The police frequently have difficult decisions to take. They often need to take them quickly. Failure, error or indecision may lead to serious injury or even death. It is not an enviable position, neither is it surprising that from time to time, both individual officers and the command structure get it wrong.
I have always believed that cock-up is more common than conspiracy, even when the outcomes are pretty shocking. But recent events relating to police actions in the managing of protest have raised serious questions about the continued tenability of that view.
Most senior officers are well aware of their democratic responsibilities in managing the balance between the right to peaceful protest and the necessity of protecting public safety. Whether this is sufficiently drilled into some of the officers who put theory into practice has become a matter for concern over the last few days.
The indiscriminate 'kettling' of school children, some as young as 10, who took to the streets to protest at the rise in tuition fees and the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance is deeply worrying. To confine children in a public space for as long as eight hours, with no access to toilets, water, food or medical assistance - and in some cases, presumably without adult support - is simply an act of cruelty.
Last Friday (26 November) footage was posted on YouTube which showed mounted police riding at speed into demonstrators near Trafalgar Square who were also protesting at the rises in tuition fees. Eleven protesters came forward to confirm that they had been charged by horses and to witness to the panic and distress which had been caused amongst a group of peaceful demonstrators which included children, pregnant women and senior citizens.
Twenty-four hours earlier, senior officers at Scotland Yard had denied that such a charge had taken place. After the release of the YouTube evidence, the denials were changed, with a Metropolitan police spokesperson initially saying that “horses may have been used”.
Later, a statement was issued saying that “the use of police horses to disperse and distance the crowd was an appropriate and proportionate tactic at that time in the given circumstances.” The adjusting of the responses appears to indicate either a serious failure of communication between commanders and those executing their commands, or a deliberate intention to mislead.
On the same day, the far-right English Defence League marched in Preston and Nuneaton. The police decided to adopt a low-key stance and the EDL took advantage of this to commit serious acts of violence. Smoke grenades, bricks, bottles and fireworks were thrown and there were reports of several people suffering head injuries.
We have every reason to be alarmed at such a contrast between the heavy-handed policing of legitimate protest and the failure to protect the public from the violence of an organisation notorious for its thuggish racism.
The observation of Detective Chief Superintendent Andy Tudway, the national co-ordinator for domestic extremism, that the the EDL was “not my problem” raises questions about the lack of appropriate action in Preston and Nuneaton and must surely influence the attitudes of officers under his command.
Policing by consent is an essential condition of democracy. Most of us wish to bring up our children to see the police as their friends and protectors. Reasonable people accept that mistakes sometimes occur and that much good policing goes unnoticed.
But the reservoir of goodwill towards the police is not inexhaustible. It has already been damaged by the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezez and its mishandled aftermath. Further harm was done when Ian Tomlinson died after being struck by a police officer during the G20 protests in 2009.
If we are to continue to give assent to the manner in which society is policed, we must demand a greater degree of openness, even-handedness and honesty. Unless that demand is heard and acted upon, trust in the police will be eroded beyond repair. And the events of the last few days have brought us nearer to that dangerous point.