Student abuse of police amid Covid forgets their bravery – Karyn McCluskey

A student body that tweeted an expletive to describe the police should remember that labelling whole groups of people is rarely helpful and that unity in this time of crisis is vital, writes Karyn McCluskey.

Police take risks with their own safety to protect the public from violence and now from the Covid-19 coronavirus
Police take risks with their own safety to protect the public from violence and now from the Covid-19 coronavirus

Last week when the rule of six was coming into force in England, two commentators were having a philosophical debate about how rules might apply. They mused, what would police do if a group of seven people were inside a house? Or, two groups of six people – socially distanced in a park – were speaking to each other? All very interesting until you remember that police are expected to intervene – no time to cogitate and ponder, but instead turn on a sixpence and police disease spread.

I met a police officer who was policing his community – no home-working for him, no lockdown with his family. He was out meeting victims, the vulnerable and the lonely; reaching out to young people in care; and showing discretionary effort by hustling other services to help address problems he saw. Always thinking “I can do something to make this better”.

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I remember clearly all the times that police officers have been in the news for deeds of great courage in the last six months. The events at the Glasgow hotel where there were multiple stabbings and an assailant whose motives, weapons and threat to themselves was unknown; the traffic officers navigating with huge professionalism the most terrible of scenes.

A colleague once told me how much he dreaded motorbike collisions – he didn’t have to say much more and I don’t think he wanted to. I know so many who have thrown themselves into freezing water to save suicidal people, and many more who have demonstrated the best of humanity when dealing with violent, dangerous people.

But I am no ingénue; I know there are some who have let the public – and police – down. Some who have committed offences: theft, drink driving, sex offences and, yes, some hate crimes. They must be dealt with swiftly and visibly. And there are other problems. The recent report by Gill Imery, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, intimated that policing must do better in relation to leadership skills and that some senior officers “lack emotional intelligence, self-awareness and strategic perspective”. They need to improve on training around diversity. The picture is not entirely rosy.

Saying that, I understood the anger of officers at the student body who tweeted ‘ACAB’ (All Cops Are B*****ds). It seems banal, doesn’t it? ACAB – a pithy series of letters and a useful shorthand for Twitter. Perhaps the group who tweeted it did so without thought and were overwhelmed at the reaction. Or maybe not, the young understand the reaction that can be provoked from the safety of a bedroom or a student dorm.

Maybe in normal times, it would have been shrugged off but these are not normal times. These are difficult, tense times. These are times where you leave the safety of your home at 6am, despite the news saying “stay at home, socially distance, no more than six, remember the virus” and then you have to break up a pub fight. You have to be up close to someone who is spitting, biting or intent on punching you. And you realise that public health messages are not for you because of the job you’re asked to do today and every day for the last six months. Then someone tweets ACAB and there isn’t a rush of condemnation for whatever reason; it isn’t understood or seen as serious. And it hurts: the sacrifices you’ve made, the risks taken, the danger faced, all dismissed by four letters.

Language is about the communication of ideas, and ideas that label whole groups of people are rarely helpful. We, as a society, are going through something new and terrifying. We can’t see or touch the enemy and it attacks whenever we are together. We must resist the urge to turn on each other, regardless of mistakes we might have made. We are physically divided right now – unity is our only hope for survival.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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