I hardly know where to begin, so I will begin by saying her name.
Her name was Sarah.
I’ve struggled for days to put my thoughts into some semblance of order – to make any kind of sense of what I’m thinking and feeling. I’m still struggling now.
What follows is my best (and no doubt inadequate) attempt to describe where I’ve got to – informed, I hope, by continuing to listen to the voices and wisdom of others: of women; of victims; of survivors; of ordinary people who are deeply and understandably horrified by what they have heard and seen.
It is difficult to imagine a crime more heinous; more wicked; more sickening. It is difficult to imagine it getting any worse than this. And there should be no hiding place for policing from the immensely difficult questions that follow. From the anger. From the disbelief. From the sense of absolute betrayal. That one sworn to protect us was the one responsible for this unthinkable crime.
When it comes to this case, nothing and no one is more important than Sarah, her family and all those who knew and loved her. They are the people I’m thinking about as I write this. And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that can even begin to make up for what has been lost.
But, inevitably, I’m thinking about policing too. Because it’s what I did for more than twenty-five years of my life. Because it’s not just what I did, it’s part of who I am. Because it’s a job that I still love with all my heart and soul.
And it is in a very dark place – as difficult as any I can recall in the last twenty years.
What does Sarah’s murder tell us about policing in Britain in 2021? As best I can manage, these are my thoughts:
- I’m not about to suggest that he ‘was never one of us’. Because he self-evidently was. I can say that his actions represent an absolute betrayal of everything I have ever believed in or stood for – as a human being, never mind as a police officer – but, at the time he committed his crimes, he was one of us. He made active use of the fact to do what he did. And that makes everything worse.
- I’m not about to advance the Bad Apple thesis either. It seems wholly inadequate in circumstances such as these. And each time any of us tries to use it as an explanation, we further alienate those whose perceptions and life experiences tell them otherwise. We need to find a better way to describe what is going on.
- But neither am I going to advance the Bad Barrel thesis. I don’t believe that the shattering events of recent days are defining of an entire organisation – or, more specifically, its people. I don’t believe it, because it isn’t true. For more than twenty-five years, I served as an officer alongside some of the most extraordinary women and men you could ever hope to meet. And they, like me, have got their heads in their hands at the moment.
- Somehow, we have to find a way to hold in tension the fact that the institution that employed a murderer is the same institution that employed the women and men who caught and convicted him – in what the trial judge described as the most impressive police investigation he had encountered in his 30 year professional career. Somehow, we need to find a way to acknowledge that both of those things can be true. If the actions of one man can be held to be defining of an organisation, then what of the actions of an entire team of investigators. Are they not defining too?
- I am not for one moment trying to distract attention from what’s going on here – to absolve anyone of responsibility or blame. That is the very last thing I want to do and, in any case, it would be wholly counter-productive to do so. Policing is not going to be able to move on without a proper reckoning.
- As I have said so often before, we must never shy away from holding policing up to the light. Society had every right to expect higher standards of police officers than they do of anyone else: because of the promises they make; because of the powers they are given; because of the position they occupy in society. Because, if you can’t trust a Copper, then who can you trust?
- But we must take immense care not to throw all the good away with the bad. We must take care to ensure that there is balance in the story we are telling. I know what police officers are like and I want you to know that most of them are extraordinary.
- If you have a moment, please take a moment or two to look at the nominees for this year’s police bravery awards (you can follow the hashtag #policebravery on social media). Because you will find there stories of humanity and heroism, of courage and compassion, that will likely take your breath away. Stories that define what policing is to me.
- You cannot be a serious opponent of bad policing without also being a serious proponent of good policing. The two things are inseparable – they have to go together. It is not enough to be able to describe how things are going wrong; you also have to be able to point to where they are going right.
- Policing is under almost constant fire at the moment. Understandably so. But if we genuinely want better policing in this country, we will have to do more than just criticise. Every lesson in parenting, in relationships, in leadership, in life, tells us that you don’t get the best out of people by telling them relentlessly that they’re wrong. Something more is required.
- It is one of the most unfashionable things in the world at the moment to stand up for good policing and for good police officers. Which makes it all the more important that we do so.
- Because there is no alternative. Who else are we going to call?
Three last thoughts.
Firstly, we need to remind ourselves of the harm done to policing by politicians in recent years. Through a combination of sweeping cuts and catastrophic, cack-handed decision-making, they have made an immensely difficult job almost impossible to do well.
Secondly, we need to make sure that we are not asking policing to bear the blame for all of society’s ills. Policing is not separate from the rest of society. It is part of it. After all, we are them and they are us. We are facing profound challenges with male violence that extend far beyond policing. The murder of Sabina Nessa – and of hundreds of other women – tells us that this is so. And we are facing problems with misogyny that stretch far beyond policing too. Look at social media. Listen to the conversations in bar rooms and locker rooms. This isn’t just about policing. It’s about all of us.
Finally, if you are a police officer or member of police staff reading this, please keep your head up, no matter how difficult it gets. Keep reminding yourselves of the reasons why you joined. Keep saving lives. Keep finding the lost. Keep protecting the vulnerable. Keep doing all that makes you so extraordinary. And, if you ever hear or see anything from one of your colleagues that betrays who and what you are, make sure that do your duty.
There is so much more that might be said. And there is so much that needs to be done. For now though, I don’t want to hear his name ever again. I only want to remember her name.
Her name was Sarah.
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