I love the lyrics of a Garth Brooks song Standing Outside the Fire. Its a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll (!) so I apologise to those of you who look it up and have a listen. I could indulge myself and write the entire lyrics out here but I will restrain myself with this –
‘life is not tried, it is merely survived, if you’re standing outside the fire.’
It is an impassioned lyric but really the embodiment of how I view life. In the words of Garth, I can’t abide standing outside the fire. Some people think I’m strong for living my life like that, others undoubtedly think I am not so clever for it. Recently I have begun to try to define what ‘the fire’ is. Where does it lie? When am I in ‘the fire’ and when am I standing outside it?
Whilst ruminating on this several things have happened to make me think further and deeper. The coming together of Twitterers with similar aspirations under the flag of #PFTP which stands for #PoliceForThePublic and #PublicForThePolice has been an inspiring thing to watch and involve myself with. This has led to people – serving Police officers, retired Police officers, concerned members of the public, prospective PCCs, journalists and politicos – all coming together to voice their concerns and their hopes for the future of Policing. This is, I believe, an unprecedented situation. A group such as this has never had a forum to effectively communicate. The strength and the positivity of this group is entirely due to the ability of serving Police officers to communicate on a personal level with members of the public and vice versa. These officers are not communicating on a professional basis, as part of their duties. They are communicating with like minded people. People who want a service they can trust and rely on today and in the future.
A couple of days ago a tweeter who I like immensely (I think I would in real life too, but here I refer to her twitter persona @barrackslass) wrote a piece in her capacity as President Elect of Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales. It is entitled Playing Safe and you can read it here bit.ly/NLOGDr. It is intended as a gentle reminder of the responsibilities of the office held by every serving Police officer regardless of rank. Irene highlights part of Police Regs and I hope she doesn’t mind if I also type that full section out. I think it is very important indeed.
‘A member of a police force shall at all times abstain from any activity which is likely to interfere with the impartial discharge of his duties or which is likely to give rise to the impression amongst members of the public that it may so interfere and in particular a member of a police force shall not take any active part in politics.’
Its quite a directive. Taken to its extreme we may as well embrace the Robocop caricature as a potential reality. Yet that is not what the public actually want. They rejoice in dancing cops at carnival, they love to discover the person in uniform has a personality and likes and dislikes that make them just a bit more like everyone else. They don’t want the cardboard, corporate ‘bod’ who only says what is ‘safe’. They like to know their Police have minds of their own.
I don’t believe the Police Regs prevent any of the above. Some nervous officers in supervisory roles will of course interpret the regs in such a strict manner so as to assure themselves no likelihood of trouble – or so they might hope. This is of course counterproductive as well as spineless. Many officers however, will be nervous and unsure what is deemed to be within the bound of the regs and what is not.
Twitter is a burgeoning communication tool and it is used in both professional and personal capacity. The cross over problems arise because Twitter is not a professional arena but neither is it your front room or the pub. It is still a relatively new ‘place’ and Policing is the slowest of the slow in responding to anything new. That or it has a knee jerk negative reaction. In the absence of such, we must all be grateful for small mercies!
So, the main problem seems to be around the involvement of officers, even in their personal lives, in political comment. Politics is virtually unavoidable these days and especially if your interests lie in the public sector. My understanding of what is political may be different to yours and the next person and so on. I looked up the dictionary definition of the word. Politics – the activities associated with the governance of a country or area. The governance of an area. I could easily argue that this is exactly what policing is. So I thought a bit more about this. I looked a little deeper. I embarked on a meandering journey which brought me to Aristotle. It seems he considered the same problem. He thought that ethics must flow into politics, that the two are merely components of the much greater ‘philosophy of human affairs’. He said that ultimately, politics is purely ‘the things concerning the polis’.
Clearly there is no intention and indeed no possibility of telling officers that they cannot publicly have any opinions about anything that concerns the public. They are after all intrinsically part of that public. It appears there is no clear line to be drawn. So I looked further. Ethics. Morality. Another tweeter who I respect immensely, @PrincessofVP posted a blog about Right and Wrong. You can read that here http://princessofvp.wordpress.com/. She asks the fundamental questions. It is clear that we cannot all have the same moral basis to decide upon what is right or wrong, what is acceptable or not. The comments on her blog are particularly illuminating and further support my thoughts that there can never be a line drawn over which officers can make a knowing choice.
What then, can I offer by way of support to officers who don’t want to stand outside the fire? It is simply this. Be nice. Look for positive ways of making the same points. The truth of the matter is this – no one is ever going to be in trouble for supporting the Government and their plans. No one is every going to be hauled into a lofty office and given ‘words of advice’ or worse for being supportive of the ‘company line’. Yet this is overtly political. Irene told you to play safe. I am telling you to play clever. And safe. You do not need to shy away from your ideals and the things that you care passionately about. Indeed you are letting the public down if you do. Speak truth, speak it fairly and speak it pleasantly. I grew up with a piece of ancient writing on the wall –
seek out ye good in every man and speak of all the best ye can, then will all men speak well of thee and say how kind of heart ye be.
that seems to be a good way to approach modern day tweeting, especially if you are a police officer and most especially if you are a police officer who tweets under #PFTP. Come join me in the fire!