A policeman’s lot is not a happy one. So we are told by the singing sergeant in Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance.
And it is true. Inadequate pay, personnel shortages, widespread disrespect and routine danger are among the legitimate sources of resentment for this vital body of public servants. But sometimes, the conduct of what we must all trust is a small minority of police officers brings their profession into disrepute, deepening not only their own unhappiness but society’s unhappiness with them.
Britain was rightly shocked when Wayne Couzens, a serving Metropolitan policeman, kidnapped, raped and murdered a 33-year-old woman, Sarah Everard, whom he had ordered into his car after showing his warrant card on the pretext of enforcing Covid-19 curfew regulations in 2021.
Although the gravity of Couzens’s actions was obviously a despicable exception, one that horrified his colleagues as much as the public, he was far from being the only bad apple in the New Scotland Yard orchard. Two officers were jailed for photographing the bodies of two murdered sisters; others were found to have exchanged racist and misogynist text messages. The Metropolitan Police commissioner, Mark Rowley, would later say hundreds of other officers in the force were probably guilty of criminal or unethical conduct.
Hundreds of London’s firearms officers have recently handed in their permits to carry weapons, renouncing their difficult, hazardous duties in disgust at a murder charge brought against one of their number over the shooting of a young, unarmed black man in 2022.
However long it lasts, their revolt mirrors the petulance of those policemen and policewomen in France who went on strike because a court had refused to free on bail an officer who admitted firing the flashball that left a young Maghrebi man’s head hideously disfigured in Marseille. This was during the wave of unrest and rioting that followed the fatal shooting in June of the teenager Nahel Merzouk in a borrowed car after he was ordered to stop by police in Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris.
The reasonable suspicion is that these officers somehow see themselves as above the law. If the frustration they feel is understandable, it is a fundamental principle of civilised society that all citizens are answerable to justice.
Some high-ranking French officers foolishly but publicly took the side of the strikers rather than leaving it to the courts do their work. On the other side of the English Channel, British Home Secretary (or interior minister) Suella Braverman was accused of interfering in a live case when she voiced support for the disgruntled firearms officers, announcing a review of procedures to ensure armed officers “have the confidence to do their jobs”.
As consequences of due process, the Marseille officer is now free – correctly, I would argue – pending an eventual trial. And the accused Metropolitan Police officer is also at liberty awaiting a court hearing where a jury, not his aggrieved colleagues or the dead man’s relatives, will decide his fate.
In the US, Derek Chauvin, a former policeman, is deservedly serving a lengthy prison sentence for the killing of George Floyd, who was suffocated when the officer knelt on his neck and back for more than nine minutes, ignoring the man’s desperate protest that he could not breathe.
There is a familiar pattern to allegations of police brutality and their aftermath, especially when there is a racial element. An Oscar-nominated film, Les Miserables, shot in the Parisian banlieue or suburb of Montfermeil, where Victor Hugo wrote his classic novel of the same name, depicts the everyday harassment of teenagers of immigrant origins – insultingly described by one fictional officer as “microbes” – and the explosive sequel when the youngsters retaliate with mob violence.
The film’s director, Ladj Ly, grew up in Montfermeil, the son of Malian parents, once served a prison sentence over a bizarre kidnapping of which he claims he was entirely innocent and has been fiercely critical of police violence. While his film makes liberal use of artistic licence, the connection to reality is unmistakable.
In her highly publicised book Fixing France – How to Repair a Broken Republic, the French-Algerian academic and writer Nabila Ramdani recalls witnessing the tear-gassing of thousands of men, women and children celebrating Algeria’s Africa Cup of Nations triumph on Paris’s Champs-Elysees in 2019.
“The crowd also included the kind of young men of North African appearance whom the French police, and especially those in Paris, tend to despise,” she writes. “I heard the screams of those caught in the worst melees, including the crying boys and girls who were vomiting and shaking with fear as the fumes spread.” Inevitably, the heavy-handedness quickly led to looting and vandalism in nearby streets just as the shooting of young Nahel triggered nationwide riots.
The countless policemen and women, of all nationalities, who carry out their duties with professionalism, discipline and courage should not be condemned in the court of public opinion because of the vile actions of Wayne Couzens or Derek Chauvin. But sensational incidents shape perceptions and the prevalence of surveillance cameras, along with the ease with which onlookers can record events and share film on social media, makes it unlikely that officers will get away with excessive and sometimes lethal use of force.
There is abundant evidence to justify the complaints of those who have taken to the streets of France to protest against police violence, even if attacks by hoodlums among the demonstrators revealed shamefully hypocrisy.
The police may complain about being made scapegoats for society’s ills. They feel grossly overworked and underpaid. But responding to a damning report on his force’s failings, the Metropolitan commissioner was remarkably contrite: "I am sorry to those we have let down: both the public and our honest and dedicated officers. The public deserves a better Met, and so do our good people who strive every day to make a positive difference to Londoners."
Mr Rowley is just one police chief, albeit in a huge capital city. Yet his analysis could equally apply to numerous locations around the world and the message is clear. If public confidence in the people entrusted with law enforcement is to be restored, his words must be heeded.