Policing – as easy as ABC?

On Monday 25th May 2020, Derek Chauvin took the life of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was a shocking thing to see and, like many others, I’ve spent the last few weeks doing a lot of reflecting on what happened – trying to make sense of it…

Did Derek Chauvin intend to take the life of George Floyd? With a street full of witnesses looking on, not to mention audio video recordings and no reasonable defence to be had, there would be no logic whatsoever in him doing so.

So if he didn’t intend for George Floyd to die then why would he casually, hands-in-pockets, ignore a man pleading for his life? The answer couldn’t be any simpler – because when George Floyd repeatedly gasped the words “I can’t breathe”, Derek Chauvin did not believe him.

A police officer not believing someone’s plea for life isn’t a great defence. It means that they are culpable. Very culpable. Maybe not for premeditated murder but there’s little doubt that Derek Chauvin will be convicted of unlawful killing and be sent to prison for a very long time.

For me the big question is why did Derek Chauvin disbelieve George Floyd?

Many people think the answer is that Chauvin is a racist and/or the organisation he worked for is systemically racist. I too feel that those could well be contributory factors to the actions and inaction of the police officers present that day – but I also think there may be other factors at play within the policing world that highlight a deep-rooted culture of institutionalised cynicism.

I was an impressionable 24 year old young man when I joined the police. Prior to that I’d been hidden away as an apprentice in the Sheffield steelworks and had led a pretty sheltered life. After my initial training I can remember turning up at Skegness Police Station all keen, bright and shiny. On my very first day an old-timer frontline veteran took me on one side and offered to give me his sage advice. Of course I accepted – in fact I lapped it up. He leaned forward, lowered his voice to a whisper and said: “If you want to be a good cop always remember the ABC of policing. Assume nothing. Believe no one. Confirm everything.”

This was an early indication that police officers are encouraged to have a suspicious mind-set. All coppers are bastards? Definitely not. All coppers are cynical? Definitely maybe.

Don’t get me wrong, this deep-rooted cynicism is not as bad as it used to be. When I first joined if a woman walked into the police station to report being raped it would not be uncommon for the on-duty Detective Sergeant to put the ABC of good policing into practice by shouting at the victim in order to test the robustness of her evidence. Sounds shocking doesn’t it? But that stuff used to happen.

We have tried to be more trusting. In fact some years ago police policy makers introduced a total turnaround – an investigative policy where our starting point was from a position of believing the victim. That’s another dangerous game to play as Carl Beech highlighted when we rather embarrassingly fell for his fairy stories about the perverted exploits of high level Members of Parliament.

I believe that the police as an organisation needs to seriously think about how we can encourage a culture of non-judgmental open-mindedness. However, to achieve this utopia of cynical-free policing there is another major issue that needs addressing and I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s a massive problem – a street copper’s sceptical distrusting model of the world is reinforced constantly by the public at large because the public at large lie to them all day and every day.

Within a few years of joining the police I had become totally desensitised to hearing lies. Dishonesty and distortion of the truth became my workaday ‘normal’. The constant flow of lies endorse, encourage and validate a copper’s suspicious mind-set.

They usually came from the mouth of defendants but also sometimes, witnesses and ‘victims’ giving their personalised version of the truth – ask Carl Beech.

And don’t look for racial discrimination here. When it comes to lying to the police there is no bigotry, bias or prejudice – it’s a very level playing field – almost everybody does it. Black, white, male, female, working class, middle-class and well-off Government personal advisors – everybody.

Replies on arrest of “It’s a fair cop guv you got me bang to rights” went out of fashion with Dixon of Dock Green. I’ve shown shoplifters clear and undeniable CCTV evidence of them stealing items and even then they’ve responded “Nah I didn’t do it”. Sometimes it was a nice change to have a ‘no comment’ interview so I could have a break from listening to their lies.

Why do they do that? That’s easy – because they can. There is no penalty, no price to pay. We, the police, instantly forgive and forget all the lies and timewasting we’ve just endured. It’s extremely rare they will be charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice. But isn’t that exactly what lying to a police officer is?

