Into the Night: A Year with the Police
I wasn’t protesting or caught up in a skirmish; I was at the Met Police Crime Academy, training to be a volunteer police officer. Being pepper sprayed was part of the process. But standing there howling, I wondered what I was doing and how I had got there.
Before joining the Met, I was a primary school teacher in South London. It was my first job out of university, teaching a roomful of seven-year-olds. They were wonderful young people, full of energy and creativity. Many of them, though, were facing serious adversity: domestic abuse at home, siblings in gangs, dads in prison, no permanent address.
A consequence of this adversity was some very challenging behaviour. In my first lesson a boy jumped on the table, shouted ‘I’m King Kong!’ and karate chopped another boy in the windpipe. Later, in the playground, boys from my class surrounded a new Teaching Assistant and threw their shoes at him chanting ‘D**khead! D**khead!’
I taught for two years, then moved into educational research, but I wanted to stay involved with the community where I lived and taught. Specifically I wanted to stay involved with the young people in the area and learn more about the challenges they faced, challenges the police get closer to than anyone. I had never imagined being a police officer, but when I saw an advert for volunteers I decided to sign up.
From then on, I spent Friday nights circling my neighbourhood in a police van, dealing with everything from drug searches to mental health crises to illegal hot dog vendors – and spending a lot of time with teenagers involved with gangs.
On my first shift, someone shot a firework at our van. We jumped out and chased a shadow along the road, catching a thirteen-year-old boy. While we were searching him, a group of teenagers appeared and began shouting at us. I didn’t know what to do. One moment I had been a trusted adult in a classroom, the next I was in a hostile standoff with a group of secondary school pupils.
Later that evening I asked a regular officer if a lot of policing involved dealing with teenagers. ‘Too much,’ he replied, ‘there’s all these families expecting us to be social workers, but we’re not.’ I asked an officer from the Gangs Taskforce how he thought the gang problem could be solved. ‘A b***’, was his reply, one on each of the local estates.
Police are sent to deal with teenage gang violence, but they don’t feel equipped to deal with it. The same is true of mental health crises, domestic abuse, homelessness, loneliness and other knotty social issues. Most of the police officers I met wanted to spend their time arresting criminals, not tackling complex social issues. The only problem, I realised, is that in a place like South London tackling complex social issues is not just an important aspect of policing; it’s a description of the job in its entirety. The ‘criminals’ we arrested were most often vulnerable individuals caught in damaging cycles. The emergencies we dealt with were not random one offs, but slow-motion emergencies, often playing out over years.
My time with the police was surprising, fascinating and often shocking, encountering ongoing institutional racism and an ingrained misogynistic culture. What surprised me most, as a former primary school teacher, was how relevant that experience felt. When we think about the police we often think about their power to use force. But the quality that distinguished the best officers I met was not force, but care: an authentic care for their community; the willingness to care about messy, ongoing issues, even as they elude attempts to solve them. Our society hands the police not just its most physically risky situations, but also its most complex caring duties, sending them to interact with the most vulnerable people at their most vulnerable moments.
Care sounds like the antithesis of crime fighting. But it is the only true way to fight crime. Anything else is crime control: putting problems on ice, putting problem people out of sight. Only when the police see care as the core of their work will they help to solve the problems that frustrate them. Instead of being experts in coercion who grudgingly offer care, they need to become experts in care who grudgingly use coercion.
If we want strong, safe, resilient communities, the role of the police needs to be reimagined. When I left the Met, I wondered whether they could change – and if they did, whether they would still be ‘the police’, or something else entirely.
Into the Night | Publisher: Picador | ISBN: 1035004240
Mr Matt Lloyd-Rose (2003)
By Mr Matt Lloyd-Rose (2003)
This article was first published in Magdalene Matters Spring/Summer 2022 Issue 53.