A policeman does his rounds in inner-city London – Mark Harvey / Social Issues Photography.
The police have to ensure they control the situation that they are called to deal with regardless of its difficulty, a retired officer explains. This sometimes means a police officer needs to use force. But in the heat of the moment, it is often challenging to assess the right amount of force that is needed.
Richard Shaw, 64, a retired policeman, explains what it is like to operate on the frontline:
It’s difficult to match the exact amount of force you’re up against – very often you have to use a little bit more to overpower a prisoner.
‘Not knowing what you’re going to expect, you can often be more aggressive than you need to, because experience tells you you’re going to meet aggression.’
If you don’t use enough you’re going to get injured yourself, or someone else is going to get injured because you’ve not done enough and [the prisoner may] very possibly escape and not get recaptured. So it’s a very difficult balancing act.
In the hard yards – in the inner city – the police expect violence from everybody, and of course knife violence as well as guns. Of course, every instance they come across could mean the end of their careers [or] serious injury – it could mean the end of their life.
In my career I used to feel more fear of letting them get away. I’m not saying I’m Rambo or anything, but there’s an element of shame for letting them get away if they are more powerful than you.
Not knowing what to expect, you can often be more aggressive than you need to, because experience tells you you’re going to meet aggression. Officers start with aggression because their experience tells them they are going to meet aggression.
I think it’s rare to go over the top. There are obviously instances where policemen lose their temper, because they’re only human beings, and they can use excessive force out of fear of getting hurt themselves and they get their retaliation in first.
The police officer has to win in a situation like that, because that is the job he is paid to do. You couldn’t imagine a police officer losing in a situation like that – if there is a violent situation, a policeman has to win. You can’t expect them to walk away.
‘There are obviously instances where policemen lose their temper, because they’re only human beings, and they can use excessive force out of fear of getting hurt themselves and they get their retaliation in first.’
It’s a bit like arguing with the referee – you can eff and blind all you like, but the referee has to make a decision. Somebody’s got to make a decision, and it’s the police.
Richard Shaw retired in 1997. In the course of a long career he worked as a constable in Malvern, sergeant in Telford, acting inspector in Shrewsbury, and inspector in Ludlow, eventually becoming chief inspector in Worcester.