In my book and the Tango Juliet Foxtrot podcast, I often talk about how leaving the police after a long and successful career feels like a bereavement. The loss of identity. The loss of a strong sense of purpose. Feeling like you can really, actually make a difference in a positive way to the lives of decent, law-abiding, tax-paying members of the public on those rare occasions that the risk-aversion and mind-numbing bureaucracy of modern policing allows you to do that.
Confronting lawlessness and putting nasty scumbags behind bars where they belong.
However, there are moments when that sense of loss and frustration feels especially poignant and visceral, and yesterday was one of those days. Let me explain why.
I decided to take my ten-year-old son and eleven-year-old daughter to Worcester for the afternoon. We know the city quite well, and as we were staying in the Cotswolds for the week, I decided that the train was the better option. The train would be stress-free, with no parking to worry about and most importantly, a table to play our beloved card games. As my wife was working all week, we also took our two dogs.
We had a very pleasant time strolling around the city centre and along the river. I even managed to have a couple of pints in a dog-friendly pub to wash down a delicious lunch. (Farriers Arms if you’re interested – it got 5 stars from me on TripAdvisor. Definitely no frills, but great pub grub).
When it got to four o’clock, we decided to start making our way back to the train station.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Worcester, but in common with every city centre it has the full representation of humanity wandering its streets. We once mistakenly got off the train one stop too soon at Worcester Shrub Hill, rather than the intended Worcester Foregate Street, and I cheerfully told the kids, ‘Don’t worry, we can walk into the city centre, it won’t take long.’
They still talk about that walk two years on, as it seemed like we encountered every drug addict, drug dealer and mental health case in Worcester during that short 15-minute walk. I laughed it off, but the kids were a bit traumatized by it. They certainly had their eyes opened to the seamier side of life that day. In Worcester for God’s sake! Dreaming spires it certainly was not on that short walk.
So, onto the point of the story.
As we sat on the platform waiting for the train amid all the usual hustle and bustle of tourists, commuters and students with rucksacks, my attention was immediately drawn to a group of four or five rowdy youths making their way along the platform. They were shouting, swearing and pushing each other around. They had the aggressive collective swagger that I’ve seen a thousand times before as a police officer. A swagger that says ‘You better get out of our way, because if you don’t you’re going to regret it.’ They were all fifteen or sixteen, wearing the regulation black baggy tracksuit bottoms, hoodies and black T-shirts. At the risk of sounding like Miss Marple, their language was dreadful, with the F-bomb and C-bomb liberally sprinkling every moronic utterance.
They then stopped about ten yards from where we sat waiting for our train, and for reasons known only to them, they started verbally abusing an elderly man and woman who were sat minding their own business, also waiting for the same train. It was really, really horrible stuff being said. For example;
‘You’re going to fucking die soon grandma’
‘You should be in a care home with all the other old women’
‘Do you want me to sort your funeral out for you?’
There were a lot of other things said that I couldn’t quite hear, but the general atmosphere felt very aggressive and tense, with one of them in particular saying the most abusive things and obviously feeling like the big man. The others gathered round him laughing like hyenas.
The couple said nothing at all, and sat looking stoically in front of them, trying to ignore the abuse.
Thankfully the train pulled in a few minutes later, and the youths ran off up the platform to a coach towards the back of the train, where no doubt they would continue their obnoxious and threatening behaviour towards passengers on the train, whilst trying to avoid the conductor.
The poor couple who had been on the receiving end of the abuse looked genuinely upset. The wife was ashen-faced, and her husband looked absolutely fuming. He was no doubt feeling impotent in the face of such random hostility and hatred. Outnumbered and placed in an impossible position. Unable to protect his wife from the abuse.
So…here’s my dilemma as an ex-police officer. What could or should I have done in this situation?
During my police career, I made many off-duty arrests, frequently putting myself into very risky situations to make those arrests. On almost every occasion, I fought to some extent with the person I arrested, eventually subduing them and holding onto them until the police arrived. However, on every occasion I was alone. I made those decisions knowing that the only person who might come off badly was me. I did not have with me two children under twelve, a soppy Springer Spaniel (who has more love to give in a day than most dogs give in a lifetime) and a Maltese Terrier/Shih Tzu cross (who looks like something that would normally sit in the handbag of a celebrity hairdresser). He’s no Rottweiler.
If I had been on my own, I definitely would have intervened in some way to make it clear that this behaviour needed to stop. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that my intervention would have provoked an assault on me from one or all of them, pumped up on testosterone and high on skunk cannabis as they all probably were.
While I don’t enjoy violence, I’m not particularly scared of it. My preferred tactic in these situations which I encourage you to adopt if a) someone tries to attack you, b)you have no option other than to defend yourself and c) you feel confident to do it, is to go in very hard indeed very quickly and put the ringleader on the seat of his pants in a way that ensures that he isn’t going to get back up again. This usually discourages the others. If it doesn’t, then you do the same to the next one who steps forward. If none of that works then you’re screwed, and you need to prepare to receive what is known as a ‘proper shoeing’.
But I wasn’t on my own. Intervening in this situation would have not just put me at risk, but more importantly, it would have put my young children (and my furry children) at risk. I would never do that. Clearly, if one of them had escalated their behaviour towards the couple to a physical assault, then my decision probably would have been very different. Thankfully, that didn’t happen in front of me. However, the day was young. Goodness knows what those little scumbags got up to later on.
Afterwards, it left me thinking deeply about a number of things.
