In this short blog I explain why I think the new Act is well overdue and more importantly why this isn’t just about the legislation itself, it’s about something even more important for policing and society… discretionary effort.
I’ll focus on policing but many of the points I make hold true for all emergency workers and volunteers so please take it as read that they are relevant to many other professions.
One of the strengths of the police culture, our ‘can-do’ attitude, is also one of our weaknesses when it comes to normalising the abnormal. For example it’s not normal to be abused, assaulted, complained about and criticised by the media as part of your job. It’s not normal to experience trauma or view indecent images every day either but we usually do all do this without really mentioning it. We shrug our shoulders and accept it as par for the course.
Most of us have been around the criminal justice system long enough to realise the new Act is unlikely to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ let’s be honest about that. But maybe that’s not what it’s all about? Let me explain with a famous World War 2 story that I believe is still relevant today and timely to recount the week after Remembrance Sunday. It’s also relevant given the current trend for some members of the public to stand idly by filming police officers being assaulted.
During the Burma campaign the British were losing ground fast with reports of soldiers refusing to engage the enemy. The head honchos decided to despatch Field Marshal William Slim to inject some steel into the troops which they assumed was the reason for their lack of success. Slim may have looked every inch the square-jawed military leader of old but he was far from that, he was a man ahead of his time because he understood people and what made them tick. He understood discretionary effort.
Landing in Burma he found that more soldiers were dying from malaria, dysentery and infected wounds than enemy bullets. About 4 times more per month actually. He formed a view that there were 3 things keeping his soldiers moving forward into danger which I’d urge you to reflect upon as a police officer.
First adrenalin…..we’ve all done things high on adrenalin and afterwards asked ourselves what on earth we were thinking of. Secondly camaraderie……if the person next to me is going in I’ll go in too.
With me so far? Good, because the third thing is by far the most important…. a reasonable belief that if we put ourselves in harms way, and get hurt, our organisation and our society will be there to pick us up. In Burma they’d lost sight of this critical issue because they had failed to look after their people with clean water, good medical care and decent food.
So Slim didn’t need more tanks, he needed better logistics near to where the work was to recover the psychological contract that had been broken. He sorted this out and turned the Burma campaign around and that’s why the book of Slim’s campaign ‘From Defeat to Victory’ is mandatory reading at Sandhurst. It should be mandatory reading for police leaders too.
Back to policing..
There has always been physical danger but that’s the risk we can see. We are recognised as being amongst the highest trauma-exposed workers in the world and trauma brings in far more people ranging from CSIs to call takers. It’s the police’s daily lived experience and we’ve normalised it.
However, just like in Slim’s Burma we have expectations (either consciously or unconsciously) that keep us moving forward into dangerous situations. As an employer I take those expectations seriously because I understand how it feels and I understand how important it is for British society to keep our side of the bargain. The new Act is a clear statement , the will of Parliament, to recognise it’s not ‘ok’ to assault public servants who put themselves in harms way to keep the public safe. That means something.
Even if the aggravating factor doesn’t add years to a sentence, the legislation has a purpose in reminding police officers that the vast majority of the public believe in them, trust them and value the essential work they do. After years of being criticised for every clanger that gets dropped and then being investigated after doing our best, it’s long overdue.
I now write Victim Impact statements for every police assault and they go on your file as part of the Federation’s 7 point plan.
Some lawyers have queried what this is supposed to achieve because they may not add weight to the sentence…they may do now. What the courts do isn’t always within my control but what is in my control is sending a clear message to the prosecutor, the courts and the defendant…we won’t accept it’s ok to assault police officers and staff’.
More importantly our people hopefully get the message that we care about them and we will be there for them if they get hurt whilst keeping the rest of us safe.
It’s the least they can expect.