TV UK, 23 November
Far from simply locking up villains, or even keeping the peace, policing today seems to be nothing short of missionary work.
Police 2001 opens with the buzz and crackle of walkie-talkies, the strained voices of telephone operators dealing with incapacitated or moronic callers, and the profane sighs and screams of public disorder in a small town.
If you didn’t know better, you might think this was a new series of Cops, BBC2’s excellent police drama. Cops itself has been described as a documentary-style drama, but given the dearth of documentaries of this quality on TV right now, the analogy makes more sense the other way around. Not that drama is the best word to describe the mundane grind of police work documented here by Roger Graef, and fictionalised in Cops.
The striking thing about Police 2001 is the absence of crime. After soaking us in the gritty atmosphere described above, Graef treats us to an action scene involving armed police and (supposedly) Yardies. We follow cops advancing behind an armoured car towards a house where they expect to find an armed drug dealer. A helicopter hovers above, filming the scene, and we watch the frantic action in the control room. Police from all over the area are called in for what turns out to be a false alarm.
Twenty years ago, Roger Graef made the award-winning series Police, about Thames Valley Police. Police 2001 (BBC2, Sunday 25 at 9pm) takes him back to see what has changed. One change is the increased pressure to meet targets and to account for time and resources. Graef complains that the targets focus on crime, while the bread and butter of police work is actually pastoral: dealing with drunks and juvenile delinquents, and negotiating domestic disputes that rarely end in convictions.
For the most part, such work is hard and dull. Early on we are introduced to a veteran policewoman who is demoralised but resigned to her fate and, above all, competent. But there are some true believers. On a drugs raid the police are accompanied by a young black woman who speaks with starry eyes about how she is there to help people. It’s police work, Jim, but not as we know it.
We also meet cops who are dedicated to getting car thieves off drugs, and to saving kids from the culture of crime. There is a priceless scene in which a cop watches in horror as a young tearaway’s father tries to persuade him to give up mindless vandalism in favour of acquisitive crime. (Young people today….) Far from simply locking up villains, or even keeping the peace, policing today seems to be nothing short of missionary work.
The most notable scene is at the Family Protection Unit, where a policewoman skilfully extracts a statement from an awkward teenage girl who says she has been molested. The most famous episode of Police in 1982 concerned a rape victim who was treated abominably by the police. That programme is credited with having kickstarted the changes in the way the police deal with rape complaints, and here is the result.
The way the police deal with sex offenders is also new. One officer visits offenders who have been released to ensure they pose no threat to their neighbours and vice versa. One man who has violated a court order by having a minor in his house is arrested, and there is an intriguing argument when the police try to have him remanded.
The man’s lawyer essentially argues that custody is inappropriate because he hasn’t broken any proper laws. While the cop in charge argues back, the prisoner goes nuts, rendering the argument academic. He is locked up, but then released by a court in the morning. This is an area where the logic of pastoral policing is being introduced into the law itself, and it is fascinating to see the tensions played out in practice.
This could easily be the subject of a whole documentary, as could many of the other issues dealt with in this two-hour film. Still, two hours of documentary-style documentary are better than nothing. And that crazy CCTV-operator is bound to get his own doscusoap spin-off.
Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
Hard cops – soft focus?, by Brendan O’Neill
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