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Sliding downhill, time to re-engage the gears

Sliding downhill, time to re-engage the gears

Society is sliding downhill, with growing disengagement between people and police. Officers are as much victims of this process as people, James Fairbairn writes. There’s a need to re-engage the democractic gears of governance to ensure checks and balances remain in place, so society doesn’t run away from us.

The police in society…and use of stun guns

By James Fairbairn*

An old friend and currently serving NSW police officer, “RJ”, wrote this week to say my most recent website newsletter painted a very negative picture of police officers.  To quote him directly: “The people I work with are not faceless stormtroopers, they are family men and women mostly, they sacrifice a lot for the job and they certainly are not in it for money or petty power games.”

Sometimes, the detail in long articles can get misinterpreted by a reader, or is not fully articulated in the first place…and for any failings along those lines I sincerely apologise to RJ and his colleagues.

Regarding the warning picture that I have painted about society ending up with storm trooper-looking, stun gun-firing, inhumane machines, it is just that – a warning. The police (and the armed forces for that matter) are as much pawns in this game as the rest of us.  They ultimately follow the orders of their political masters, and the rules that they set to enforce their wishes (right or wrong). The politicians are in turn increasingly following the orders of their masters, not us the voters but corporate interests, who seek protection of their interests, at all costs…but at no cost to them. This is no closed-room conspiracy, just the psychology of the world that we live in.

Part of the problem for the police (in the 1st World) is that they, over the past 30 or so years, have systematically become disengaged from society, operating at a further and further remove from the people that they are genuinely seeking to protect. The general society (in the lower socio-demographic orders particularly) has been left to fester with proper (but not unquestioning) respect for rightful societal authority becoming a thing of the past. The problem starts in the education system, and is perpetuated by media, the legal system and politicians.

Thirty years ago you would have seen the “bobby” on his beat walking down the street towards you, armed with just a baton, and dressed in a normal uniform. You felt comfortable to interact. You could see their eyes (a key feature of positive human interaction and the building of trust). They were like us. 

Nowadays when you do see the police it will be generally be getting out of the vehicle they spend most of their time in; armed to the teeth with guns, stun guns, capsicum and batons; protected by a bulky stab vest; and wearing dark sun glasses so you can’t see their eyes. They seem distant. They seem threatening. You cannot empathise. Fear is the aura they exude.

So, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the police retreat into a fortified and increasingly separate world because of the threat society poses to them…or did the police change, becoming more threatening towards society by their attitudes and their accoutrements? To be honest it doesn’t really matter, as it has happened whether anyone wanted it or not. What is certain is that the gulf between the two is neither healthy nor beneficial to society.

I agree that vast majority of police officers are thoroughly under-appreciated by the community.   Our democracy has become weak because the general population has disengaged from society (democratic input starts and finishes at election time every few years).  Police and other frontline public servants are increasingly more exposed as everyone’s respect for fellow members of society keeps sliding downwards. The longer the slide continues, the more that high calibre potential recruits are dissuaded from serving their community. The bar for entry lowers, the thin blue line stretches thinner, further encouraging siege mentality.

Just as men and women of the armed forces are not at fault for doing their job and following orders in Iraq or Afghanistan, neither are the vast majority of police on the streets of Australia, the UK and the USA at fault for the policies of their political masters. Most police are good people, doing difficult jobs for the greater good of society, following orders, usually over-exposed to danger due to under-investment in resources and training, and over-constrained by senseless legal red tape that binds them. At real fault are those who create the mess, often for ignoble reasons and sometimes through political dogma or shear incompetence.

With every false step further down the slope we as a society take, the distinction between protectors and the protected becomes more shadowy as both sides increasingly see the other as the enemy. In Australia we are lucky that we are not yet too far down this path, comparatively…but I know from academic studies that the German police pre-1932 were generally a pretty good lot also. Unfortunately once their masters and the rules of the game changed, so did their role, whether they agreed with it or not.

I’m not saying we will definitely have, or are in the throes of, such a totalitarian takeover, but historically fascist shifts occur inch by inch, over time. On a simplistic scale of 1 to 10, I believe the United States is about 9.5 in terms of steps down the line, the UK about 8, and Australia about 4. But just a decade ago the UK would have only been about 2.

The other area of clarification RJ sought was in regards to stun guns, such as Taser devices. I do not disagree with the use of stun guns as a weapon of defence of second last resort (before guns) for police officers. Police officers have a right to protect themselves, especially when we expect them to protect us.

All violence ultimately and inherently is morally and ethically wrong. However human society is not perfect and it is not always possible to avoid the use of measured violence in self defence (RJ and his police colleagues can use ‘violence’ responsibly under their rules of engagement). Any form of violence carries some threat to life: in the police arsenal, batons and capsicum too present a risk to human life, albeit lower than guns or stun guns.

But there are inherent dangers in stun guns. Firstly, they are (almost entirely) marketed and sold by profit-making corporations whose raison d’être is to sell more, and more and more. Companies may say things that are not strictly accurate, and spin ‘facts’ whichever way is necessary to achieve increased sales. That is the fundamental psychology of any corporation, under the rules of the business that our civilisation sets.

Secondly, there are no mature rules of engagement, based on long experience, as to when police should use stun guns. Individual police forces around the world are governed by specific rules as to when and how to use particular types of violence. Guns, naturally being the most dangerous, have the strictest rules governing their use. The problem with stun guns is that they are promoted as “non-fatal” and yet they have on many, many occasions worldwide at least helped to produce outcomes that are deadly.

If the rules of engagement are imprecise, or very lax, their use of stun guns will be indiscriminate and lead to unnecessary deaths. For example NSW and other States have rules of engagement where each use (when drawn, when discharged – or not discharged) is recorded.

Unfortunately, proper control on using stun guns is the exception rather than the rule around the world. In most places they are being handed out like candy, with few rules in place regarding their use, and little training, with predictable results like the death of a man at a Canadian airport in 2007 when stunned by four police officers.

Most scary from a civil liberties and humanitarian perspective is the next generation of stun guns proposed for the production line. They include a long distance weapon, designed for almost sniper-like usage. And the ‘crowd control’ solution…basically a bank of stun guns that gets fired indiscriminately into a crowd of protesters possibly marching towards the parliament building that they are no longer allowed to protest within a mile of (in the UK for example).

The downwards slide and disengagement of police and society is clearly happening, but it is not yet past any point of no return in Australia. It is up to all of us to re-engage with the political process so to ensure that the necessary checks and balances are in place so society is not run purely in the interests of corporations. It is up to all of us re-build the bridges to/from the police service, to give them the necessary resources and to make serving the community a valued occupation.

It is up to us to start dealing with some of the fundamental societal problems causing this rift. And it is up to us all to pro-actively watch where our civil liberties are heading because, if we don’t, we and the honorable men and women of the police service will all suffer.

James Fairbairn, CLA member, Perth, WA
April 2009


James Fairbairn edits the online publication, Open Your Eyes News   He strongly recommends reading the ‘10 Steps to a Closed Society’ by the leading US academic Naomi Wolf, an outline of which is on the website

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