Trevor Laffan: Jaw-jaw beats war-war when it comes to policing our streets

We’re lucky to have a mainly unarmed police force in Ireland, and one that still has the support of the community. Most of them anyway, so says Trevor Laffan in his weekly column
Trevor Laffan: Jaw-jaw beats war-war when it comes to policing our streets

A member of the Austin police department in Texas takes a knee after marching in protest at the death of George Floyd.

I WAS a big fan of cop shows on TV back in the day and those of my vintage will remember the likes of Hill Street Blues, Ironside, Kojak and The Streets Of San Francisco.

If you watched Hawaii Five-0, you’ll know that Steve always told Danno to ‘book em’, while ‘Dirty Harry’ in the action films maintained law and order with his trusty Magnum 45.

These programmes had a few things in common. The cops were the good guys and they always triumphed over the bad guys. There were plenty of ‘Punks’ to be arrested so you were guaranteed lots of shooting and car chases, but there was never much blood.

If the bad guy got shot, he almost certainly died, while the good guy always survived, no matter how much lead entered his body.

After a few days in hospital, the cop was right as rain and fit to return to work to continue the fight against crime. He didn’t have time to be sick.

Modern shows are more graphic. There’s no shortage of violence, blood and swearing, and some of the cops make Dirty Harry look shy and retiring — but maybe they’re only reflecting the violence evident in today’s society.

In the real world, American police officers are gaining a reputation for being overly aggressive and recent events have shown they don’t always cover themselves in glory.

There was a video circulating on social media showing a police officer in the States stopping an older lady driving her car. She was asked for her driver’s licence, but she didn’t want to produce it and an argument ensued.

The woman was obviously agitated and she certainly ove-reacted. The police officer was very professional initially, remaining calm and reasonable while being assertive at the same time, until the lady drove off.

After a short pursuit at normal speed, the car was stopped again. The argument continued and the officer pulled his gun and ordered her out of the car.

While watching this unfold, I found myself telling the officer to put the gun away and just have a chat with the woman to see what’s really bothering her.

That didn’t happen though, and the lady continued to protest until she was physically removed from the car. Then there was a bit of pushing and shoving which led to her being tasered and she ended up on the ground.

She was threatened with being tasered a second time and after a brief struggle she was handcuffed and taken away.

I wasn’t there so, obviously, I don’t know the full circumstances, but to the casual observer, albeit one who spent 35 years as a policeman, this officer’s reaction was over the top.

At first, he appeared to be in control, but then he allowed the incident to develop into chaos to the point where he was grappling on the ground with an elderly lady.

OK, so she wasn’t co-operative, but she wasn’t offering violence either. Judging by her behaviour, the woman had issues. She was definitely overly excited and unreasonable, but the officer didn’t appear to be in any danger.

The situation got out of hand though and that made me wonder about his training.

If something like that were to happen in our jurisdiction, it would be dealt with differently. The emphasis would be placed on resolving the issue without resorting to force.

That’s not always possible, but initially she would be engaged in conversation to the point of exhaustion while family members were contacted, or medical attention was sought.

An arrest would be the final option whereas in the US, it seems to be the first port of call.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis also raised questions about training. A police officer was filmed kneeling on the neck of the suspect for eight minutes while he was in custody and that man subsequently died.

That led to clashes with police and the destruction of property in many cities across the country. Police tactics faced criticism after incidents of heavy-handed action triggered violence which created casualties on both sides.

Four officers were shot in St Louis, Missouri, one officer in Las Vegas was shot in the head and another in New York City was in a serious condition after being hit by a car.

In Atlanta, two police officers lost their jobs after using Tasers on two college students who had been sitting in a car. Six other officers were charged with various offences.

The relationship between the community and the police forces in some states appears to have disintegrated with complaints of racism and criminality being levelled against the very people charged with keeping the peace.

Without the respect of the community, the police are facing a difficult task, and law and order will continue to be under serious strain.

We’re lucky to have a mainly unarmed police force in Ireland, and one that still has the support of the community. Most of them anyway.

That connection between the people and An Garda Siochana is a privilege and shouldn’t be taken for granted. It forms the backbone of policing in Ireland.

That relationship is fragile though. We saw that in the 1980s when it broke down and the result was rising crime rates, large scale joy riding and criminal damage.

Community policing was introduced to get us back on track and it worked, but it didn’t happen overnight.

Mutual trust is a key ingredient in any relationship, and that takes time to develop, which is why community engagement requires a long-term strategy.

It’s well worth the effort though because properly trained and resourced community policing personnel will make it work. We know that from experience.

We don’t want to end up like our friends across the pond, fighting each other in the streets, so let’s just keep talking.

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