Public Policing – A Lesson in Restraint

If a protestor throws a petrol bomb at a line of police officers, why don’t they shoot him?

Would that be considered as an over-reaction? Too harsh perhaps?

And yet the protestor knows what he’s doing. His intention is to cause harm and injury, if not to kill. Why should the police be expected to stand there and have explosives hurled at them? Don’t they have a right to defend themselves?

Such restraint is not behaviour we would tolerate in our other relations.

If a nation state fires a missile at this country we would consider it as an act of war and respond accordingly, probably by firing a missile back.

If somebody acts aggressively towards us then we have to respond. In all likelihood, any failure to act will only mean that we can expect further abuse and aggressive actions towards us.

It’s not so different from that of the school playground. If we let the bully take advantage of us then he will keep doing it and probably bully us even worse. We have to stand up to him. We have to make sure he realises that he cannot get away with such behaviour.

But, in the face of protests, all too often, the police will adopt a defensive position and merely fend off the missiles that come towards them. It’s very passive, very tolerant, very restrained.

There is, however, a pragmatic reason for this non-confrontational stance.

The police recognise that the petrol bomber is not throwing the bomb at anyone in particular. He is throwing it at the police force as a whole, at the police as an institution or organised body. There is nothing personal in what he is doing.

For that reason, even though it may be slightly illogical, such actions tend to be considered by the general public as less of a crime than if he was attacking a single person. This reckoning is often the basis for how we assess the gravity of many a crime. We will condemn crimes against the individual but we may have a much more casual and lenient attitude towards crimes, even violent crimes, against organisations.

  • Steal from a work colleague’s locker would earn widespread reprobation; steal from an employer and, although disapproved of, would not earn the same admonishment.
  • Graffiti on somebody’s house is considered as a more criminal action than graffiti on a public site or building which tends to be more accepted and is even sometimes considered as street art.
  • House burglary tends to be regarded as a more odious crime than shoplifting.
  • A knife–point street mugging tends to be considered as a much more abhorrent crime than an armed bank robbery.

Offences against the individual are deemed more serious and loathsome than those against organised structures, whether they are public or corporate bodies.

It’s difficult to understand why that would be. It may be because we can relate more to the plight of the individual; it may be because we have an instinctive tendency to side with the victim, the afflicted or the underdog; it may be a deeper underlying resentment of authority and power.

In the case of the petrol bomber, the police, as an institution, as a non-personal entity, is the target. Even so, public opinion would generally consider the bomber’s actions to be misguided, reckless and criminal. He probably wouldn’t get a lot of support or sympathy.

But that could all too easily change. If the police were to respond to the bomber with the full force available to them then, even though the police may be acting in self-defence, public sympathies could quickly shift to that of the bomber. Suddenly he is seen as the individual; he becomes the victim, the persecuted minority.

Policing relies on having the support and consent of the general public. The police have to be mindful of that. Unreasonable actions, disproportionate actions, unwarranted actions risk the disapprobation of the public.

If the police alienate or become too distant from the public, if their actions garner public sympathies to the protestors then things can all too easily get out of hand. Ten rioters can easily turn into a hundred, into a thousand rioters. The police have to therefore accept the abuse and barrage of missiles for fear that, if they appear to over-react, they might lose the support of the public.

We might all agree with the principle that if somebody is intent on doing serious harm to another person, whether their target represents some organisation or not, then they should be stopped by any means necessary. In practice though, such a course of action is too risky and too damaging.

On the face of it, the police do tend to pride themselves for operating with the use of minimum force. They may even suggest this as being an aspect of their professionalism but, in reality, it’s a reflection of the often precarious position they find themselves in.

The police need to maintain public support. They must always weigh up what is acceptable for them to do in the eyes of the public.

That’s why they don’t shoot the petrol bomber – not that he doesn’t deserve it!