who also know me and that I’m not being deliberately insensitive. So what did the officers in Shoreham do? The details of the incident are sketchy but it would seem that two officers are involved. A social media message was sent from close to the scene of the disaster and indications are that it was via Snapchat. The image itself was apparently not contentious but the comments attached to it were. The officers are reported in the media as being investigated for gross misconduct. They are both probationers (less than 2 years service) and instead of being suspended have been placed in non public facing roles. DCC Olivia Pinkney has said she doesn’t want them earning pay from the public purse whilst sat at home suspended and I agree with her. The message was sent to another person who took offence from it and immediately reported it to the force. Only time will now reveal the facts of the case and the final outcome.
Whilst the full facts are unknown it is not appropriate to apportion blame. However, there are a few things that come from this that are worth raising.
If you voice an insensitive or inappropriate comment as a coping strategy that falls on the ears of someone who disapproves then you could end up in trouble. Over the last 20 years the police have positively encouraged staff to blow the whistle on colleagues who say the wrong thing. They have even disciplined people for not speaking up and challenging it when they think they should have. The dark grim humour that has been used in the past and still does, is for close friends. Confidantes. Trusted colleagues who understand you and can determine between the pressure release and the malicious. It’s not for discussion on the morning briefing. It’s not something to be shouting about on the telephone in a crowded office. It’s definitely NOT something for social media.
There is likely to be much debate about whether this sort of coping strategy should exist at all but it’s the social media angle I want to finish with. It might be that the message recipient was a trusted friend who felt let down and appalled by the content. I can easily imagine a holiday postcard type shot with a stupid comment being sent. It might be the two officers trusted each other and drew someone into the discussion who should never have been part of it. I could speculate all day but it would remain conjecture. There will, however, be cops (and others) who attended the scene at Shoreham and traded comments that helped them deal with the events. Comments that outside of that group would be viewed as insensitive. They will be looking on as this case unfolds thinking “they said nothing worse than many others but voiced it/shared it in completely the wrong way”.
That said police officers doing stupid things on social media has been a constantly recurring theme since I got involved in this field. Maybe the officers thought the message was private. Maybe the officers trusted the recipient and are now sat puzzled as to what went wrong. However it has unfolded let’s remember some simple facts.
The written word without expression and tone can easily be misinterpreted; even amongst close friends. (You’ve had a snotogram email haven’t you?).
If you think sharing something on social media is private. You’re wrong! It is easily captured and shared.
If you think your locked Facebook account keeps stupid comments private then you’re wrong.
If you think you’re anonymous on Twitter you’re wrong! If you don’t believe me do something really stupid and wait how long it takes for PSD to knock on your door. *
When are cops going to learn that the digital world they populate as a private individual is not private and their online behaviour is subject to the same expectations placed upon them as a serving officer? The real world and the digital are not two separate places. They are merged. They are the same and the sooner cops grasp this the less will be tempted to think otherwise and fall foul of the code of ethics.
These two cops have either been blatantly stupid or have allowed a coping strategy reserved for a close tight circle to spill over into an online space that is public. They have embarrassed themselves, their colleagues and their force. Let’s be clear though. This is not a training deficiency within the police as a whole on the use of social media. This, at best, is bad judgement and a complete lack of common sense. At worst… well if it really is that bad there’s no place in the job for you.
* There are ways to increase anonymity by using non standard browsers. Read The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett. Scary stuff but you can still be found.