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One Of Our Own: Pain, Anguish And Anger On The UK's Thin Blue Line

27/03/2017 14:15
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The tragic and violent death of PC Keith Palmer sent a massive shockwave of grief throughout the police community as was the case with others that we have seen over the years. For those who know Keith and who have worked with him; who shared the dangers and the laughs, the comradeship and the dedication, the highs and the lows, his death will have come as an excruciating hammer blow.

For the tens of thousands of officers who have not had the privilege of knowing Keith personally, his death will be nevertheless bring about a palpable feeling of personal loss mixed with the real and inevitable emotion that it 'could have been any one of us.' These feelings of empathy and sympathy will extend to the officer's immediate family, friends and close colleagues and again thoughts would inevitably turn to 'how would those close to me cope if...'?

I can remember the feelings I experienced when colleagues sadly died from illness or accident and in one case suicide where the grief of the officer's daughters at the funeral will always be with me.

Yet a line of duty death touches the rawest nerves of all in the police community regardless of whether they knew or had knowledge of the officer personally.

I feel fortunate in that such a tragedy never occurred in respect of an officer I knew personally yet I can remember vividly the moment I heard about violent line of duty deaths line of former colleagues.

The 1980s

I was on my way back from playing football for Old Actonians on the Saturday of the Harrods bombing in December 1983. We stopped off at a pub and, with no social media or even mobiles then, news filtered through by virtue of conversations amongst other customers. When the full horror became known, my teammates, knowing my occupation, suggested we leave immediately in case I was required to report for duty and we did leaving half full drinks on the table. Three officers died that day and, not being required to report for duty, I sat at home stunned as details were revealed.

I was actually on duty at Hounslow as a young sergeant in April 1984 when news reached us of Yvonne Fletcher's murder whilst policing a demonstration at the Libyan Embassy. As would have happened with the death of Keith, news swept through the station. The officer in charge of duties was inundated with officers asking to be deployed to the incident. One of my shift was a police 'sniper' and I remember the shock on his face as he gathered together his kit to be rushed up to the embassy where he spent a number of days and nights on a rooftop.

When Keith Blakelock was hacked to death by thugs on the Broadwater Farm Esate in the 1985 riot, I had swapped duties with another young sergeant as a girlfriend was visiting. I recall viewing the scenes on the TV as news of the horrific details of Keith's death came through. The sergeant I swapped with was rushed up to Tottenham with other local officers and they were shot at with two of those for whom he was responsible receiving slight injuries.

I could go on. There is not sufficient time or space to mention all those who have met a tragic death whilst doing their duty during my time as a serving officer or after in retirement; indeed whilst looking through the rolls of honour I was surprised at the numbers. Prior to the tragedy we witnessed in and around Parliament, it was the death of Merseyside PC David Phillips in October 2015 that plunged the UK police service into mourning when he was struck whilst attempting to stop a stolen vehicle.

Tragedy has also been more than evident amongst officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Not only have they had to contend with the death of colleagues over the decades but have had to live with the fact that they were, and indeed still are, perpetual targets of terrorists.

Yet despite the pain and the anguish, police work doesn't stop. Calls have to be answered, the violent dealt with, missing persons searched for, crime investigated and the public helped and supported when going through their darkest hours.

Support from the police family

Where tragedy strikes a serving police officer, grieving relatives will often take some comfort from the support given from that officer's colleagues and indeed from the force itself. One example of this concerned an officer who was part of Peter Mandelson's Special Branch protection team. Detective Constable Ami S* was diabetic and a small cut on his foot led to a form of sepsis that resulted in his unexpected death.

Ami's funeral was held in a spacious crematorium and the car parks quickly filled as did virtually every patch of grass as hundreds of officers attended. I was able to squeeze into the vestibule and witnessed the arrival of Ami's Sikh parents and family. Tearful as they were, I watched the look of sheer incredulity on their faces as they viewed the remarkable turnout of black, white, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu officers. This was followed during the service by a remarkably moving and appropriately uplifting tribute by Peter Mandelson himself.

It is hoped that Keith's family will take some small comfort from the wave of sympathy not just from police across the country but from the overwhelming majority of the British public. It says much that more than half a million pounds has thus far been raised.

And, after the emotion of the funeral when perhaps the most difficult days, months and years have to be faced, Keith's family will not be forgotten by his colleagues who will continue to provide support and friendship.

Dilemma: To criticise or stay silent.

The death of an officer in violent circumstances such as we saw on Wednesday will produce a dilemma and a source of division for the normally united police community. Some will take the view that, as a mark of respect, there should be an abstinence of comments in respect of politicians and the media which could be regarded as political.

Others, however, take the view that the cant hypocrisy of both leading politicians and sections of the media should be challenged. No officer will forget or forgive the venom with which Theresa May attacked the police service during her time as Home Secretary or the apparent indifference of many who sit in both houses of parliament with some noble exceptions.

To see those same politicians and sections of the media heaping praise on the police that they normally take a delight in denigrating is, to say the least, galling to the police community as a whole regardless of the differences of opinions referred to above. Just two days after the death of PC Dave Phillips, Prime Minister David Cameron was, in a major speech, accusing the police of stop and search racism.

The police community will however remember the actions of Tobias Ellwood MP who fought so hard with others to save Keith's life while James Cleverly MP made an emotional, heartfelt speech. Holly Lynch MP has also gained the respect and gratitude of officers in respect of her campaigns for officer safety.

The grief felt by rank and file officers will be accompanied by a renewed realisation that the tragedy could provide a springboard for other zealots to create mayhem and that officers, now more thinly spread than ever, could be vulnerable especially outside the major cities. The death of a brave officer in the most heavily policed area of the UK will indeed be a cause for concern.

In the meantime, amidst concern that many other terrorists could, like Khalid Masood, be slipping through the cracks, Theresa May and Amber Rudd may wish to consider whether this would be much less likely if the 21,000 police officers lost to policing still had their warrant cards.

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