Stress, sexism and sacrifice of ideals

A London secondary school teacher explains why she had to leave her dream job as a constable after o

I applied to join the police in January 1996 following national advertising for the Accelerated Promotion Scheme for Graduates. My intention was to use my intellect and leadership skills to make a difference to society. Throughout the recruitment process and the initial training, I was led to believe that victim care counted, suspects were innocent until proven guilty and that my job (as sworn in by a local magistrate) was to serve and protect.

On the day that my two-year probation period ended I was interviewed and told I had been successful in gaining a post within a plain-clothes unit called the Proactive Team. Six weeks later I was signed off by my GP with stress. Six weeks after that I resigned. The question is, why? Why would I give up my dream career?

Sadly, the people I found supportive and easy to get along with were members of the public. All the negativity emanated from my colleagues back at the station. Officers who join up for all the right reasons either have to assimilate and sacrifice their principles or leave and pursue another career.

Women are treated as sex objects and as less than men. There were constant comments from my colleagues and supervisors about my weight, such as “Your arse is disappearing, those trousers are hanging off you” from a sergeant. Discussions of rape victims included references to their being “easy”, “right goers” and their “asking for it”.

Officers were often excessively violent with suspects, offenders and passers-by. I once arrested a 16-year-old for attempted TWOC (taking a vehicle without consent) and had the youth handcuffed on the floor. My colleague picked him up and literally threw him into the van. I made it clear that I would not support anybody who did this in my presence and was ostracised by others who felt this was disloyal.

I am not surprised at all by the tragic events that precipitated Ian Tomlinson’s death. If the officer who struck and then pushed Tomlinson is a member of the Territorial Support Group, he spends his days waiting for action, and far too many officers join seeking excitement and physical confrontation. Ex-forces officers are the worst bullies – the laws of the battlefield are not appropriate to the streets of our capital.

The fact that my methods led to higher conviction rates was a bone of contention, but the officers I worked with despised graduates. They were suspicious as to why anybody with a degree would want to do their job and also seemed to believe that intellect was a negative in their line of work. A lot of police officers who joined 15 years ago would not even have had to pass GCSE English or maths.

I most loathed the habit police officers have of dividing people up into scroats (those who have been in trouble before and anyone who associates with them) and those who deserve good manners. This is often a matter of postcodes, and certainly income-determined. My inspector once told a member of the public to “piss off”, then told me not to worry, as he would never be sober long enough to find a pen and a piece of paper. Innocent until proven guilty does not exist.

In many cases, there is no empathy for the victim or suspect, just a desire for retribution or payback. When a former schoolmate of mine died of an overdose aged 27, the comment was made at morning briefing: “One down, a thousand to go.” I am certain that if Ian Tomlinson had been wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, he would be alive today.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?