Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Step away from the car!"

I have fond memories of getting pulled over for speeding along the Thames Embankment in 1963. A youngish copper in the old Bobby-uniform strolled back to us, poked his head through the driver’s window and enquired with the utmost deference, “Is this our car, sir?”

I didn’t quite know how to react to such a question. Fortunately, it was our car. At least, it belonged to the absent boyfriend of the girl I was with (he was off in Europe somewhere, silly man), and that was close enough. We were sent on our way with a gentle reminder of how naughty it was to exceed the posted speed-limit, and we drove off wetting ourselves with the effort to stifle the giggles.

The next time I got stopped for speeding was twenty years later, here in Cayman. The young copper was taken aback when I showed him the car’s papers. “This says Linda Barlow!” He said sharply. “Yes, that’s my wife”, I said. “It’s her car”. Stammering with embarrassment the poor fellow begged me to stay within the limit and hastened away. I wondered, what was that all about?

“Oh, that must have been Timothy Whatsit”, Linda said when I described the incident. “A lovely boy; he always wanted to join the Police.” To this day, she remains on hugging terms with just about all of her former students (Cayman Islands High School 1978-82). From time to time we still benefit in one way or another from her reputation as a teacher who really cared.

The quiet warnings I received on both those occasions were all I needed – all most people would have needed, probably. The courtesy from coppers over the years has left me with a strong respect for – no, not all policemen, by any means, but for those who still remember what their true function is.

American TV programs have changed our local Force since then. A few years ago Linda was pulled over and told that one of her back lights wasn’t working. As she walked around to see for herself, she was ordered sharply: “Step away from the car!” She hesitated, because our two young granddaughters were in the back seat. Again, louder and more urgently, “STEP AWAY FROM THE CAR!” Prudently, she decided not to make a grab for the bombs and grenades in the trunk, lest the clown shoot the girls where they sat in their seatbelts.

I wonder if it could be the paramilitary uniforms that encourage bullying. How can guards of any kind – government or private – think of themselves as part of their community, when they dress in what is to all intents and purposes gang-paraphernalia?

A public Police Force is obliged to serve its community, not to bully it. Regrettably, that idea tends to be honoured more in the theory than the practice. Our local Force a few years ago actually changed its name to “Service”, without in any way softening its attitude towards the people who pay its wages. It still operates largely in secret. Its public announcements are a mockery; we rely on our “marl road” (grapevine) for information on all but the most spectacular of crimes. The man in the street feels no obligation to give information to the Police until “They” start giving information to him.

The other week our Police held a public meeting to which only a handful of outsiders went, in the middle of what by our standards is an epidemic of burglaries, muggings and robberies. Well, the last meeting I went to began with two full hours of prepared speeches read out by the uniforms, affirming what a grand job they’re doing. Only the most diligent of us stayed for the Q & A session. We all left with a feeling of exasperation, and a determination not to waste time like that ever again.