When Getting it Wrong is Part of the Job Description

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Who'd have thought the day would come when the police spoke with affection about the IRA?

But the official police line now appears to be, "You have to realise we are facing an entirely new threat. Today's terrorists are far more dangerous than the IRA, you know." They seem on the verge of saying, "At least the IRA had manners. Our surveillance teams noted that when procuring weapons they'd say, 'I'd like a pound of your finest Semtex PLEASE, and I bid you a fine afternoon sir'." Maybe this explains why so many of them blew themselves up with their own bombs. A team would plant their device, then they'd all stand by the doorway saying, "After you," "No, after YOU," and they'd never get out of the place before it went off.

But one question is more puzzling than any other. How do the police manage to get the wrong people EVERY time? For 30 years, from the Birmingham pub bombings, through Guildford, Tottenham, Cardiff, Harry Stanley, Jean Charles de Menezes and now in Forest Gate, in every high profile case they've jailed or shot the wrong people. They'd do better if they organised a compulsory monthly lottery, and whoever got the winning numbers was jailed for life, with their picture in newspapers under a headline saying, "The Face of Evil", and the winner being shot if it was a rollover month. At least then, statistically, they'd accidentally get a genuine criminal every so often.

This suggests the problem is more than incompetence. For example, there must be firefighters who make mistakes, but if in every major fire for 30 years the fire service had responded to the call by hosing down the wrong house altogether it would suggest there was something wrong with the institution as a whole.

I may have glimpsed the answer a couple of years ago, when I was invited to Rochester police station by an angry policeman who'd read an article I wrote criticising the police. I was greeted by one of them who was a bit late. "Sorry I'm late," he said, "Only I've put this teenage lad in the cells who we caught playing football on private property. Sneaked through a hole in a fence. I've told him we're ringing his parents. He's only shit himself, hasn't he? Made a right mess. Anyway thanks for coming."

I said, "So presumably this happened because the lad's terrified at what his parents will say."

"No," said the copper, "None of the parents give a toss what their kids get up to round here."

"If his parents don't give a toss, why would he shit himself?" I asked.

"Look, I'm TELLING you, they don't give a toss."

And round in circles we went, until he changed the subject, insisting on drawing a graph to explain what's happened with crime. Along the bottom of a sheet of paper he wrote 1940, 1950, all the way up to 2000. Then up the left hand side he wrote the word "things". "Now," he said as eagerly as a scientist about to explain how he's invented a time machine, "over the years, as we've got richer, the amount of things has gone up. See?" And he drew a line that got higher as it went along the page towards 2000.

"Right," I said, wondering if I was missing something. He seemed to expect me to yell, "My God, sir. You've cracked it. The whole world has been under the assumption that the amount of things has been going down but your ingenious equation proves we are all mistaken."

Then he drew a horizontal line on the graph and said, "And THIS line is the number of police there's been, which from 1940 to today has stayed the same. So over the years the criminals have got more things to steal, but the number of police has stayed the same. And that's why there's more crime."

As I tried to point out the flaws in his reasoning he said something genuinely poignant: "I'm not thick you know, mate. I read lots of newspapers."

And for a moment I felt sorry for him. Here was someone who clearly felt he had to prove himself, and read lots of newspapers because he hoped that might make him "clever". I'm no shrink, but I'd say that feeling low in life's pecking order, he reacted by desperately seeking other people he could place lower than himself - writing them off as "not giving a toss" or terrifying them by sticking them in a cell for climbing through a hole in a fence to play football. In other words, he was a classic bully.

In most jobs these tendencies would be curtailed. Certainly a fishmonger, for example, wouldn't last long if he said, "Sorry to keep you waiting. Only one of my customers was annoying me so I've locked him up and now he's shit himself. Now what can I get for you this weekend, Mrs Pemberton?"

But in the police, there's an attitude that their role is to protect civilised society from entire areas, from whole cultural or ethnic groups, who they look down upon with utter disdain. They become professional bullies, and use their authority to stamp on anyone who questions their judgement. So whereas anyone else might think, before they organise a miniature army to raid a house, "Are we absolutely sure this is the right person?" the police charge in, confident that even if it all goes woefully, typically, and predictably wrong, they can follow their normal procedure: a) make up a pack of lies about what happened. Then b) say, "But today's terrorists are SO deadly the only way to stop them is to shoot people who are nothing to do with them whatsoever."