I used to believe that anti-police sentiment was the preserve of underhand characters and criminals, but thanks to issues such as cannabis it’s becoming harder to make such an adjudication Today we see the line blurred between dangerous elements of society and people just going about their normal lives. But how did it become like this, and how can we change it?
The greatest mistake any society can make is to assume that the status quo represents a final, quasi-utopian system of governance. We look at generations gone by and seek affirmation that we’ve finally been the ones to get it right. But have we? As backward as regulations and morals from 500 years ago seem nowadays, won’t we be viewed with the same disdain by future generations? And just as those native to medieval times wouldn’t notice their erroneous thinking, neither do most of us today.
Entire concepts could be flawed. Democracy may well be the laughing stock of the 22nd century. As could the differentiation of people based on race. However learned we feel, we quite possibly know nothing and understand very little. People struggle to avoid awful food and keep themselves healthy… what chance do we have of the collective truly understanding far more complex issues?
Just following orders
The policing of our country is supposed to be a reflection of societal norms and wants. It’s meant to be a mature, evidence-based approach to ensuring that we live safe, happy lives, untroubled by others. But the beast we see today is far removed from this ideal. Gone are those principles, in favour of a self-serving attitude which treats policing as a for-profit industry. Today’s police forces are guided by targets and easy arrests.
But before I turn the screw on the police, a concession is first required. Of course not all those who become members are looking to tackle inoffensive citizens, but they implicitly choose to subscribe to such acts when they join the profession. What are they to do in such a situation? There’s perhaps cause to invoke Godwin’s law by referencing the Nazi defence of “just following orders”, but that would be as simplistic and stereotypical as to render it a useless observation. If it were true. The role of police in society is of vital importance, and very much a staple of civilised nations.
It could be reasoned that regular operations will not be of the type which affects the innocent; with the majority of their efforts spent tackling violent and dangerous criminals who pose a threat to society. However, I’ve made an error with my choice of language in the previous sentence. What I wrote does indeed hold true – it’s mostly the guilty who are targeted, and that includes cannabis users. The overriding factor is that we are indeed guilty criminals in the eyes of the law. And this is the crux of the matter. Even those with the best of intentions can be forced into unthinkable things if their livelihood depends on it, with their bosses being under order from their bosses, and so on until we reach the letter of the law itself.
Discretion: the ability to choose which lives you ruin
The law can be divided into two pots – malum prohibitum and malum in se, or rather “illegal because it’s prohibited” versus “illegal because it’s inherently bad”. In a rogue state, being gay or trying to vote could be regarded as malum prohibitum. In fact gay people getting married is still illegal for this very reason in even some of the most progressive societies on Earth. So it’s safe to say that depending on the whims and education of those around us, we can all be classified as criminals, and therefore all be reasoned as viable police targets. There but for the grace of society go each and every one of us.
This is further compounded by the concept of police discretion. On the surface this seems to be a throw-back to the early and middle parts of the 20th century, where police would spot a child stealing toffees and simply give them a stern telling off, in the hope that a warning may have more effect than imprisonment. Sadly, discretion is something which works as an awful halfway house, conceptually. On top of law which is based on the mood of society, we’re now exposed to an extra layer of subjective analysis, one which isn’t derived from the extensive knowledge of a lawyer, psychologist, or doctor, but rather somebody whose job description stipulates they must have a low IQ.
When you realise this it becomes harder not to view discretion as something sinister, or at best, open to errors of judgement. Given the serious consequences, it’s wholly inappropriate to introduce such non-scientific means when it comes to criminality. Allowing officers to pick and choose how they apply the law seems against the nature of the law itself, and it’s responsible for a breakdown in relations with those of ethnic minority backgrounds. If you combine less intelligent people with authority and the ability pick and choose who gets punished, racism stands a chance. A cursory glance at the arrest figures shows that a black male is much more likely to be arrested and charged for cannabis-related offences. Even former police admit that institutional racism played a part for colleagues, let alone the general public.
