When I post on the police the responses tend to fall into two clear groups. From plods, it's generally something like "We're all that stand between you and anarchy, and we daily risk our lives for your welfare, you ungrateful sod". From libertarians (lower case l) its generally something like "Petty little fascists who don't know who puts the butter on their bread". The polarity of reaction does tell us something significant, though; the police are no longer, in Peel's words, the public and the public are no longer the police. This is not a good thing.
First, let's get rid of the myths on both sides. Being a policeman is not particularly risky. Occupational health statistics (death and serious injury) show that construction, or mining, or agriculture and forestry are far riskier occupations. Policing is riskier than clerical work, but less risky than being a scaffolder. That coppers believe it to be a high-risk occupation is one of the factors that has caused an alienation from the public.
Few police are fascists. You didn't need to see the recently published BNP membership list to know that the police are under-represented here; a read of the several police blogs around soon dispels the myth of fascist coppers. If they despair of bureaucracy, health and safety overkill (except their own H&S, of course) and political correctness, well, don't we all. If one thing unites the police blogs, it is a sense that they're ordinary common-sensical blokes striving to do their job against interference and criticism from all sides and they'd be far happier if we all just left them to get on with it.
One phrase you'll find on many police blogs this weekend in the wake of Damian Green's arrest is "No one is above the law". And it's the robotic repetition of this tired little mantra without an understanding of what it implies that's at the root of the problem.
A while ago, and over a few pints, a police officer senior enough to know better patiently explained to me the orthodoxy of the ideal relationship between the police and everyone else. We're individually appointed by the Queen, he said, and are answerable only to her. Our personal conduct must be above reproach. We must be completely independent and free from interference to do our job of upholding The Law (and yes, you could hear the capitals as he said those two words). We will uphold The Law without fear or favour. To him, this all seemed eminently reasonable, and he genuinely couldn't understand why I couldn't buy into it.
To me, what he was describing wasn't a police force but a priesthood, an elite. What he was describing was a million miles from Peel's 'The police are the public and the public are the police'.
The police blogs all poo-poo the idea of a police State and from their point of view it is a nonsense; their idea of a police State is a bloke in a uniform covered with silver braid sitting behind the desk at Number Ten. But it isn't this that's the danger. The danger is allowing a separate elite, a priesthood, to whom we have granted extraordinary powers to exercise those powers without our management and direction. In that sense we are all above the law; the law is the public and the public is the law, to paraphrase Peel. The only powers the police have are those we grant them - 'the law' doesn't have an independent existence.
The last Royal Commission on policing we had was in the 1960s, and gave rise to the malignant 1964 Police Act. This was the culmination of a long struggle by Home Secretaries of both parties to bring our police forces under greater government control. The arrest of Damian Green is the latest fall-out from the process of change that started with this Act.
The time is long overdue for a thorough and reasoned look at policing in the United Kingdom. It must be respected by all - not another Nu Labour whitewash inquiry under a tame and compliant judge, but a non-partisan inquiry trusted by police and public alike. Only a Royal Commission will do.