“Well that could have gone horribly wrong”

Knife possession is up 18% over the last two years, the stop and search debate rumbles on and you’re on the ground, rolling around, desperately trying to get control of a 6ft well-built teenager (aka “child”) who you have stopped and searched as you suspect he is carrying a knife.

Members of the public are stopping and looking. Some are just watching, others are starting to voice disapproval at “police brutality” or vouching for the fact that “he ain’t done nuthin” and “he ain’t got nuffin on him, honest!”. Others get their phones out and start filming. Others just walk by.

Before you ask, you don’t (yet?) have a body camera or a taser – because you are a “neighbourhood” officer and so you are on the floor, in a high stress situation, with nothing but human memory as your record.

A few hours later, you are back at the police station. You found the kitchen knife / machete / samurai sword etc. that was indeed concealed down the child’s trousers (he was likely wearing multiple layers of trousers). The knife was basically strapped to his inner thigh and groin area, and as you start writing notes, while trying to remember exactly what happened (without the aid of any body worn video), you look back on it all and think:

“Well, that could have gone horribly wrong.”

Let’s put to one side any thoughts of the knife being used against you. The consequences are clearly severe and the risk clearly very real. Less clear, at least to those who aren’t police officers, is the risk present in an alternative scenario, even one where you may have done “nothing wrong”.

What if, while rolling around on the floor, the concealed knife had accidentally ended up puncturing the child’s femoral artery, causing them to rapidly bleed out on the street and – despite your own best efforts to stop the bleeding – die?

The headlines and probably the hashtags are all too easy to imagine, so we’ll skip those.

Be under no illusion. You would be under the most intense scrutiny, with every action or inaction before, during and after the incident examined in minute detail, at length and with the benefit of perfect hindsight – repeatedly. You would likely face death threats and perhaps even be moved to another area. You would likely be suspended or restricted in your duties. The investigation would likely last many months, if not (realistically) several years, and you would – much like any concerned parent of the child – ask yourself, repeatedly and to no meaningful end, “why me?” and “what’s taking so long?”.

The statement and notes you made of the incident would be pored over by lawyers and other self-appointed experts and self-styled leaders. You are asked – with a straight face:

“Officer, why didn’t you just ask him politely to take out the knife and put it down? You were wearing a stab vest officer, he couldn’t have hurt you, it’s stab proof… If only you’d given him that chance, a young man would be alive today.”

Why didn’t you do x, y and z? Why did you do a, b and c?

You’ll be criticised for using stop and search, your own history of stop and search will be pored over. You’ll be accused of statistical disproportionality wherever possible — and the specific stop and search that “led directly to the death of this child, officer” will be pulled apart so many times you will barely recall what it was that actually happened.

The account you provide will be compared against incomplete and shaky video footage taken by members of the public or grainy footage from a passing bus.

The smallest discrepancy will be magnified beyond all belief. Mountains out of mole hills.

It will be suggested that you didn’t follow policy in relation to x, that you are being untruthful about y and that actually you’re an oppressive officer who set out that day to target a specific young man with no regard for their safety or wellbeing and that actually, you, officer, are the reason that child is dead. You and your use of stop and search are the reason why a family is in mourning – but not just a family, an entire community, perhaps an entire city. And that you, officer, have to pay for that.

The investigations go on and on – it takes a huge toll on you and your loved ones. You can’t even resign to find something else to fill your working life – you are still under investigation and the latest rules mean you are indefinitely a prisoner in your own professional life, held captive without fair trial, guilty until proven innocent, a slave to a machine that seems intent on crushing you. Your colleagues express exasperation and despair in a bid to support you, but everyone knows that there’s nothing to be done: “the job’s f***ed”. You can’t sleep, you can’t relax, you can’t cope.

You end up wishing you hadn’t stopped and searched that young man. Why didn’t I just look the other way? Why didn’t I just ignore it? Why did I ever become a police officer?! But then, at the same time, you know, deep down, that you aren’t the sort of person to ignore things. You are a police officer because you care. You took an oath – and yes you might make mistakes – but you were only trying to do the right thing… He was carrying a knife… You were trying to keep people (including him!) safe, to fight crime and maybe, just maybe, save a life… Who else is going to get the knives off the street… How else are we going to get the knives off the street… And who else is doing more to stop young men from killing other young men…

And then, with a jolt, a few beads of cold sweat and an overwhelming sense of relief, you are back in the writing room and remember that thankfully, today, that’s not what happened, either to you or the boy.

Thank God.

About the Author

PC Rory Geoghegan
I was the Dedicated Ward Officer for Clapham Common Ward in the London Borough of Lambeth until May 2016. I’m a former strategy consultant and criminal justice researcher. As a Dedicated Ward Officer I was something of a foot and cycle patrol fanatic! All views expressed are/were personal opinions and the usual disclaimers apply.

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