And if I sound cynical it’s because I am. That’s my point really. I wasn’t at all cynical when I first joined the police. I was full of positivity and wanted to right all the wrongs in the world. So what happened? People lied to me. A lot.

It’s very common for a detainee to feign discomfort, perhaps complaining that the officer is assaulting them. “You’re hurting me” “I’ve got a bad arm/leg/back/wrist/shoulder…” The scale of this behaviour is often directly proportionate to the number of bystanders and number of iPhones recording the event.

Once in a police vehicle it’s common for a prisoner to complain “These handcuffs are too tight”. I would always check by slipping my little finger between the handcuff and the detainee’s wrist. They would usually be properly applied and double-locked, meaning they cannot self-tighten, and if not I’d quickly adjust. I’ve then watched dozens of times as the detainee bends their wrists deliberately against the metal cuff to cause red markings on their wrists. They can then show these marks to the Custody Sergeant to ‘prove’ the cuffs were on too tight. The Sergeant will record the ‘injury’ whilst unconcernedly rolling their eyes because it’s a trick they see every single day and three times every Friday and Saturday late shift. It’s just another form of lie.

But that’s a million miles away from Minneapolis, Minnesota, isn’t it?

No, not really because there have also been occasions when prisoners have collapsed in front of cops here in the UK and the police officers present have nonchalantly watched them die. Because they were cold-blooded psychopaths? No, because these cynical coppers had seen the scenario played out many times before. They didn’t believe them. They’d all had prisoners scream “You’re hurting me” when they hadn’t been hurt. They’d all had detainees say “I can’t breathe” when they could breathe perfectly well. I myself have heard that said many times.

But don’t think for one minute that I’m trying to defend Derek Chauvin. Let me assure you I have absolutely NO sympathy for him. He had had a duty of care to his detainee. A responsibility to carry out a dynamic risk assessment, which means checking he was using the minimum force necessary. Checking the detainee was safe, not in a dangerous position and not showing signs deteriorating health.

I’ve seen plenty of people on social media claiming “If you really can’t breathe then you can’t speak”. I’ve no idea if that’s true but in any case it’s a complete red herring inasmuch as there’s very little difference between someone saying “I can’t breathe” and saying “I’m having difficulty breathing” – both require an immediate risk assessment rather than a grammar check…

Derek Chauvin failed in his duty of care and in doing so made the job of police officers all over the world much more difficult and dangerous for many years to come.

Do I hold George Floyd in anyway culpable for the events that followed? Absolutely not. Once he became a compliant prisoner he had every right to expect his safety was guaranteed.

However, I do point an accusing finger at every prisoner before George Floyd that lied to Chauvin. Every one that feigned injury, every one that said “You’re hurting me” when they were unharmed and every single one that said “I can’t breathe” when actually they could breathe fine. I hold them all personally responsible for helping create and reinforce the cynicism that Derek Chauvin harboured.

I believe the UK police are the finest in the world. But we do need to address our institutionalised cynicism and the system needs to support us in that culture change. There’s no difference between lying to a police officer and lying to a judge. We’re both servants of the crown trying to uphold the laws of the land. Let’s make lying to a police officer an offence of perjury and let’s use it.

Maybe that’s setting the bar a little high. Busy cops having to prove additional offences to charging standard – that’s a big ask. Could we instead put the onus on our courts? I know that we already have credits given to defendants for early guilty pleas – but what about sentencing guidance to incorporate benefits for being honest with cops from the outset and serious consequences for not doing so?

We need to find a way to change behaviours. We need to stop normalising dishonesty – it’s helping to perpetuate the institutionalised cynicism within frontline policing.

And many will say that cynicism is justified because it’s the most effective way of policing criminality. That could well be true. Maybe that’s exactly what the public want – and we police by consent in the UK . The police are public servants and the community are entitled to have any policing style they choose. But who knows? The choice may be out with the cynical old ABC and instead let’s All Be the Change.