Why have the police stopped tackling real crime?
When it comes to preventing real crime, where are the police? By their own admission they’ve failed to investigate cases involving people who are being burgled or attacked, and act as after-the-fact admin workers. They ask you what happened, write it down, and forget about it. There’s no sense of the police being our guardian angels. They’re reduced to secretaries when it comes time to help. Is that really the reason they chose to become members of the force? My heart tells me there must be something in their character which seeks to protect and serve, but I don’t believe the excuse of “just following orders” has ever been something to admire. A vegan doesn’t sign up to work at Burger King, whilst citing the fact that one in every 50 sales happens to be a vege-burger.
We only have to look at Hillsborough for recent evidence of the police exhibiting the self-preservation mindset to bring about the wickedest of lies, which were certainly a cause for concern for an entire city. Or more recently, the case of the celebrity Jimmy Savile in England, who was able to assault and rape 100s of children for decades, while the police ignored reports from victims. In fact, the police are quite fond of using discretion when it comes to ignoring the pleas of sexually abused children.
If merely covering up the rape of children were not enough, Essex police recently ensured that a cannabis user’s wife was put through so much stress that she miscarried twins. Put this alongside the memory of flaccid policeman watching on as looters tormented London a couple of summers back, and it paints a picture of a force which is all too happy to take advantage of the meeker members of society, but genuinely terrified of apprehending people who may put up some resistance. You’re punished because you come across as an approachable, decent person, who isn’t going to cause any problems. The whole thing has been turned on its head.
With retirement comes great honesty
One of the quirks of both political and constabulary life is that people are shackled by having to maintain a narrative, be that from their party or from their boss. However much drug policy is seen to be a failure on the street, they can’t mention the fact. I can appreciate that working for a company invariably requires us to not openly slag them off in public or reveal trade secrets, but the operations of our police forces are not a private enterprise, nor do they aim to keep out of our business if we leave them alone. We’re talking about huge organisations which are responsible for the freedom and safety of millions of people. There has to be a popularised option for whistleblowing or even publicly challenging their own policy. It’s far too important to be handled in-house.
People such as the former Metropolitan Police Commander Brian Paddick have admitted that not only are they failing in the war on drugs, but that punitive measures are inherently flawed when it comes to tackling vices. Then we have organisations such as LEAP, which quite commendably does include current officers amongst its membership. Some former officers go as far as to create their own advice DVDs which detail how cannabis users can escape arrest. The situation is a farce, and everybody knows it, including those salaried to pretend they don’t.
We’re all in this together, except when we’re not
Would you admit to your boss that what you’re doing isn’t valuable? Most people worried about their income would think twice about volunteering an excuse to be made redundant, and I have to question whether this plays a part in officers talking up their paltry successes in seizing drugs. We see images of them smiling, with their meagre hauls of cannabis, as if they were blissfully unaware that their actions have done nothing to dent the drug supply. Nothing at all beyond possibly increasing prices for consumers. Gee, thanks for that, officer. I can’t help but think Robert Peel would be unimpressed by your impersonation of a public servant.
UK police have recently been complaining that an austerity-related 20% reduction in staff would be a disaster for the nation. Truly awful. There’s no chance they could harass cannabis users to the same extent and have men sat in the station refusing to attend urgent calls from the public. They’re going to have to break a nail or two as part of their jobs and ignore non-violent citizens.
Or perhaps this was our leader’s plan all along. The ‘big society’ he has in mind seems to revolve around people grassing their neighbours up for growing a few plants for personal use. With communities engaging in witch hunts it gives the police more free time to not answer our calls, or rather, answer them in a fashion which would see a pizza company forced to apologise and put your meal on the house. If a guy on a scooter can get to you faster than police with sirens, there’s something seriously amiss.
