Our society not only tolerates the sort of people who want to wear uniforms and want to use weapons against civilians, it actually employs them to do so. And today some of these people may well be using Tasers against travellers at Dale Farm.
Of course, having a professional and trained police force is better than the alternative, and in no sensible way can we be described as being in a police state. However, there will be those who read the first paragraph of this post and will be outraged at my apparent disdain. The police do a difficult job, they will say, and one should just be grateful for what they do. One should not be so dismissive, others will remark, especially if you do not know the pressures and stress that the police face routinely. The feature that many of these responses will share is they are non sequiturs: they deal with something which has not been said, and criticise objections which have not been made.
There are many people — not just police officers — who do not want to hear any criticism of the police and will immediately seek to close it down. Any adverse comment about the police will mean that one is either a dangerous anarchist wanting a lawless and brutal society, or a naive fool not realising just how lucky they are to be kept safe. It is easy to be brave from a distance. And so on. One must always remember the thin blue line.
Such responses are part of a wider problem. As a society we are actually not very good at holding the police to account, and — frankly — the police are not very good at taking criticism. Accordingly, we have a situation where the police are generally left to get on with their work in return for them generally not misusing their rights and privileges. The failure of any efficient mechanisms for scrutinising the police then only become obvious with a suspicious death or some public order failure which cannot be ignored. In the meantime, the police can get away with, say, casually exceeding their powers or taking payments from private investigators as long as our streets are safe and they respond promptly to 999 calls.
One can wonder how long this unofficial social contract can last. It surely is not sustainable, especially with modern communications. The police have been caught out repeatedly lying in the aftermath of fatalities. Their attempts to spin and evade legitimate concerns about misconduct are legion. Individual police officers often threaten those who criticise with libel actions, whilst chief constables employ ever-growing (and often unhelpful) PR departments. And, as for the police complaints commission, one can be surprised that its formal name includes the word “independent”. But it may be that an age of deference is passing.
It is right that in a liberal and democratic society the State has a monopoly in the use of coercive force against citizens, but this monopoly has to be balanced with accountability and transparency. Those who rush to rubbish anyone questioning the police, or are quickly dismissive of those complaining of the use of force, are in fact not helping serving officers. They are instead entrenching a needless lack of effective communication. The abuse of libel and the over-use of PR professionals are similarly undesirable features of modern policing. However, policing ultimately requires practical co-operation and implicit consent. Wise police officers know this.
The more openly critical we can be of those who have the power to coerce us, the better. And the more the police can explain their decisions and justify their actions, the better. After all, they can have nothing to hide; even the ones wearing paramilitary uniforms and using weapons at Dale Farm.
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. He also writes the Jack of Kent blog and at The Lawyer.