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Comment: Policing - A Vocation Misunderstood

The death of Essex PC Ian Dibell should be an opportunity for considerable reflection on the realities of The Job, says Cliff Caswell

When news that Essex Neighbourhood Officer Ian Dibell had been shot dead after apparently intervening in an altercation it provided a tragic – yet incredibly poignant – snapshot of the mindset of those who devote their lives to policing.

In a society in which the majority of individuals have neither direct experience of, or know anybody in the service, the story of an unarmed officer confronting a suspect with a handgun was shocking enough – the fact that he had done so-off duty was greeted with astonishment and proved a huge focal point for the media.

Yet PC Dibell’s family, friends and colleagues – and the wider policing family – were completely unsurprised by the action taken by the officer. The mood was summed up by Essex Chief Jim Barker-McCardle, who said the PC would have known the mortal danger to which he was exposing himself yet went ahead regardless.

It was a moment of great courage in a desperately low period for the Police Service – a service that has commendably maintained its ethos despite the uncertainty of a far-reaching reform programme and a pounding in the national press.

Officers have been subject to a parade of media accusations, from being illiterate to overpaid and fat. They have variously been painted as cash-driven overtime addicts to being on restricted duties and impinging on their hard-working colleagues.

Some of these comments have been convenient soundbites or simplifications of reports analysing complex issues; others have been made in the heat of fierce political debate with bitter confrontation between the likes of the Police Federation officials and Home Office ministers. Either way, as the loss of PC Dibell shows, these comments are far divorced from the life-or-death realities of the office of constable, and the template of those who are driven to take it up.

For those of us who have the privilege of seeing the Police Service at close quarters, the frightening and complex nature of a line-of-work succinctly known as The Job to its practitioners is laid bare, warts and all. Far removed from endless stock phrases defining policing used by politicians on the conference podium, the reality is a surreal world, which, in the worst cases, combines mortal risk with dealing with the vilest and most sickening of situations. It is a vast, multi-layered edifice, full of sights and emotions at the raw edges of human experience.

It is also populated by a range of men and women from different backgrounds and academic standings fulfilling a raft of different roles. Yet they largely share a very similar temperament and character that enables them to deal with life-or-death realities in a methodical and fiercely human way.

For the overwhelming majority, these raw materials are underpinned by a desire to serve that has become an increasingly rare quality in a society driven by materialism. The ethos of service is such that the individual will accept being on duty 24/7 – even to the point where life is on the line. The Job is a vocation, unappealing to most people, and even less appealing in an age where better prospects, salaries and an easier life are available elsewhere.

Yet the word vocation rarely comes into the vocabulary of reformers, some of whom seem to have misunderstood the unique nature of service. In his review of pay and conditions, Tom Winsor speaks about transforming the police into a learned profession. He suggests those joining should have three A-level passes of Grade C or above, or an equivalent qualification such as GNVQ Level 3.

He remarks that the service has been regarded as being “intellectually undemanding” for too long. “This is not actually true and if policing is to become a profession, then officers should come in with qualifications,” Mr Winsor observes. “At the moment there is no requirement for that to happen.”

But this seemingly ignores the point that, while other professionals such as lawyers, are clearly learned, their role does not routinely demand that they diffuse dangerous situations or make split second life-or-death decisions. The reality is that the world of academia does not necessarily teach these qualities – and this change could potentially disallow some of the most gifted candidates.

Out on patrol a few weeks ago, I joined officers from one of the PSNI’s Tactical Support Groups in Belfast. Our host was a skipper who had been accepted into the Royal Ulster Constabulary more than 20 years ago, at a time of great violence in the province, and had proved himself in the most extreme situations.

Ironically, however, had he been subject to Tom Winsor’s proposed academic criteria, he would not have not even been entertained at a selection centre, much-less accepted. Perversely, I would have passed a paper sift, despite my personality and character making me catastrophically unsuitable for the role. Ironically, it is largely because of my own realisation that I could never have done The Job, which makes me more impressed by those who can.

The death of Ian Dibell was a tragedy that has rocked the Police Service to the core. But having again been reminded of the sacrifices we demand of our officers, there should be a greater respect for their sense of vocation and the dangerous world they inhabit.

The government maintains police should be “crime fighters not form writers” among other soundbites, that they need to be focused “on catching criminals”. Yet these words quickly evaporate on a late-turn when officers deploy every resource at their disposal, including air support, to locate a suicidal young woman who has fled a psychiatric unit and represents not the slightest harm to anyone but herself. This was my first experience of policing – it had nothing to do with fighting crime, and everything to do with protecting the vulnerable.

Politicians are elected to govern, and they have every right to take forward their mandate for reform. But for me there is the nagging feeling that the complexity of The Job has been overlooked and that its realities still elude the public and ministers.

When talking about cuts and savings, it is often cited that 80 per cent of Police Service costs is spent on staffing. Away from the belligerent political debates and the screaming negative headlines, we should value the people behind that statistic; the death of an officer should be a moment of very considerable reflection.

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