Saturday, 20 February 2016

Prayer and Contemplation

It was quite a moment when I discovered the Contemplation Room in my old station. Upon seeing the door-sign, I gingerly pushed the door open, and found two PCSOs and a sergeant, with their feet up on the chairs.

“Shut that door before anybody spots us in here.”

The sergeant said it as if there was shame in taking a breather, in pausing to gather ourselves, and reacquainting ourselves with the fact that we are human beings.

I knew the man – a decent intelligent chap whom I like and respect. Nevertheless, he was as brainwashed as many others in the job – good people who occasionally need a bubble of space and quiet during the day but, within the macho police culture, are ashamed to admit it.

There was no bulb in the light and canteen noise penetrated the paper-thin walls, but still it was a space to sit, read, think. To find a little peace during the police day.

The only such space in the station.

Everywhere else is proudly open-plan, and usually a member of the 'Senior Leadership Team' is able to watch you from where he or she sits.

The sergeant pointed at a handwritten note on a wall: It is against the law to sleep here.

“Well, apparently we're all lawbreakers.”

I smiled. Police management seem often to believe they have the power to invent laws. A couple of years ago they were telling constables that it was illegal if we didn't make an arrest at a domestic incident.

Most people, when thinking of a 'contemplation room' envisage a Zen garden, or a simple chamber or chapel. Perhaps a pond or elegant architecture. Certainly a clean tidy space.

No police building in London has any of these. At least the room didn't smell of urine and wasn't piled high with decomposing paperwork.

I took a seat and blissfully enjoyed a few pages of the novel I always carry in my pocket.

Thereafter I visited the room two or three visits a week, whenever possible. Only once did a manager burst in, interrupting my tranquility.

A sergeant with the shoulders of a bull, but the height of a labrador:

“Just looking for an idiot on my team. I've searched the canteen, and he's obviously not here.”

“Yup. Obviously...” I added.

“He's probably in the bog.”

It was only then that the bull-labrador realised there was a Muslim in the room, prostrated across a prayer mat. The sergeant gave a grunt and the door banged shut behind him.

Over the next few weeks I began to cross paths with the others who used the contemplation room. They were all either Muslims, most of whom were pleased to discuss their faith, or quiet atheists like myself, there to enjoy a moment of peace.

We would make eye contact in the corridors, smile cautiously and give a little nod. Signals between human beings who understand that, unlike most police officers, we shared something – an appreciation of an inner life, a world of the mind or the spirit.

Eventually I was moved to another station where it took me months of searching to find the contemplation room. the problem was that the door was locked.

Where was the key?

I asked staff in the Building Services, the public-access officer behind the public counter, the building manager, and anybody else who might know. I emptied and tested the 150 keys in the building manager's cabinet.

I drew a blank.

I even asked my inspector, who replied:

“Let me know if you find the key. I'm looking for somewhere to hold meetings, or to put the filing cabinets. What the hell do people need with a 'Contemplation Room'?"

“Exactly what I was thinking guv.”

Having almost given up, I noticed the contents of a drawer in his spare desk:

A large bunch of keys.

The next time he wasn't at work, I wandered in and borrowed the keys. And at the third key...the door clicked and swung open...

The room was a space barely larger than a cupboard, the only contents being a shelf with a Bible, Koran and prayer mat, a few rat droppings, carpet stains and a mouldy coffee mug. Still, it would be large enough for me to stretch and have a little sit down. I transferred the key to my house keys, and replaced the bunch back in the inspector's office.

I use the room from time to time, and I'm undecided as to whether I should create a copy for general use, or keep it for myself. The issue is that I do not want the only peaceful space in the station – a room supposedly designated for prayer and thought – turned over for meetings and storage.

The space should be used for prayer and contemplation! Cops are people, and people are entitled to somewhere they can decompress, sit and think. Or even pray, if they're religious.

Perhaps not everybody wants to work through their lunch, continuing to tap away at their keyboard while forcing a sandwich into their mouths...

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Met Complicit in Smartphone Insurance Fraud

People who work behind the front counter of a police station do it with the purpose of helping people, right? That's ultimately why anybody works for the police – it's a calling, a vocation. 

My friend Janine works as a civilian Public Access Officer behind the public counter. She's a compassionate soul and, frankly, a legend.

Like all my police officer colleagues, I've spent many nights working at the public counter. The civilian PAOs only work daytime hours – they can't be forced to work nights. British cops, on the other hand, are not protected by employment law, and are denied employment contracts. So, when this police station was 24/7, the Public Access Officers would clock off around 8pm, and be replaced by one police officer until 7am.

It's a tough job. The queuing public have high expectations, but there is a limit to what we can do for people.

We can't give tourists money for a hotel when they lose their passports and wallets. We can't repair a broken marriage. We can't turn back time and make a person live her life differently, no matter how much she might sob and implore us.

But we are genuinely here to help, and that's also our professional duty.

Recently Janine told me:

“I have realised that I am an accomplice to insurance fraud. People come here and claim their expensive mobile phone has been stolen.”

In the past, when people wanted free replacement mobile phones, they would fabricate cock-and-bull stories...

“Err, two guys jumped me and took it. There's no CCTV in that alley. No, I have no visible injuries.”

We wouldn't create a crime report unless there was at least some evidence. Now, however, the alleged victim doesn't actually have to give any explanation at all:

“I put it in my pocket, then later it was gone – it must have been robbed.” 

If we're told this, the crime-recording policy obliges us to create a crime report for theft.

“They tell me 'The insurance company said I need a crime reference number', so they invent a theft, and waste half an hour of my time. Each day I probably report ten just like this,” said Janine.

“I find it upsetting,” she continued, "that the whole purpose of my role is perverted by this policy that says we have to believe everything that people tell us. We have to create a crime report even when there's no evidence, and I know they're lying to my face."

The police force is a public service, and some people are ruining it for everyone else.

“These people are stealing our time, and that of the ten other people behind them in the queue. They're lying to us and the insurance company to obtain a free mobile phone. I feel dirty, being used like this.” 

I remember one particular callow youth at the counter:

“Err, hi mate. My phone was, err, robbed.”
His eyes scanned around nervously.

“You want to know how it happened? Um, I was using the phone and a guy appeared and took it. No I don't remember what he looked like.” 

I asked him for the phone number then dialled it.

“Mate, can I have the reference number now? The insurance company have asked for it.”


“It's in your pocket!” I shouted. He quickly left, before I could give the piss-taker an £90 ticket for wasting police time.

This crime-recording policy is a perfect example of police management rolling over for the critics. Our managers, and the Commissioner especially, are always looking for a nice pat on the head from the public or the media.

And in so doing, they create inefficiency, wasted time, low morale, and fraud...

The policy exists because there was a feeling that the police under-record crime. Well, now we have a situation where there is vast over-recording of crime.

As a cop, I know that 90% of crimes go absolutely nowhere. After taking a nonsense crime report, like I've described here, an officer's intention is then to shut it down at the earliest possible opportunity. Otherwise he will soon drown in unnecessary work.

Well done police policy-makers! You're doing a GREAT job!