Closing the Gap and the Joy of Community Policing

It’s not every day that you get to “enjoy” policing. Some days seem filled with abuse, others are filled with sadness. However, as often as possible I try to tip the scales in favour of joy.

Back in August, at San Marino on Brixton Road, our Neighbourhoods Chief Inspector, Roy Smith (@RoySmithMPS), caught me in the act (photo above) of one small thing I find always brings joy: engaging with children and allowing them to try on my custodian!

I’ve almost certainly lost count – as most officers will have – of the number of times I’ve been asked to be in a photo, most often by tourists who of course find the idea of a ‘British Bobby’ at once impressive and quaint. However, I have also found that children love nothing more than the opportunity to try on my ‘hat’ – and the offer to take a photo with mum and/or dad, almost always goes down a treat.

While I’m not paid to be a children’s entertainer, I know that taking a few minutes out of every day to engage with the young children of Clapham and Brixton can only be a good thing. At the ever-awesome Abbeville Fete (@AbbevilleFete), Sergeant Dowman, PC Edmondson and I lost count of the number of children (including a few parents!) who loved nothing more than to sit in police cars, play with the siren, ask some questions, try on some uniform and have a photo taken.

Days like the Abbeville Fete, help counteract some of the negativity we face. They serve to help innoculate us against the hate we sometimes (often?) find directed towards us. I readily recall patrolling one of my estates on a sunny afternoon and waving hello to some children playing in the street. On seeing this, one female resident began angrily shouting with hate-filled eyes:

“Don’t you f***ing do that!”

Well, I’m not going to stop extending the hand of friendship to the communities I serve, especially where a small minority of people at times seem intent on actively stoking conflict, suspicion and animosity.

Some children are seemingly brought up on a diet of anti-police propaganda in which even the local beat bobby is – in response to efforts made to tackle gang and knife crime – smeared as a “racist” and/or “paedophile” and painted as public enemy number one.

It’s also worth remembering that not all children are fortunate enough to make it along to events like the Abbeville Fete, making it all the more important to take opportunities that do arise to engage with children and their parents.

While the young remain disproportionately affected by crime, it is vital to demonstrate that we are there to serve the public and that we are in fact approachable human beings who just happen to be “paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen”.

Shifting the views of some – whether young or old – may seem (and in some cases be) impossible, but I genuinely believe that in time even small acts can help contribute towards a much larger change.

Just as positive encounters bring joy to my working life and make me a more effective police officer, I know that positive encounters bring joy to young people and their parents too. By building positive relationships and memories of police from an early age, I hope that we can help close the gap – whether real, imagined or manufactured – between “the public” and “the police”.

Be under no illusions, I love catching burglars and other crooks, but it is closing the gap that provides the real joy in community policing.

It is vital to start and maintain conversations with people who only ever see the YouTube clip of someone being tasered, only hear about disproportionality in stop and search, or only ever see blue flashing lights on their estate. The best of these conversations happen in real life, on real streets, between a real public and a real police officer.

If we allow ourselves to withdraw (or be withdrawn) from communities, to leave the narrative behind all that we do for communities to be written by pressure groups, external political interests and the media then “the gap” will only widen.

Alas, with police officer numbers set for further reductions and recent announcements regarding “bobbies on the beat coming to an end”, I rather feel like the historical relationship between police and public in the UK is on borrowed time.

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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