Stealing from the taxpayer in order to steal from the taxpayer
Not only are scarce resources misused in a shockingly unprofessional manner, we mustn’t forget that we have to foot the bill for these failed exploits. We finance our own persecution, and if we refuse to pay taxes towards this, we’ll be faced with yet another charge to cover the cost of our arrest and processing. With the advent of private, for-profit prisons even the incarceration is added to the tax bill. The system is designed to maximise revenue for both public and private institutes, with the preference being that people commit crimes, and particularly ones which are easy to tackle and quick to process, such as tickets/fines for cannabis possession. It’s much quicker and helps boost monthly targets, and given the now corporate nature of the sector it’s hard to imagine ethics or humans rights featuring on the balance sheet, unless it favours other force members.
According to an independent report on the UK market, money spent policing cannabis amounts to £512m per year on average. If we were to allocate this money to other areas we could make huge improvements. Just the reduction in policing costs would cover 50,000 students attending university each and every year. Let alone what we could do if we had additional billions in taxable sales on top of this saving. Do we want a society which sends young people to prison and ruins their prospects, creating a downward spiral, or do we want to invest in those same people and give them skills to become successful citizens who contribute to the common good?
There’s something about drug policy which makes it feel like it’s just a bunch of people erring on the side of caution, to ensure that any negatives from change aren’t attributed to their removal from prohibitive legislation. Again, figures of authority attempt to maintain the existing structure for fear of personal loss, rather than following policies which focus on public gain. The DEA in America famously chooses to sponsor research into cannabis which is aimed at just negative associations. Common sense, morals, and care for fellow man are all discarded in the chase for self-preservation and validation.
The impact of criminalising cannabis users
When you brand a person’s private actions illegal you impress upon them a negative image which has potentially catastrophic effects. Even if they’ve never encountered the police there’s always the worry that it might happen. Life as a cannabis user is fraught with paranoia about the smell of smoke escaping, being able to get away with consuming it in parks, or perhaps even letting neighbours into our homes for fear of the grow tent being spotted. A false divide is driven between the cannabis user and those in their local community. Perhaps they’d all be fine with what you do, but perhaps not. Who can afford to find out with police so desperate for a tip-off and cheap arrest?
Some people can’t afford to purchase black market cannabis due to the inflated prices, so they might invest in a relatively expensive setup at home. If they ever have the police attend their premise they risk having it all confiscated. It’s meant to be preventing criminal enterprise, but it amounts to bare-faced theft.
A person who fears for their freedom can’t avoid having their happiness somewhat curtailed, and yet there’s no valid reason for it. Just one conviction for a drug offence could lead to restrictions being placed on where somebody can travel (say goodbye to studying in the USA), which charity work they can do, and certainly which career paths they can follow. Police need to understand that these punishments are not to be taken lightly. By reducing the potential for an individual you create somebody more likely to go off the rails and become a genuine burden on the state. Nobody wins using this approach, so it’s futile to continue.
Improving community relations
Illicit drug users account for perhaps 10-30% of society, and they should not be terrorised if they cause no harm to others. In this situation it is the police who are to fear. People want them on streets protecting us from thieves and rapists, not taking the cheap and easy way by attacking people in their homes or upon exiting train stations. Chasing non-violent people because they offer no threat is cowardice of the highest order, and such a trait should be considered a sackable offense for those charged with protecting us from genuinely dangerous characters.
If there’s a strong bond between police and the community they can work together to concentrate on rooting out the real troublemakers, and providing a sense of security for all. At present there’s such a conflict which creates strange scenarios such as a cannabis grower having to wonder whether they can call the police if they’ve been burgled or even mugged on the street. It would be great to catch the guy before he hits somebody else, but do you really want police within a few feet of bonus points for their evening’s work? In such a situation it’s not just the individual who loses, it’s everybody in their neighbourhood.
Clearly orders come from above, and the police are guided by law, but I hope that they themselves can play a part in speaking out about failed policies. They too are one of the public when they go home at the end of a shift, as are their friends and loved ones.
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