Police rudeness could lose them popular support
Record complaints against police reduce public sympathy over pay and number cuts
Whatever one thinks of the coalition government's policies, no one can fault its courage for taking on the sacred cows of British public life: education, welfare benefits, the armed forces and now, the toughest nut of all, the police.
Over the past 25 years, ever since Margaret Thatcher boosted their pay, no group of workers has defended its interests more adroitly than the cops. Their union, the Police Federation, has played a masterly game of, one might say, good cop, bad cop.
The good cop is the touch-your-heart tale of the thin blue line that is all that stands between society and disaster; officers putting their lives on the line every time they step out of the station.
The bad cop is the threat of 'industrial action' (police are not allowed to 'strike'), when thousands of heavily built men (and a few women) converge on a conference hall and savage the government.
I have been to such a gathering, and it is not a pretty sight, as former Home Secretary Jack Straw can testify, after being greeted at one such rally with icy silence.
Crunch time has arrived: 28,000 police staff (including 12,000 officers) are to lose their jobs under the deficit reducing cuts, and those who remain are now threatened with a loss of benefits, which in some cases are worth £4,000 a year.
So why are the public divided about police numbers and rewards?
First, some police perks are reminiscent of the old 'Spanish practices' once enjoyed by Fleet Street printers. Certain police overtime payments boggle the mind.
Second, public affection for the boys and girls in blue has been sliding ever southwards, as more of us experience rude and off-hand behaviour.
Recently released figures showed more complaints against police than ever last year: a record 58,400, up eight per cent, of which half are related to rudeness, incivility or neglect of duty. When one considers that the vast majority of people who feel aggrieved by police rudeness shrug and walk away, these figures are awful.
We tend to look back on policing (as we do with other aspects of life) through rose-tinted glasses - Dixon of Dock Green and his helmet-touching "evenin' all". But, without question, police have become at the very least more arrogant and more brusque to almost everyone.
Some officers always treated people at the bottom of the heap - 'toe-rags', in police argot - with contempt. But many now carry such attitudes into their dealings with almost everyone who is not a member of the royal family.
Collectively they themselves often behave badly: a friend who runs a restaurant was having trouble with a table of over-rowdy diners. He finally told them that, if they didn't behave better, he would call the police. "We are the police," came the answer. It sounds like a joke, but it isn't. I once witnessed dreadful drunken behaviour by a party of off-duty cops taking a day trip on a cross-channel ferry.
Some years ago, I raised police rudeness with a very senior officer. "Oh, he replied, the officer might have been up all night, attended a gory road accident, and a terrible experience at home." Well, yes, but so might a receptionist at a hotel, and if he greeted the paying customers with the lack of civility shown by some police, he'd be out on his ear as soon as the guest called the manager.
So, to the cuts and perks. Tucked away at the back of many a police station are officers who have long since ceased (if they ever did) to pull their weight. They are eking out their days until their generous pensions kick in, enjoying pay and security for which most people would give their eye-teeth.
The police pay bill climbs ever higher, and at £23,259 starting salary, new cops are paid more than firemen, paramedics and the poor bloody infantry. An Army private gets £17,015.
At the other end of the pay scale, senior officers can negotiate bonuses worth up to 15 per cent of their six-figure salaries, while 40 per cent of the officers under their command get 'special priority payments' worth up to £5,000. They must think they are bankers.
The savings identified by Tom Winsor, who has just published his independent review into police remuneration, amount to more than £1 billion. He earmarked savings of £485 million with a further £635 million then available for rewarding genuine front line officers.
The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, has started the fight back. The government mantra of "we are all in this together" is not, sadly, an attitude that is common in police canteens. Ministers are in for the most bitter fight of their cuts policy.
And it could be that the public, sickened by habitual police rudeness, will no longer support the police cause. In that case, every officer who has bad-mouthed a motorist or disrespected a fellow citizen only has himself to blame. ·
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