Unlike paramedics and fire fighters, police rarely get the chance to be heroes. Most of the time we are there to tell you off, to pull people apart, to stop you having too much fun. But look at it from the other side. You’ve heard the expression “it’s like herding cats”? Well, it isn’t. Working for the police is like shepherding a million or so unpredictable human beings through a world where anything can and will happen.
I’m a police community support officer (PCSO) in a busy inner-city district. My main duties are supposed to be focused on low-level crime, antisocial behaviour, community engagement and public reassurance. I have to remind myself of this on a daily basis, because what usually dominates my time is dealing with a load of old claptrap.
It never used to be this way. When I started the job seven years ago my role drew on the old-fashioned, bobby-on-the-beat ethos: reassure victims of crime, pop into shops to say hello, have tea with the old folks, stop parents from running over kids outside the school gates, try to engage with disaffected youth and hunt down free biscuits.
These days the job remains varied, but more extreme. A typical day could begin with a meeting at a local primary school about a wayward eight-year-old boy – followed by foot-chasing an 18-year-old wanted for assault. Then I will be the first to attend a serious car crash, involving one car that was stolen and one owned by a local drug dealer. This is all topped off with a visit to a care home where an elderly resident had been found dead, and being asked by the attending cop to help “flip him over” so that she can check for signs of foul play.
Law and order is an illusion. That’s why I often feel like a kid moving food around on my plate with my fork, with my mum asking me why I’m not making any progress. It’s hard to look at friends being creative in their careers – building things, designing things, teaching things – and having something to show for it at the end of the day. It makes me feel like Canute, trying to hold back the tide.
Sure, every so often I get to feel really good about myself, because I stopped someone getting seriously hurt or found a missing person. But 99% of the time I’m dealing with anger, resentment, violence, mistrust. Now imagine that you are faced with this every day, yet most of the public think you are a bit of a fascist bully boy with no compassion, and yet you can’t even command the respect people show to ordinary cops. Why? Because you are just a PCSO and basically one hi-vis jacket away from being just another member of the public running round making things worse.
As a PCSO you probably assume I get regular abuse. This isn’t true. Yes, I am a walking target in a yellow coat and a silly hat, but in my community the last thing the local youths want to do is to draw attention to themselves. Occasionally some youngling of around 13 – who hasn’t yet graduated into crime from low-level antisocial behaviour – will shout “plastic” from about half a mile away, encouraged by the anonymity of being part of a larger group of sniggering mates. I’ve never been bothered by this. Besides, I have a lot of empathy with kids growing up in this community. Getting to know them over the years has convinced me to see them as victims too – of a system that consistently lets them down.
What really bothers me are people wasting my time, which more often than not involves disputes between neighbours. People phone the police just to get the upper hand in an argument, and it becomes a ludicrous battle over who can get the most complaints logged against the other. I desperately want to tell each party to grow up and stop messing about, but my hands are tied.
My community is one of the most deprived in the country, in a very British way – a lack of education, social mobility and hope, and an excess of alcohol and drugs use. It is also the kind of place where nurses and care workers live, where there are more care homes and schools per square mile than working street lights. Crime continues to thrive here. I’ve seen kids move through the various stages of criminality and have little chance to stop them. It’s heartbreaking. When the eight-year-old boy causing problems in school starts smoking cannabis and stealing cars, it is hard not to trace the blame back to one source: a lack of government funding across the board.
Cuts have changed my role dramatically. As jobs in care and mental health teams go, more responsibility seeps towards the police. I find myself dealing increasingly with complex individuals and their complex problems, but I’ve had little or no training to do so. Hundreds of police officers and support staff have been made redundant in recent years, making the thin blue line more like a tiny blue dot. If I complain about the work too much – or the pay – there are plenty of others who would love to wear my hat instead, so I’m obliged to shut up and keep my head down.
The other day I sat with an elderly victim of a bogus caller. A man had entered her house pretending to be from the water company and had stolen her jewellery. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the investigation had been closed because of a lack of evidence, and that detectives were swamped with other things. So I just sat with her and held her hand, and tried not to think about the fact that someone, somewhere was out celebrating their banker’s bonus – ironically with a whole lot of alcohol and drugs. Probably.