Six days in Peckham – What I did during the Easter holidays?
“Why are we doing a u turn” was my cry as I bounced around the back of the police car as if on a Bunge rope. “Did you not see that car do that undercut, driver has no seat belt and both windows are open in this weather”. The fact that my untrained eye was oblivious to such suspicious behaviour the officers had spotted was one of the first things I learnt as the guest of Team A, MPS Southwark for six days during the Easter holidays. Well four days and two nights to be precise as this is their shift pattern.
The Parliamentary Police Service Scheme tries to give us, the untrained, an insight into policing and I had asked to go to a Borough which had an ethnically diverse population. I had always been concerned about the stop and search figures for black young men and the lack of diversity of the police service (service not force I was told as the latter gave the wrong impression of their role but due to some of the incidents I saw, force is very necessary). But I learnt different things than I thought I would. Politics is quite a solo job so I was immediately struck by the tight team dynamic of Team A and the team is younger but less ethnically diverse than I thought it would be. The camaraderie and merciless ribbing in the canteen was great to see but, when I saw up close that responding to 999 calls means engaging with the unknown behind a front door or in a stopped car, team is essential.
Although friends of mine live happily in Peckham and never see the police, which is probably most residents’ experience, the danger of suspects who carry knives and guns means the response teams like Team A never know what they may meet. Being out with officers “Bazzer and Clints” did briefly feel like a 1980s cop shop but the irrational anger of an 18 year old who had picked up a knife for his protection, as naturally as you or I would pick up our keys as we leave the house, shocked me out of that illusion. In MPS lingo “Tasers are a great piece of kit” but essential in my view, as the warning of them was enough to get the guy to calm down. I think I burnt off 1000 calories in those 15 minutes, it was pretty hairy and I was very grateful to be wearing Met Police body armour. (very different scenario to the Harriet Harman’s stroll round Peckham type situation before someone tries to make a fuss) But, I vacillated from being scared of this lad to feeling the situation was just so tragic. How at only 18 is he so messed up, so unreasonable, and just so angry? I thought I will see his face again either as a patient at Kings College Hospital on ‘24 hours in A and E’ or at the Old Bailey, which it will be is only a matter of chance. As his 8 year old brother left the house clutching “The Gruffalo” my heart sank for the next generation. His elder brother is off the rails but until he breaks the criminal law seriously, there is little intervention.
The main complaint of officers was not their pensions or pay as many had warned me, but that they end up chasing down young folk with knives, to deal with street robbery, only to see them get a pitiful sentence. Camberwell Youth Magistrates is apparently known to young folk as the ‘Joke Shop’ and after all that effort and engagement with danger surely we do need to ensure carrying a knife is a custodial matter. Sentencing and “poor kit” were their main gripes and made me think the Police Federation are the latest in a long line of organisations who say they represent their members’ views but they don’t really. The Police I met are more concerned about doing a good job than their own pay and conditions let alone what was or was not said in ‘Plebgate’.
So what of the two issues that took me to Peckham? Stop and Search needs figures that go into the minutiae, it is not enough to compare the figures to the racial statistics of Southwark Borough but you need to compare it to the racial profile of the street population; from what I saw this is younger and mainly non white in this Borough. However, 2 white officers outside the Damilola Taylor Centre searching a Black guy, in the eyes of this guy and the public 3 officers (only one of the regular clientele spotted I was not the Police) when everyone who walked past was not white made me more adamant that the Police must reflect the population they police. The coercive power of the state, which is what each Police Constable possesses on the streets, must not be seen to rest in the hands of one ethnic group or another.
Later on this week, I shall be joining a traffic unit for half a day and I am sad that this will probably not mean team time in the Canteen, sorry ‘Met Express’ if your station has been modernised. I have lived in countries where there are no 999 services to speak off and after my time in Southwark, every time I hear the sirens I now find them comforting and say a prayer for the safety of officers responding and engaging with the ‘unknown’.