In the past I’ve criticised the police – mainly in relation to the policing of legitimate public protest - but today I acknowledge the role officers play in society.
As journalists were being murdered yesterday at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, everyone in the vicinity fled from the sound of gunfire. That is entirely understandable, even logical – but police officers ran towards the scene where two gunmen were spraying automatic gunfire from AK47s. Two of those police officers were killed.
This morning, police were again attacked in Paris, with another officer killed.
We all criticise the police, often with good cause, but in moments of crisis in our life, it is the police we want to see coming round the corner.
Of course, we could probably all tell stories of the police not turning up when called or of officers sitting in cars outside nightclubs while drunken idiots knock lumps out of each other (summed up in the exchange between an older cop and his young colleague in the Greenock-based Peter McDougall play ‘Just A Boys Game’ – “Sit where you are son, we’ll pick up the bodies”). However, for every one of those stories there are others recording the bravery of ordinary men and women who happen to be police officers, like the ones who ran towards the gunfire in Paris yesterday.
Not every cop is a hero, in the same way that not every member of society is a hero, and that is a crucial point when considering how we look at the police and what they do. The police work for us. Officers are recruited from amongst us. Individual police officers have the same likes, dislikes and prejudices as us. They are us. Yet we expect them to do things most of us would not.
We expect them to protect us, even if that means running towards gunfire. We expect them to deal with the bad guys most of us wouldn’t go near. We expect them to take control and act rationally at the scene of incidents such as the Clutha helicopter crash or the bin lorry nightmare in George Square, when the natural reaction is horror and shock. We expect them to attend often gruesome murder scenes, some involving children, and then to just get on with their lives.
There are, of course, some bad apples amongst the ranks of the police, as there are within society in general, but the vast majority of officers are like the ordinary men and women in Paris who have lost their lives because of the expectations we place on police officers.
In the future, I will criticise the police when it is justified, but today I am grateful for the job they do on our behalf. Paris over the past couple of days has shown how society would be a much more dangerous place if we didn’t have men and women prepared to put on a uniform and run towards gunfire when everyone else is heading in the opposite direction.