Thursday, 15 December 2016

Very Brainy Policemen and My Criminal Career

So, all new police recruits will have to possess a degree! And the Police Federation, which represents the ordinary policeman or woman, agrees, as this will unify standards across all the forty-odd police forces in the country.

And you can see the sense in insisting on brainy coppers. Things have moved on from Sergeant Dixon of Dock Green, who, I seem to remember (this was black-and-white TV of the early 1960s), did his bobby-on-the-beat stuff armed only with an avuncular air, a human heart, and an 'Evening, all' as his standard exit line. I'm certainly not saying he wasn't intelligent. And his communication skills were, for the time, pretty good. He was clearly a down-to-earth bloke who knew all about petty crime and how to divert youngsters from it, and how to speak kindly to the unfortunates of this world, and respectfully to his superiors. But he was Old School in an old-fashioned era. His approach wouldn't cut any ice with an invisible modern terrorist, or a sophisticated financial crook adept at conning people online.

The world of 2016 needs high-IQ specialists, many of them, to match the type of crime that is now most troublesome. Criminals go for big stuff nowadays: knocking off a bit of lead piping doesn't pay enough to make it worthwhile.

A lot of older people will say that British streets would be safer if there were bobbies on the beat, walking the streets at night, everywhere, keeping an eye on lead piping, and reassuringly saying 'Evening, all' to honest citizens about their honest business.

It's a fantasy, of course. When I was young the 'bobby on the beat' was a stern, awe-inspiring figure to avoid, because he made you feel guilty even if you were as innocent as driven snow. Anyone who has read much of these chronicles must surely have got the idea that I am, and always have been, a person who respects the law, and would feel shame at breaking it. I was no different as a child. And when a passing policeman once caught me up on a wall, and told me to get down - this must have been around 1962, when I was ten - I paid him earnest attention, and said I'd comply at once. And I would have, had I dared to jump down. But I was pretty high up, and scared of heights even then, and I thought it best to inch my way further along the wall towards a spot where it was much easier to get off it. Of course, he came back. And caught me still on that wall, just further along. He was annoyed. He spoke sternly to me. Naturally I stammered out my name and address.

I went home mortified. But that was nothing to the shock and shame I felt when, at five o'clock, the policeman rang our front door bell. Mum answered. The policeman explained why he had come. I suppose this was classic Dixon of Dock Green stuff: Having a Timely Word With The Parents. In case I made a career of letting 'friends' cajole me into getting up on walls, which, as everyone knows, is the first step in a criminal apprenticeship. Mum was bewildered at his revelation, and equally bewildered at my saying nothing about it. So was Dad when he came home.

I wasn't punished. I was already skewered by hot, red-faced tearful shame and embarrassment, and it probably showed. I also felt that that I'd been silly for not jumping down. The boys with me - the two brothers who had got me up on that wall - they had jumped down, and they had made themselves very scarce. I felt very, very foolish.

The impact on my dealings with the police thereafter were significant. Never again would they catch me doing anything wrong. And apart from dutifully reporting the odd motor accident in the decades that followed - the policeman on the public enquiry desk was usually bored once I confirmed nobody was injured, and only very reluctantly took a statement - my contact with the police was minimal.

I was convinced that my 1962 misdemeanour had remained on file. In the days before computers it was easy to believe this. A full report had been typed up on a sheet of paper, and put into a file. An index card had been created. I had a record. I had 'form'.

But gradually I grew up and realised that Not Getting Off Walls When A Policeman Tells You To wasn't such a great crime after all. There must have been a report, but perhaps the thing had been weeded out and shredded long ago. Maybe; maybe not. Anyway, I relaxed. Clearly I was now viewed as a Good Citizen. It became possible to approach a policeman or policewoman and ask for directions, or even to chat with them.

I was still careful, though. Somebody might remember. I might even be legendary among the older men, the sort who sift through their memories of Old Cases when reopening Unsolved Investigations. As on New Tricks, currently being re-run on the Drama TV channel.

'Wasn't there that case in Barry in the early 1960s? The one where the bobby had to speak to the parents?'
'What, the celebrated 'Walking-on-the-Wall' case? 
'That's the one.'
'Ah, one of the standard cases we all learned about at Hendon! Still is, I hear. It's bound to be on file.'
'Got it up now. Let off with a caution. But are you thinking what I'm thinking...?'
'Where's she living now?'
'Sussex.'
'Get your coat on. Time we had a word with her.' 

Well, it could have happened.

My last substantial contact with the police was in 2009. Two glum-faced policemen came to the Cottage at one-o'clock in the morning on 26th March - I was still up - to tell me that Dad had died unexpectedly at home. (The coroner's office was briefly involved) Then, months later, in December 2009, having still not found Dad's wallet, I worked out that the police must have taken it into their custody, and that I needed to see them in my capacity as executrix of his estate. This involved a trip to the police station at Burgess Hill, and then another trip to Haywards Heath police station, where I saw a senior duty officer. It was the only time that I have ever been 'interviewed' by the police. I had to establish my identity without a current passport. I have to say I was received with a sympathy and sensitivity I had not expected. A sealed plastic package was ready for me. I had to sign for it. My heinous past record was not brought up. There were no trip-up questions about walls, nor indeed about lead piping. I was thankful for that. I went home thinking that the police had treated me pretty well. I hadn't been beaten up like they did in The Sweeney. It had been most professional.

And now the face of policing is to become even more professional, with super-intelligent recruits applying their expertise (and fresh ideas) to crime. Thank goodness. The super-intelligent criminals had been getting the upper hand. You need to match them.

Mind you, who is going to deal with the petty thieves, street-corner drug dealers, and other saddo riff-raff? Will these New Policepersons understand them? Because if you can't understand, there is no meeting of minds, and no effective persuasion to adopt a different kind of behaviour. You need to speak a language that can be recognised and listened to. This is the argument - now lost - for having all police personnel start at the bottom, where they will rub shoulders with society's worst.

I wonder what the criminal world thinks about this notion of suave, brainy, articulate, media-savvy, university-educated policemen who have never arrested a drunk, or a pickpocket, or a car thief? Bewilderment, perhaps. Well, I don't mind if a whole generation of villains are wrong-footed.

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