In an alarming story last month, a coroner heard that three police officers watched for ten minutes as a drunk man struggled in the river Exe before two passers by, Greg Clifford and Ryan Curwen, admonished them. Astonishingly, when it was suggested that they might be rescuing the man, Victor Greenwood, they were told that the officers wouldn’t be so bold ‘but you can if you want to’. The men did so, but were unable to save Mr Greenwood. Bizarrely, one of the officers then had the wherewithal to get in a canoe, from where he dived into the water, begging the question why he didn’t just get in the river as soon as he saw Mr Greenwood in it. It was, of course, too late.
This story is one of several disturbing examples of police inaction over the past few years. In 2004, armed police waited for two hours before declaring the scene of a shooting safe. They did not intervene for over an hour whilst paramedics waited to administer urgent first aid, notwithstanding 999 calls having made clear that the gunmen had fled. Two women, Vicky and Emma Walton, died. And in 2007 two Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) watched as a ten year old boy, Jordon Lyon, drowned in a pond in Wigan. Again, two bystanders were able to wade (not swim) into the pond to attempt to save him. Strangely, no harm befell them. Yet Assistant Chief Constable Dave Thompson said that officers ‘were not expected to rescue people from water and they could not see where Jordon was in the lake’, which does not quite explain how the anglers were able to spot him.
These examples (and there are many more) beg the question: what are police officers for? Are they there merely to investigate crimes and provide general security? Or are they on duty to protect people – both from others and from their natural environment. Had any of these examples been listed a mere twenty years ago, the general reaction would have been one of astonishment. The officers involved would have been likely to have faced sanctions but, most importantly of all, would certainly have been made to feel shame.
In an article written after the de Menenez Health and Safety verdicts Bernard Hogan Howe, Chief Constable of Mersyside, argued convincingly that the culture of police officers putting their own safety first can be traced directly back to the Police (Health and Safety) Act 1997. I agree (although not with his analysis of the de Menenz fiasco). Prior to that Act, police forces, not being lawful ‘employers’ of police constables (for rather esoteric legal reasons) were not subject to the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Of course, it is right that health and safety legislation applies to officers in their offices and during non-physical training. But to apply the legislation to all their activities, leading to the prosecution of two Met Commissioners for failing to warn officers not to climb on roofs, when the officers in question were doing so in order to attempt to rescue a man from a suicide attempt, puts a higher premium on their safety than on that of the public. How many more Victor Greenwoods must drown before we recognise this?