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Everyday harms: Policing in an age of austerity

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On recently seeing a news story is about a police officer being diagnosed with PTSD, I wanted to reflect on the broader contexts which led to this. The officer was assaulted during a single crew shift, and inevitably, found himself dealing with a dangerous situation, with no back up, leading to being injured. It struck me that this impact on physical and mental health is a form of social harm, which can all to easily be disregarded as ‘part of the job’, and a risk all police officers must expect, as action-oriented risk-takers, keen to do what is necessary to protect and serve. The link to social harm came to me from having recently taught students about this in relation to gambling as a form of deviant leisure (see Smith and Raymen, 2017), who cited the impact of gambling addiction affecting personal relationships, physical and mental health. We discussed the wider implications of this, and the need to acknowledge social harms which cause injury, violate rights and lead to ill health, but which stem from accepted behaviours and working conditions. There is also a wide body of literature which analyses structural harms resulting in discrimination, poverty and neglect of considerations for citizens’ safety (Pemberton, 2016). The perpetrators of such harms are not criminals as many people understand them, but corporations, states and politicians who could act to prevent harm and choose not to, or act with the full knowledge of the risks they are creating.

The study of social harm, zemiology, has much more to say on this perspective than this blog allows, but PC Johnson’s story, to me, reflected a society and a government who are implementing policies they know will cause harm, neglecting their responsibilities when downplaying the harms caused and who insist on placing blame on individuals or other organisations when incidences occur. It is clear there are there are various factors which created this situation for this officer, including the reduction of police officer numbers in the name of austerity. We do not know the details behind the perpetrator’s behaviour enough to attribute causes or contributory factors, but from this short story we can easily see the harms being caused, to those who wish to protect and serve citizens, resulting from an officer being out on a single crew shift. PC Mick Johnson is very clear that staff shortages led to him operating on his own on the day he was stabbed, a problem echoed by 90% of 18,000 officers of all ranks who reported to a Police Federation of England and Wales survey that they are understaffed. The health impact of this understaffing was also reported, in that 79% reported feelings of stress and anxiety in the past 12 months and 61.7% reported suffering at least one traumatic experience in the past 12 months.

A key rationale behind double crewing is to avoid having officers alone in vulnerable situations with no back up, a situation which single crewing creates, and which is described by the Police Federation as ‘unacceptable’, in a service feeling the ‘brunt of issues around resilience’ (Police Federation, 2017). Work pattern analysis shows many having to work overtime, routinely on 10 hour shifts and having rest days cancelled, and being unable to take break entitlements. The survey also shows a 14% fall in police officer numbers from 2009 to 2016, and is described as having ‘significant repercussions’. This is manifest in officers mental and physical well-being and it is having an impact on family life, childcare and officers’ skills development as they cannot spare the time for additional training. PC Johnson’s story clearly reflects these issues, as he reported that his assault led to symptoms of mood swings, lack of sleep and reported that the incident ‘utterly changed him as a person’. His unit has shrunk from 20 officers in 2009, to 10, and he expressed the frustration at not being able to do the job he once loved; that the conditions of his employment now meant he was counting down the days until retirement.

The motivation for becoming a police officer and staying in the job has been widely attributed to police culture characteristics which attract and are reinforced through a process of socialisation and acceptance of this culture; key characteristics which represent positive aspects of this are being action oriented, risk takers and pragmatic (Reiner, 1992). While there are negative connotations associated with police culture as impediments to reform and change (Loftus, 2009), it is difficult to imagine how cutting numbers will help with this in anyway, and in fact, to add to the stress on officers, could arguably bring out the worse aspects of police culture in the form of prejudices and discrimination, borne out of frustrations with the job and every day stress. The demonstration of personal and social harms caused by austerity cuts, stagnating wages and fewer staff are clearly demonstrated by PC Johnson’s final quote, and raise some serious questions for those responsible for keeping communities and citizens safe, and for those tasked with managing this service:

“We are all devastated, as we joined to protect our communities and to serve the public, we didn’t expect to have to sacrifice our families and our physical and mental health.” (PC Mick Johnson, BBC News, 2019).

References

BBC News (2019) Police shortages: ‘Working alone left me with PTSD, Ian Westbrook, available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47212662.

Loftus, B. (2009) Police Culture in a Changing World, Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Pemberton, S. (2016) Harmful Societies: Understanding social harm, Policy Press: Bristol.

Police Federation (2017) Three quarters of officers ‘often or always’ single-crewed, available from http://www.polfed.org/newsroom/4094.aspx

Reiner, R. (1992) The Politics of the Police, Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Smith, O. and Raymen, T. (2017) Lifestyle gambling, indebtedness and

anxiety: A deviant leisure perspective, Journal of Consumer Culture, 0(0) 1–19.


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