The authority of the police is now collapsing

Pro-Palestinian protesters clash with police officers
Pro-Palestinian protesters clash with police officers

Barely a week goes by without someone calling for the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to resign. The cause this time? A video from the pro-Palestine protests in London on a Saturday earlier this month.

A Jewish man, Gideon Falter, tried to walk through his own city and was told he’d be arrested, that his presence was “antagonising” the demonstrators, whom, as one officer revealingly observes, are greater in number. The message is clear – if you are numerous enough, behave obnoxiously enough and make enough noise, then the police will facilitate that, essentially because it’s easier. Those screaming “scum” at a member of a minority group and rehearsing the centuries-old blood libel trope of “baby-killers” – they are too complicated to deal with, so you kettle their intended targets instead.

Gideon Falter is now being monstered, accused of seeking out the march to prove a point, which isn’t quite the winning argument his critics imagine. Firstly, why shouldn’t Jewish people be free to walk wherever they choose? Secondly, if Falter, a campaigner against anti-Semitism, were attempting to prove a point – that Jews’ safety cannot be guaranteed anywhere near these marches – then he has succeeded.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If being “openly Jewish” in the vicinity is seen as a provocation, perhaps the marches aren’t so peaceful after all, perhaps – dare I say it – it isn’t just “Zionism” they are objecting to. Were a hijab-wearing woman ticked off for standing near an EDL march looking “openly Muslim”, these people would rightly be in uproar. The incident seems yet another example of David Baddiel’s observation that “Jews don’t count” as a minority.

Eventually, it is Falter himself who is warned, told by a senior officer that he risks disturbing the peace. The concept of “breaching the peace” dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, sitting within the ancient boundaries of the common law. It therefore requires interpretation in the moment, or, put another way, more thoughtful policing than we presently have.

Here, it is used because the people who were actually in danger of breaching the peace were too numerous. “Preventing violence” therefore means targeting the minority, whether Gideon Falter or Niyak Ghorbani, the Iranian dissident who attended a march with a sign reading “Hamas is terrorist”.

This latest scandal not only bodes ill for the place of Jews in modern Britain, it helps to explain another long-running problem. Put simply, the authority of the police is collapsing. Recent polling has found a clear majority have no trust in the police, for the first time ever. This alone represents an existential crisis for forces, who have always been thought to operate on at least the theoretical principle of “policing by consent”.

It feels somewhat surprising that it’s taken so long. Several factors have conspired almost concurrently to result in this collapse of trust, culminating in the anti-Israel marches. They have exposed the extent to which policing is no longer about protecting people from harm, but a short-term version of social peace, reactive rather than proactive. In this topsy-turvy value system, the groups most likely to be violent are appeased while those most likely to be attacked are hounded out of public spaces.

But it goes broader than that. The protests that were allowed to proceed during lockdown gave clear evidence of two-tier law-enforcement; yes to Black Lives Matter, but no to the anti-lockdown marches, or the candlelit vigil following the murder of a young woman by a police officer. It’s visible in other ways, too, in the effective decriminalisation of certain offences like shoplifting, the fact that growing numbers of people would not even bother to report a theft because there seems little point. Yet should they find themselves on the receiving end of, say, a congestion charge ticket, they can expect to feel the full force of the law.

Not all of this is the preserve of policing, but it gives a decidedly two-tier experience of public interactions with the state. And, as with blaming the man who is having “scum” shouted at him, it just doesn’t feel fair.

Perhaps part of this breakdown is because personal relationships between police officers and the public have become far more remote; before the amalgamation of forces in the 1960s, you were more likely to know and see your local policeman making his daily rounds. This was not only positive for engagement between police and public, it provided an active link to the wider institution and gave police greater insight into what was happening on the ground. No surprise that much of it suffered in the decades that followed.

All this is easy to say or write. While there are obvious structural issues – especially with the Met – I don’t envy the task of the ordinary men and women on the beat. They must police a complex, multi-racial, multicultural society, making difficult judgment calls that will invariably upset one group or another. They must uphold the right to protest, even when it drains their resources. They must police “crimes” they are poorly equipped for, dealing with nebulous concepts like “offence caused”, and, as we saw during lockdown, insanely complicated, ever-changing and poorly-drafted government rules.

Nevertheless, they will pay a hefty price in public trust for surrendering their authority to the mob.