They didn’t even know it was a mosque

Paul Foot

  • Talking Blues: The Police in their Own Words by Roger Graef
    Collins Harvill, 512 pp, £15.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 00 272436 7

At the end of this book there is a story about apples (which I repeat as inconclusive proof that I have fought my way through its five hundred pages). An Inspector from a Northern Police Force is musing on the number of people who long for the ‘good old days’ of the local Bobby. ‘Everyone always tells me how they remember being cuffed around the ear by their local Bobby for stealing an apple.’ The Inspector reflects that ‘the streets of this city would be littered with apples, it would be a forest of trees, not just an orchard, for all the people that have said that to me.’ Yet he has never met a single policeman who remembers stopping anyone for stealing an apple. Like Dixon of Dock Green, the cheerful Bobby who was always around the place when any trouble broke out, and whatever the temptation was fair, even-handed and cheerful, it is part all a mirage of the good old days – which were, in fact, bad.

There has nonetheless been a decisive shift in the attitudes of the British Police in recent years – almost all of it for the worse. I recall as a young reporter in Scotland covering the case of a teenage boy who had been beaten up by a policeman in Thurso, which is near John o’Groats. There was the most fearful hullabaloo based on the belief that this sort of thing could only happen in the wilderness of the Far North. The press demanded that this errant policeman be brought to justice. There was a similar furore a year or two later when there was some evidence (though not much) that a senior policeman in Sheffield had threatened to beat a suspect with a rhino whip.

Allegations which then shocked the nation would now be dismissed as trivial. Unprovoked violence by the Police, often against people who are utterly helpless, has grown to quite intolerable proportions. In 1988, the Metropolitan Police paid out £333,000 in damages to people who had sued them for assault, battery, grievous bodily harm and other attacks. They paid £75,000 to the family of Blair Peach, who alleged that the young man had been murdered by police on a demonstration; £20,000 to Mr Carl Kelly who was arrested and, he alleged, beaten up while protesting about the death of another man, Colin Roach, in a police station; £48,699 to Stephen Dowsett and Philip Tape who were walking home from a dance a little drunk when they were bundled into a police van, taken to a police station and so terribly beaten that Dowsett’s jaw had to be re-set in two places; £17,500 to Manit Schemir, a mechanical engineer who was walking to a restaurant when some policemen mistook him for a rioter, hauled him into an alley and beat his head in. There were many, many other such payments, but none of them carried with them an admission that the alleged assaults had taken place, police lawyers having advised their clients that they would not be able to persuade a jury that the Police had behaved lawfully.

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