Firstly, what the hell has gone wrong in our country that we now seem to shrug our shoulders and accept the appalling behaviour of feral teenagers as ‘normal’? By the way, if you don’t like my use of the word ‘feral’ to describe these idiots, I don’t care. The definition of feral is; “Having escaped from domestication and become wild”, which I think describes teenagers like this rather well. They mostly come from chaotic households with terrible role models and have been taught that violence and intimidation is the way to behave towards authority figures, teachers and random members of the public. They are, to all intents and purposes, feral.
Furthermore, the UK has created a bloated industry of professionals and policymakers who make excuses for terrible behaviour, and I think everyone is now massively bored with it.
He’s suffering from the impact of trauma.
He’s got ADHD.
He’s on the autistic spectrum.
It now feels rather like they’ve been given a diagnosis and a label by an ‘expert’ and that means that it’s now OK to behave like total arseholes everywhere they go. They can’t help it you see.
I think it’s a massive cop-out. He’s behaving like a total shit, and he needs to know that behaviour like this is sub-optimal for both him and for everyone in wider society. It needs to have negative consequences for him, and arguably for those ‘carers’ who helped to turn him into such a little shit.
I genuinely feel so sorry for teachers who have to put up with these idiots in the classroom, as they try and maintain order and attempt to support the learning of those kids who actually want to succeed and better themselves in life.
Collectively, as a country, we need to stop putting up with it and making excuses for them. The financial argument is overwhelming, even if you’re not persuaded by the moral need to challenge this downward spiralling culture of disrespect and aggression. There are tens of thousands of young men and women like this all over the country. They create misery everywhere they go. They will fill up our young offenders institutes and later our adult prisons at huge expense to taxpayers.
The future for that young man on the platform in Worcester is depressingly predictable. Continual brushes with the law. Drug abuse. Regular incarceration. Domestic abuse. Illegitimate children all over the place. Mental health issues and a massive drain on the taxpayer.
Secondly, why do members of the public (including experienced ex-police officers like me) now rightly worry that if they do intervene in these situations, and it gets ugly, that they will be the ones who get arrested and end up in court?
Let’s think through the scenario above. If I had stepped forward to intervene and it had all kicked off, as it surely would have done, I would have ended up (at the very least), laying hands on the ringleader and at some point, giving him a well-deserved smack in the mouth. You know, and I know what would have happened next. I would almost certainly be arrested for ‘assaulting’ a fifteen-year-old. Me a 6ft 2 inch, 14 stone man. Him, a 5ft 7 inch, 9 stone kid. I would be portrayed at court as a physical bully who used his height and weight to assault a child.
My next thought afterwards was this.
How have we got to the situation where UK policing appears to have abandoned most public spaces and handed them over to lawlessness, cannabis dealers, thieves and yobs?
(N.B If you don’t believe me, I can provide you with thousands of examples, and you could do worse than read my book.)
Question: How often do you now see police officers patrolling busy public spaces on foot, interacting with the public and deterring yobs?
Answer: Almost never.
Question: How confident are we all now that if we did need the police quickly, that they would turn up quickly?
Answer: Not confident. They’re too busy doing the work of everyone else.
Question: If they did turn up, how confident are we that they would do a proper investigation and charge someone at the end of it?
Answer: I think the current charge rate of 5% of total recorded crime answers that question.
My final thought was this.
Policing nationally is in a mess after thirteen years of government underfunding. Police officers are resigning in their droves and many more are actively planning to leave due to terrible pay and low morale. Hardly anyone wants to be a detective, because of the emotional impact of stressful, relentless workloads whilst trying to service a criminal justice system on the point of collapse.
So, how can we harness the passion still felt by many who have left or retired, but who would still like to be able to put something back into policing? People like me.
There seems to be a complete dearth of imagination in the service with this issue. The armed forces have highly skilled and experienced reservists who can plug gaps. Teaching and nursing have agency staff who can assist. Policing needs to find a way to harness the experience of those who have left to help in some way.
At my age, I don’t particularly want to be rolling around on the floor with drunks, drug dealers and violent teenagers. However, after my experience in Worcester the other day, part of me genuinely considered becoming a Special Constable.
Then again, I wouldn’t be in a rush to do that if I’m honest. Giving up my family time to get spat at, verbally abused and humiliated on Tiktok. Sent by a faceless operator in a remote call-handling centre to deal with things that have little to do with fighting crime. Unloved by the public, and unloved (often) by the regular officers who can’t understand why someone would want to do a job that is now pretty thankless for no pay.
However, at least being a Special Constable gives you the powers of a fully warranted police officer. This is something that I was very conscious of after the incident at Worcester railway station, as I ruefully racked my brains trying to remember which Public Order Act offences have ‘police officer only’ powers of arrest and which have ‘any person’ powers of arrest. If you don’t know what I’m on about here, certain offences (usually the more serious ones) allow anybody to make an arrest, provided that the offence is happening right in front of you.
In the ’little shitbags in Worcester’ scenario they were definitely committing an offence under Section 5 Public Order Act 1986 and arguably the more serious offence under Section 4 of using
“threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, with intent to cause that person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person, or to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another, or whereby that person is likely to believe that such violence will be used or it is likely that such violence will be provoked.”
In the Worcester scenario, the behaviour we saw and heard was very likely to ‘provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another’ on the basis that if that elderly couple had been hypothetically joined by their son, a Regimental Sergeant Major home on leave from the Parachute Regiment, those dreadful young men would have found their teeth knocked out of their mouths and liberally distributed across the platform.
Is it really wrong to admit that I would have thoroughly enjoyed watching that happen?