This years Centenary of the death of WS Gilbert commemorates the man who wrote these words as part of his Operetta, Pirates of Penzance ‘Our feelings we with difficulty smother, when Constabulary duty’s to be done, Ah, take one consideration with another, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one’
These words could easily have been in the mind of Sir Hugh Orde on Newsnight on Thursday evening during his interview with Emily Maitlis when as President of ACPO he rejected suggestions that the restoration of calm during the last week was due to political intervention. “The fact that politicians chose to come back [from holiday] is an irrelevance in terms of the tactics that were by then developing,” he went on “The more robust policing tactics you saw were not a function of political interference; they were a function of the numbers being available to allow the chief constables to change their tactics.”
Other Police Officers may have had Gilbert’s words in their minds
Police Federation vice-chairman Simon Reed commenting on the interview on Newsnight said the suggestion that police had changed their approach after the government stepped in was “a cheap shot” and Sir Hugh was “clearly upset”.
Acting Met Police commissioner Tim Godwin said comments were being made by people “who weren’t there”. Mr Godwin denied police had been too “timid” in their initial response to the riots on Saturday – but he said that “if police officers had the benefit of hindsight as foresight we would obviously do things slightly differently”.
It is clear that the Police are not claiming that this week was their finest hour, but they are keen to separate out their role as being responsible for operational matters and the politicians as setting the strategic objectives. Orde explained “let’s be very clear on one thing – the vital distinction between policing and politics remains. The police service will make the tactical decisions, and quite rightly and robustly, we should and must be held to account [by politicians].”
It is a shame that some senior politicians (including those who are keen to foist Policing and Crime Commissioners on us) don’t seem to understand or agree with this distinction. David Cameron said police did make mistakes over numbers and tactics. Mr Cameron on his return from holiday (after many calls for him to do so) called a meeting of the emergencies committee COBRA which Eric Pickles felt the need to point out that the prime minister had been “very much in charge” of (presumably as a good facilitative Chair!). The PM is seeking advice from the USA (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-14501282), not from a politician but from an operational Police Officer. Home Secretary Theresa May said she spoke by conference call to all police chiefs on Wednesday and “ordered that all special constables should be mobilised, all police leave should be cancelled and the robust tactics used on Tuesday by the Metropolitan Police adopted by all forces dealing with public disorder”. (Sir Hugh later said she had “no power whatsoever” do that – decisions about staffing were a matter for force commanders).
Sir Hugh’s confrontation with the Government, via the Newsnight studio should not stand in the way of his future prospects with the Met vacancy, for me he stood out head and shoulders amongst the Police Officers interviewed on national media this week. There are reports including those in the Guardian(http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/12/david-cameron-bill-bratton-met?CMP=twt_fd) that suggest David Cameron is prepared to overturn his own Police and Social Responsibility Bill (and the views of his Home Secretary) to ensure that Bill Bratton can apply for the top job. In my view I don’t think that Bratton’s experience is what is needed (I would prefer to read of Cameron listening just as attentively to some of the many people who understand the communities affected). Bratton was reported by the Telegraph as saying that young thugs and gang members should be made to “fear” the police. That seems a poor fit with the model of policing by consent that most of us value so highly in our society. Respect is never achieved through fear, not even in animals.