Notes for Michael

Congratulations, dear brother of mine, on your recent ‘swearing in’ as a Police Constable. You are now officially an agent of the state, and we have given you power over us so you may act as our protector, an enforcer of our laws.

It is natural that you will wish to do the job with which you have been tasked in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Without doubt, it is this noble sentiment that has led some of your colleagues to call for more powers: To detain suspects for longer without charge; and to retain our DNA on a database. It must be frustrating when we prevaricate over such requests.

Remember that there are two kinds of freedom that we strive for. The first of these is freedom from the harrassment of other individuals. By enforcing laws and catching crimminals, you are ideally placed to offer protection against the people who would do me harm and steal my laptop. However, we also require freedom from harassment from the machinery of state, a machinery of which you are now a part. It is therefore much more difficult for you to protect us against this threat, and you may only be able to do so through inaction, rather than the more proactive approach that you will be trained in.

In the week that you take up your duties, you might find it offensive for me to talk about state harassment and abuse of powers. Please remember that when we make laws, set bench-marks and draw moral lines on the pavement, we must do so for all time, and all situations, for all citizens. I know I can trust you, and I hope I can trust the men and women you will be working with next week. But we already know that not all those who join your service are worthy of that trust… and to trust all politicians would be foolhardy!

Read Matthew Parris on ID Cards:

I just don’t want to give government — any government — that much control … I oppose them because evasion, deceit, even crime, and the irregular organisation of one’s own affairs, are part of a citizen’s weaponry of last resort against State oppression. They are weapons I may never need, but I need to know they are there.

Read David Eastman on Anonymity:

Its when computers talk to other computers that liberty disappears. Because a computer can correlate countless bits of data and create new records that would take many humans exponentially longer to do. And that gap, or grace period, is actually where anonymity lies, or did.

… or, for that matter, on civil liberties:

The outgoing Mr Blair bemoans how hard it is for the authorities to fight terrorism and maintain civil liberties. That to me seems a reasonable balance. Terrorism and road accidents are comparable; they are bad and sometimes preventable, but are a result of modern urban life.

Civil liberties on the other hand are the glue that allows trust between those who govern and everybody else. Without that trust, modern life is impossible. There is little point in being protected from one set of arbitrary beliefs only to be subject to another.

I’m afraid the obstacles we place in your way, and the high-standards of proof we set, are all necessary. Yes – it is a problem that the two types of freedom, the two types of protection, are often antagonistic. It is a paradox that giving you more powers to protect us in one way, will actually end up harming us in another. It is a paradox that your occasional failures might demonstrate the success of our system. In striking the balance between the two, we are in effect asking you to do a job, and then willfully hampering you in your efforts! Its a devil of a task… which is precisely why we respect you for taking on the challenge.

10 thoughts on “Notes for Michael”

  1. An agent of the state????

    That, Robert, in one succint phrase is the most daming indictment of the damage that has been done to the ethos of the Police over the last few decades.

    Read Peel’s Principles here. Especially no.7:
    “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence. “

  2. Are you suggesting that I am simply mistaken about my conception of what a police-man is; or that this conception (right or wrong) is symptomatic of a wider change in relationship between the people and the police?

    I’m obviously not in the police myself, so the former is obviously a possibility.
    Although after watching films like Taking Liberties and hearing how the blame was shifted around in the Jean Charles de Menezes case, I cannot help but feel that “agent of the state” it is the most appropriate term.

    Further, I’m pretty sure that the police are vested with powers that ordinary citizens lack, which doesn’t really chime with Peel’s point that:

    police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

    Alternatively, it sounds very sinister, but if one argues that “The State” is/should be synonymous with “The People” then it becomes less threatening, and more in line with Peel’s vision.

    Either way, I think my paradoxes hold, no?

  3. I think they’re agents of political correctness, they long ago lost interst in anything but hassling motorists and litter louts. All they seem to do nowadays is collect statistics and make videos of crime being comitted. Crime prevention and detection are too judgemental and old fashioned it would seem.
    We need to be policed as the Cubans are, there are 3 visible types of police in Havana, they are all armed and they are literally on every street corner. Result – next to no crime. Compare this to the UK cities which increasingly resemble the wild west with teenagers shooting each other at will. No amount of sociological theory about wealth distribution or social justice will persuade me that there is any other viable solution. Iron fist in the Iron glove, its the only way forward.

  4. Matt, you are beginning to sound very totalitarian! You perceive everywhere a creeping ideology, and prescribe illiberal fear tactics as the solution. Rather than make accusations that would endorse Godwin’s Law… I instead accuse you of facetiousness and hyperbole.

    And as to the substance of your point – come off it. I concede that the police are not immune from misplaced political correctness. But it is not the biggest danger. The links and examples given above (de Menezes, DNA database, longer detentions, etc) are evidence of many things, but Political Correctness is not one of them.

  5. This is an interesting discussion. I like to see the police as members of the public who have been given special powers just as psychiatrists are given special powers to detain people who are mentally ill. Police are put in a privileged position and must use their powers thoughtfully and responsibly if they are to maintain our trust. I don’t think their task is made easier by giving them “targets” which encourages them to abuse their powers.

    On a personal note all of my not infrequent dealings with the police have led me to view them in a very positive light. I am aware this may be seen as naive but I think you should speak as you find. No doubt there are bent and malignant coppers as there are bent and malignant everthing else . Not all doctors are Dr Shipman even though the way the goverment are acting lead you to believe they are are (but that is another story) not all coppers are bent and/or abuse their powers. The police are victims of stereotyping and I do think calling them agents of the state even though this phrase in itself is not incorrect but is not helpful in this respect.

    So good luck to your brother and I hope his honour and ethical and moral values won’t be seriously challenged.

  6. Robert – You are correct that I am exaggerating for effect (someone has to act as a counterpoint to the liberal consensus !) but it is a common perception that the police are so mired in paperwork, targets and the “process” of law enforcement (as opposed to the practice) that they are by and large incapable of acting as anything other than paramilitary social workers and state sponsored bureaucrats.
    For example on the radio this morning I heard that police are considering charges against a man because a burgular fell from his balcony. On the news last night, rather then making arrests, the Police are complaining to offcom about a channel 4 programme which alledged racism, sexism, homophobia and incitement to murder at mosques – since when were the Police arbiters of TV programme editing ? And witness their inefectiveness at tackling rising gun crime in London and Manchester. They seem to lack direction and confidence, particularly in adressing crime comitted by sections of the population outside the “mainstream” group. The tragic irony of this is that most criminals operate close to home and the victims are invariably from the same community. Personally I would prefer a rough round the edges police force which occasionally pissed people off, but maintained order, to a sensitive one that did neither. After all, what is the point of a non authoritarian police force ?

    Good luck to your brother though – I admire anyone that takes on a challenge and is willing to do something positive for society, even if society often makes it difficult.

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