WRITTEN ON December 8th, 2009 BY ruthkennedy AND STORED IN Foundation of Trust, Identity, What do we want?

Paul Clarke writes thoughtfully here about the confusion/agitation/frustration surrounding arrest of an architectural photographer for taking pictures of Merrill Lynch building in London this morning (in the light of recent clarification by ACPO that anti terror laws should not be used to stop photographers in public places). Comments refer to the fuzziness between private security firms and the Great British Bobby and whether it’s ever ok to get flustered and cheesed off when talking to a policeman. But the bit that leapt out for me was Paul’s observation that

there’s always been a normal, civil expectation of basic cooperation when police ask straightforward questions.

I think that’s absolutely right – isn’t it part of something sometimes called consensual policing? Of course there have always been parts of the population less inclined to trust the police or cooperate with their activities – sometimes for good reason. But by and large most people have trusted the police and have cooperated on instinct.

But have things now changed? Are people in general less happy now with identifying themselves and cooperating with the police? Is there any research on this?

Certainly the terms of the debate have changed – since ID cards were introduced; since lots of innocent people found themselves on the DNA database; since anti-terror laws have been used to stop cyclists and and search 11 year-old girls; since more transparent public debates on police tactics in light of Ian Tomlinson, kettling etc. Have these things caused people to question whether the actions of the police really are on behalf of the consenting, ‘moral majority’? Does the perception that the State operates in a way which assumes we are all potential criminals cause increasing numbers of previously trusting people to respond in a defensive, untrusting way instead of that old fashioned civil expectation of cooperation? If that’s at all right, it seems to me it’s a Bad Thing.

8 Responses to “If people are rude to the police it’s a bad sign…”

Alex B wrote on December 8th, 2009 10:16 pm :

If I was approached by a member of the Met, I’d be extremely formal and co-operate only to the extent required by the law. If it was my local constabulary, I might be slightly more co-operative, or not, depending on the circumstances.

Paul Clarke wrote on December 8th, 2009 10:53 pm :

Thanks Ruth – I’m glad it sparked some further thought. Only tonight we have this from the BBC too – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8399749.stm – a not dissimilar, if slightly hackneyed theme that it’s all gone down the tubes since the 60s. Society’s all gone to hell, dontchaknow.

My dominant thought after writing that today wasn’t actually about societal respect, but more an overwhelming sense that we don’t generally know our basic rights. And we don’t know where we’d go to find out the basic facts, either. At least I don’t.

Do we really know under what circumstances we’re expected, or required, to do certain things? I feel we should. Particularly as the comments on my blog indicated quite a bit of opinion about what might, or might not be reasonable. Perhaps more opinion than actual fact?

Mind you, I failed the official citizenship test, but that’s another story…

Paul Irvine wrote on December 8th, 2009 11:19 pm :

There has been a lot of press recently, especially in photography magazines, about members of the public being harassed by the police and private security guards. As a result I think there’s a mix of resentment and the perceived misuse of police powers, and also that a lot of police officers don’t themselves seem to be aware of the rules surrounding photography in a public place.

There’s also the common sense angle; if I were a terrorist I wouldn’t be photographing potential targets with a large DSLR but would either make use of the internet, or use the camera built in to most modern mobile ‘phones.

Algot Runeman wrote on December 8th, 2009 11:33 pm :

One of the underlying issues which may be partly responsible for the change of attitude when dealing with the police is something called \the rule of law\ which basically means that citizens of a democracy participate effectively when they self police, living within the laws that their representatives enact. Certainly there are times when groups disagree about the laws that get passed, but generally, to be effective, citizens of a democracy share the responsibility of living within the law.

As an example: In the U.S. the large interstate highway system has a consistent speed limit of 65 mph and typically is lowered to 55 mph in sections close to cities where regular on-and-off of traffic makes that sensible. One of the roads I travel frequently is a 55 mph section of Interstate 95 west of Boston, MA. When there are no significant backups, it is rare to see *any* drivers going 55. Many are going even faster than 65 as they also do when the limit is set to that higher speed. These drivers may give themselves the excuse that the surrounding traffic is also going too fast and they need to keep up. The reality is that the general driving public seems to have abandoned their responsibility.

Having abandoned their responsibility to live by the rule of law in traffic, I suspect that these drivers are inclined to feel somehow cheated if they get pulled over. They may feel they have been unfairly \singled out\ by getting caught. Whether because of an inaccurate sense of outrage, or because of an underlying embarrassment at being judged a scofflaw, they are often disrespectful or verbally brusque.

The police become a burden to people with the attitude illustrated in the preceding paragraph. Sure, they are valuable when they direct traffic around the frequent accidents on I95, but even then, some drivers steam in anger while waiting in the backup and make every effort they can to make up the time by accelerating as soon as possible after passing the crunched cars of an accident scene.

julius beezer wrote on December 9th, 2009 4:02 am :

La politesse, c’est la base: surtout dans les situations où on se trouve les gens stressés.

Donc, d’accord (mais, comme des autres commentateurs ici, je suis assez priviligé, aisé et cetera, et c’est clair mon éxperience c’est pas celle de tout le monde.

Tom Welsh wrote on December 9th, 2009 1:11 pm :

You say, quite rightly, that \there’s always been a normal, civil expectation of basic cooperation when police ask straightforward questions\.

Apart from general apprehension and confusion, there is another obvious reason why this is no longer true. We cannot be sure what is a \straightforward\ question – or even if anything the police do is straightforward.

How many innocent, well-intentioned members of the public have got themselves into deep trouble (trial, or even a prison sentence) as a result of answering \straightforward\ questions? The police may like to think that only hardened criminals refuse to cooperate or say anything at all when questioned – but is that because they are criminals, or just because they know how the justice system works?

It is impossible to differentiate safely between individual honest, well-intentioned coppers and the system to which they belong. You might say something fairly innocuous to an individual police officer, only to find that she is obliged to write it down and place it on record, thereby making you liable to suspicion or criminal proceedings.

Ruth wrote on December 11th, 2009 7:35 pm :

And another one….


ukliberty wrote on December 14th, 2009 9:47 pm :

My guess is that people are more inclined to be cooperative when they think the authorities are being reasonable and trustworthy.

When professional photographers (for example) are stopped and questioned – under terrorism powers no less – for, basically, doing their job, knowing that those powers should not be used against them, that they (should) have the freedom to take photographs in public places, and that it seems the police officer does not know what he’s talking about I think it’s easy to see why they might think such behaviour by someone in authority is unreasonable and therefore feel less inclined to cooperate, even to the extent of getting visibly annoyed.

Of course we should note that most interactions between the police and other members of the public (for the police are members of the public) probably pass without incident. We should be careful not to get hysterical (to use one of Aaronvitch’s favourite words).

But those in authority ought to consider that it takes two to tango.