A policeman’s lot: happy or not?

Today the ex-rail regulator Tom Winsor’s (does that seem an odd choice to anyone else, or is is just me?) report on police pay has been published. Judging from the success of previous efforts in this regard, Mr Winsor is nothing if not optimistic. The police federation’s spokesman has already been on air talking about how unfair it all is. When challenged about the allegation that, inter alia, some police officers are able to claim 4 hours’ overtime pay simply for answering the phone outside their normal working hours, he immediately resorted to the “bad apples” metaphor. It’s always struck me as odd, and more than a little unconvincing, that seemingly uniquely amongst the multiplicity of workforces in this country, it’s only the police who seem to be prone to suffering from these bad apples in their otherwise pristine barrel. When there’s talk of racism in the force, it’s inevitably those bad apples that are to blame. The “protected indolence” that Mr Winsor has so courageously, or possibly foolishly, pointed out is again the work of those same, and seemingly tireless, suspect apples. When it comes to corruption, well, you’ve guessed it. A blameless and spotless constabulary are let down by a few misshapen coxes.

I ought at this point to state clearly a couple of important facts. The first is that being a policemen is not, and never has been, a happy lot. The nature of the job brings the force inexorably into contact with all the basest and most hideous of human actions and motivations. It cannot be the most congenial way to spend one’s waking hours – especially when a lot of those hours will be at times that no self-respecting person would be awake – consorting with rapists, murderers, wife-beaters, drug pedlars, armed robbers and all the multitude of other nefarious examples of one’s fellow citizenry. And when, as is of course too often the case, that consorting has to be done whilst enduring the slings and arrows of everything from verbal abuse to serious physical assault, then the unsavoury becomes the insufferable. It is right and proper that those on whom we call to endure such privations should be properly and adequately rewarded.

But the second is this: the police officers of our country have a choice to make. If they want (as surely they should) to be treated as a profession, then they must not behave like piece-workers on some Victorian factory floor. Professionals do not get paid by the minute (well, except lawyers, I suppose) with allowances for this that and the other. They get paid a salary and are expected to be flexible, self-motivated, and responsive not to the letter of their contract, but to the needs of the job. And on top of that, they are expected to behave professionally in their treatment of their clients. Notwithstanding that police men and women have to rub shoulders with all those unpleasant members of society described earlier, the vast majority of their clients are the rest of us – law abiding and decent members of the community. Professionals should not give way to crude stereotyping, to the analysis of “he looks like a wrong’un to me, gov”, or to the prejudices that come from racism or homophobia.

Alas, whilst there are of course many good and decent police officers, there are more rude and aggressive ones than can be dismissed as apples rotting in the barrel. I am middle class, middle aged, white, straight, physically puny; but that hasn’t stopped the police treating me like a criminal at worst, or a distracting nuisance at best. The experience of the average member of the public if they have the misfortune to have to attend a police station is about as bad, as disrespectful, and as contemptuous as that ready to greet them at a job centre. That is nothing for the police to be proud of. And I know that if my experience is not good, the experience of those who are young, black, gay, working class is worse. Much worse. I might be treated with gruff insouciance, but I’m unlikely to find myself inadvertently “tripping over a step”, or “banging my head on the car door”.

The police force is a vital public resource. It deserves our respect, and its members deserve to be properly remunerated. That’s the public’s side of the bargain. The police’s side is to behave like a group of professionals, not a group of industrial workers who must be paid for everything that’s not specified in pedantic detail in their contractual paperwork.

Addendum: It’s been properly pointed out that the police officer does not technically have a “contract of employment” since they are appointed by the Crown, and the “pedantic detail in their contractual paperwork” is in fact contained in Police Regulations. I’m happy to concede those points of precision, although the effect – that there is too much reliance on prescriptive approaches to pay and conditions – remains, in my judgement.

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