Whatever Happened to
The Friendly Copper?
by Stephen Phillips
When I was a young child, my parents always used to say that if I misbehaved, they would call the local policeman to tell me off for being such a fractious child. The mere thought of some big, burly copper striding through the front door saying "Hello, hello, hello, what's all this here, then?" would be enough to change my behaviour immediately.
Those were good times, when the image of police was reassuring: they were the guardians of society, there to protect me and everybody else against hordes of bad guys, who were just waiting for an opportunity to steal my gum drops.
How times have changed. Today, the local beat policeman--the one who made it his business to know everyone in the neighborhood, and if you asked for directions, would quite happily pass the time of day with you--has been replaced. The new icon of the law is the battle-ready copper dressed in the bulletproof vest, pepper spray and night stick at the ready. This is not the kind of friendly policeman that I envisaged. But as times change, so has the face of law enforcement--and not for the better, I fear.
It's true that the criminal element has become much bolder, more audacious, and more vicious, and that to keep pace with it, the police have had to adapt their approach to fighting crime. But with this change in tactics, the police have tended to withdraw further behind their riot shields, and become disassociated from the very people they are tasked to protect--the law-abiding citizens.
What has not helped to improve the public image of police, especially in America, is the beating of Rodney King, which shocked people the world over. There was also an incident in New York several years ago in which a number of law enforcement officers were tried and convicted of a brutal attack on a man in a police bathroom, leaving him with horrendous internal injuries for which he was later quite rightly awarded considerable financial damages.
The video camera has been instrumental in documenting instances of police using excessive force to restrain suspects. I would agree that there are times when force is necessary to subdue individuals who resist arrest, but just how much force is acceptable? I find it shocking to see video footage of a suspect being set upon by a horde of heavily-armed police, dragged out of his front door or across the street, and flung on the ground like a sack of laundry, where some burly copper then kneels on his neck in the course of finally handcuffing him. I don't know about anyone else, but to me that seems just a little excessive.
What is also cause for concern is that there seems to be a significant increase in cases of people dying in police custody under dubious circumstances. This, too, does nothing to improve the image of the police as protectors of people's rights.
No one doubts that police work carries significant risks, and is not a profession that everyone is suited for. There are stringent processes in place that candidates have to go through before they are let loose on our streets, gun in hand, ready to uphold the law. However, in recent years, fundamental flaws are becoming evident in the checks that are supposed to weed out the bad apples. All too often today, police officers are arrested, tried, and convicted of the very crimes they are supposed to be protecting us against.
There are also various police forces in the world today that have a dreadful reputation for brutality in suppressing any kind of civil disturbance, at whatever cost. The top position on this list is probably held by the Chinese, who have time and again shown the rest of the world how policing and brutality can go hand in hand. Although for the most part, people living in the so-called civilized West have been immune to this extreme, times are changing; and the image of a heavily armed copper wielding his nightstick like Barry Bonds hitting a homer is becoming more and more frequent.
Police chiefs need to seriously reconsider just what it means to uphold the law, and be accountable to the citizens theyre charged with protecting. They need to refocus on providing law enforcement in such a way that it is meted out fairly and squarely, without bias or prejudice. As the Los Angeles Police Departments motto has it, their mission is "to protect and serve"--not just beat the crap out of every suspect.
(c) COPYRIGHT 2002 STEPHEN PHILLIPS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.