After the Bradford police murder
The overblown sentimentalism that has greeted the tragic killing of Sharon Beshenivsky reveals a police force in denial.
The killing of 38-year-old police officer Sharon Beshenivsky in Bradford city centre on 18 November is a tragedy. Beshenivsky, a mother of three children and two step-children, was shot dead while responding to an emergency call about a robbery at a travel agency; her colleague, WPC Teresa Milburn, was also shot and wounded. In Bradford, the incident has shocked the police and public alike.
But the outpouring of sentimentalism that has followed Beshenivsky’s death, focusing on her qualities as a wife, mother and friend, is somewhat troubling. As the newspapers have been filled with tributes from Beshenivsky’s husband, friends and colleagues, and the scene of the crime has swiftly filled up with floral tributes, it is almost as though Beshenivsky, far from being a serving police officer, was just an ordinary mum gunned down in a random act of violence. This reaction betrays all the characteristics of the ubiquitous mourning sickness in today’s culture, and hints at the identity crisis currently afflicting the police.
Tributes to Sharon Beshenivsky have focused on her husband’s grief. She was, he says, ‘my rock’ who was ‘loved by everyone’: ‘They took away my wife, but they also took away a wonderful mum and the world is a darker place without her.’ The news headlines have milked the fact that she was killed on her daughter’s fourth birthday – a terrible coincidence, which only heightens our sympathies. But the way that this personal grief, entirely appropriate from family members, has been mimicked by Beshenivsky’s superiors in the police, by the press, and by the public, deserves some questioning.
The photograph of Beshenivsky’s smiling face that has accompanied most of the press coverage is not a professional mug-shot of a police officer in uniform, but a private snap. At the scene of the crime, amid the bunches of flowers left by the public, a six-foot shrine was quickly erected, decorated with white doves, flowers and children’s paintings. West Yorkshire chief constable Colin Cramphorn described WPC Beshenivsky as ‘a very proud mother, a very loving wife and just a really nice person, the sort of person you would want to be friends with yourself’ (1). Maybe that’s true – but when a chief police officer is paying tribute to one of his professional colleagues killed in the line of duty, you might expect talk about the thin blue line, bravery and heroism – not fluff about ‘the sort of person you would want to be friends with yourself’.
The character of many of the tributes to Beshenivsky, the proliferation of flowers and childish momentoes such as children’s drawings and messages, represent the kind of overblown sentimentalism with which we have been familiar for some years, typified by the reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The key feature of this is the ersatz emotion exhibited by strangers – the way the death of public figures is mourned by focusing on their (presumed) private qualities and their private lives – as a wife, mother and friend – as opposed to their public role.
This is a marked departure from the past. Recall the high-profile killing of police officers Yvonne Fletcher during a demonstration at the Libyan embassy in 1984, and Keith Blakelock at the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham in 1985. These happened in highly political circumstances and sparked public shock, official outrage and (from some quarters) barely-suppressed glee. In these cases, there was a clear sense of support for the police as an institution, pitched against a clear sense of distrust and dislike for the police as an institution. In the case of WPC Beshenivsky, there is no such reaction about the police in general, only a uniform sentimentalism about the death of Beshenivsky the individual, wife and mother, tragically killed in the course of her day-job. It is as if the public, the media and most of all the police want to gloss over the fact that she was a copper, rather than using this fact to fuel a sense of outrage at her death.
Even when Beshenivsky’s role as a member of the police force has received attention, there is a similar sense of insecurity and victimhood on the part of the police. Beshenivsky’s death was swiftly followed by calls to arm all police officers – which the Home Office, equally swiftly, rejected. Lord Stevens, former chief of the Metropolitan Police, has called for the death penalty to be reinstated for people who kill police officers – a call which prime minister Tony Blair has rejected. To read these demands, it is almost as if police officers are dying in the streets every day; in fact, 36 police officers have died in the line of duty in England, Scotland and Wales over the past 20 years, and one third of these were killed, not by shooting or stabbing, but by vehicles.
The demand to use the death of one recently-qualified police officer as a spur to make policing a safer job for its recruits, giving them greater powers to defend themselves and their potential assailants greater deterrents, speaks to the health-and-safety culture of our times. But policing is not a safe job – and it never should be.
There are, no doubt, some questions to be raised within the police force about the circumstances surrounding WPC Beshenivsky’s killing. One does wonder how a couple of rookie officers, both of them women approaching their middle ages, have come to represent the public face of policing – which is usually imagined to be muscular young men as eager for a fight as the criminals they encounter. As with all news stories about policing gone wrong, the Beshenivsky tragedy recalls other recent cases – the panicky shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube shortly after the London bombings; the double shooting at a domestic barbecue in Oxfordshire, when it took the police an hour to declare the scene safe enough for medics to attend, forcing neighbours to investigate the situation themselves (see Unanswered questions about the ‘barbecue killings’, by Brendan O’Neill); the Hackney siege of 2003, where a paralysed police force got no further than closing off a street for two weeks and the hostage eventually escaped himself (2).
There is clearly something amiss in the police force today. Nobody wants to join it – as Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair memorably argued last week. Nobody who does join the police expects to get hurt – summed up by the comment from Teresa Milburn, Sharon Beshenivsky’s wounded colleague, that ‘Friday should have been a normal day at work’, as though she was working in an office or factory (3). And those who end up in the accidental firing line as a result look like the kind of people who would be school-teachers (or former child-minders and machinists, in this case), not coppers on the beat. Then when an officer like WPC Beshenivsky dies, her colleagues do not pay tribute to her professional role so much as pretend that she wasn’t a copper after all, she was ‘just a really nice person’.
(1) Flood of flowers shows grief of people, Yorkshire Post, 21 November 2005
(2) After Stockwell: the threat of fear and defeatism, by Mick Hume; London’s safe siege by Jennie Bristow; Treatment delay raised at meeting, BBC News, 9 June 2004
(3) New aid used to track PC murder suspects, Herald, 22 November 2005
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