Are Police Officers required to be Heroes?

PC Keith Palmer, who was a hero, was murdered by a terrorist in New Palace Yard, part of the Houses of Parliament. By chance, the acting Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, Sir Craig Mackey, was in a car in New Palace Yard with two other police officers. They had been to a meeting with a Home Office minister and were about to leave for Scotland Yard. Yesterday, in his evidence to the Inquest inquiring into the deaths of the terrorist’s victims, Sir Craig explained what he saw and did.

His evidence can be summarised briefly. He saw the terrorist threatening PC Palmer with a knife. He saw the knife being raised. He thought of getting out of his car and trying to intervene. But he was not wearing any protective clothing (he was in shirt sleeves), he had no radio and no other equipment. Furthermore, his two colleagues were traumatised by the scene. It looked to him as though anyone trying to intervene to save PC Palmer would be putting himself at risk of serious injury or even death. Taking account of all those factors, he decided the sensible course would be to stay in the car, lock the doors and escape as soon as possible.

I confess that when I first read an account of Sir Craig’s evidence my immediate thought was that he had not acquitted himself in a way which could be described as being in the best tradition of the service. But, within moments, I dismissed that thought from my mind. True, he had not been a hero, but would I, in his place, have been a hero? I bet I would not have been. I hope I would have been, but I know myself too well to think there would have been a realistic chance of it.

A decision had to be made in a split second. From the comfort of our armchairs we can suggest that, had PC Palmer been assisted by a burly acting Commissioner of Police (see the picture of him with Cressida Dick), the chances would have been that the terrorist could have been overpowered before killing again. But we maymackeyanddick be quite wrong. The reality could well have been that an intervention by Sir Craig would just have been an act of suicide (especially as his two police colleagues in the car were unable to help as a result of being traumatised). Sir Craig’s decision not to become involved, it eventually seemed to me, was a reasonable one. He was not under any obligation to be a hero just because he was a policeman. Of course, others might, in the same circumstances, have rushed in without a moment’s pause. But they would have been going beyond the call of duty. The fact that Sir Craig did not go that bit further does not make him a coward.

That was the conclusion to which I came. And then I read an article in the Daily Telegraph by Allison Pearson. She is not, it has to be said, the sort of journalist who indulges in gentle persuasion. She does not seduce the reader, perhaps against his will, into adopting her viewpoint. No, presumably she uses a pen, but the end result makes it seem that she used a sledgehammer. Today was no exception.

Sir Craig (Ms Pearson thinks his knighthood should be taken away) is a despicable coward, as are his traumatised colleagues. It was Sir Craig’s duty to go to the rescue of PC Palmer. His failure to do so makes him unworthy of his uniform. And so it goes on.

Ms Pearson does not ask of herself that question which I asked: what would she have done in Sir Craig’s shoes? Maybe asking that question would have made no difference to her conclusion. Perhaps she is in no doubt that she would have been a hero, however great the risk to her own life. But I don’t think that matters. If the conclusion to which I came is right, it is irrelevant that someone else (in this case Ms Pearson) would have acted differently from the way Sir Craig acted.

Despite all that, I do have to say that I am left feeling a little uncomfortable by Sir Craig’s evidence. I acquit him of cowardice, but the manner in which he explained his thought processes did suggest to me that he is a bit strange. Again, I ask myself how I would have behaved at the inquest if, as must be likely, I had taken the same course as Sir Craig. I have no doubt that I would have been distraught. I would have said how much I blamed myself for not going to PC Palmer’s rescue. Maybe I would have spoken of my endless sleepless nights as I tossed and turned worrying that I had been a coward. What I would not have done was coldly announce that I had made the right decision because a different one might have led to my injury or death. Perhaps one shouldn’t read too much into that. On the other hand, the risk averse attitude which it implies does accord with other stories one has read in recent times of senior officers trying to stop junior ones from acting heroically for health and safety reasons. Maybe it was a good thing that Cressida Dick rather than Sir Craig was made Commissioner (even though she does talk a lot of nonsense about hate crimes).

What about Ms Pearson? I am sure she has a great many virtues, but I fear I will always now look upon her as being like those frightful women in the First War who thrust white feathers at young men who were not in uniform.



9 thoughts on “Are Police Officers required to be Heroes?

  1. One terrorist armed with a knife is attacking a policeman. Three other policemen who will have trained for this sort of confrontation see it happening, and drive away. Three against one, and they decided not to risk their own safety?

    We’re on our own in this country against anyone who breaks the law these days. We are told not to ‘have a go’ – leave it to the police. But apparently the police won’t have a go either. They’ll just write a report.

    What happened to courage and honour?

    Liked by 2 people

          • Interesting point, Ciaran. I looked it up, and there do seem to be more guns carried by the police than there used to be. In February 2015, The Times reported that most forces in England and Wales dispatch armed officers to domestic incidents and other routine police call-outs. (The Times got this info via Freedom of Information.) In any case, the policemen in the car would almost certainly be carrying other items for personal defence, such as extendable “ASP” batons, and incapacitant sprays.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. These were circumstances that few of us are asked to confront in everyday life.

    I am reminded of the case last week where an Australian surfboarder became aware that his companion surfer had been bitten by an aggressive shark and that her hand was still trapped in the shark’s mouth. Without hesitation the chap paddled over and, using the only weapons available to him, punched the shark in the eyes and gills thereby saving his companion’s life.

    Sir Craig was facing a much less formidable enemy. If he had exited his car he would have immediately brought the fighting odds to three policemen against one assailant. Charges, feints and dodging as employed by the other uninjured policeman present would have bought precious seconds. One robust body check from behind would have brought the assailant to the ground. Addition policemen would have arrived in seconds. Sir Craig knew that these additional policemen would be armed with guns.

    Instead, Sir Craig considered that his first duty was to assess the emotional health of the civilian staff in his vehicle. He assessed that these two staff were ‘traumatised’. His duty was to prevent further traumatisation being inflicted on his staff, a duty which precluded him from exiting the car, locking the car to ensure the safety of his staff and engaging the assailant. Instead he decided to instruct the driver to take the civilian staff to a place of safety, an operation that couldn’t reasonably be achieved without himself also being safely locked within the vehicle.

    Liked by 2 people

Add your comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s