For the first time in two years, I feel anxious when I go outside.
It’s hardly unusual. For weeks in the UK every supermarket shop, jog, and pharmacy trip has felt like an urban assault course, testing our ability to avoid runners and spot suspicious coughs. That’s not why I’ve been nervous, though.
A couple of years ago, a man beat me up in the street, in broad daylight. There were witnesses, cameras, and I gave a statement almost immediately. Days later, I received a letter saying the case was closed, citing “insufficient evidence.” It hadn’t weighed on me in some time, but now I think about it every day.
Every week since lockdown started, there have been stories about police stopping people for no good reason, seeming to relish their assumed power to do so. A journalist filming a public incident from a safe distance was told he was “killing people” and ordered to go home, by officers who themselves ignored social distancing to crowd around him. Chief constables are threatening to search shopping trolleys for “non-essential items,” officers are hopping intoallotments to investigate “possible sunbathing,” and people are beingreprimanded for walking, rather than running, in the street. In a more disturbing episode, a Lancashire officerstopped a group of young men, squaring up to one. When the boy asked what he’d done wrong, the officer said: “I’ll lock you up, I’ll make something up… who are they going to believe, me or you?”
In each case, police action far exceeded that recommended by guidelines laid out by the National Police Chief’s Council, admonishing – and in some cases threatening – people who were not breaking the guidelines, let alone the law. In some instances, officers have themselves ignored social distancing, when addressing people.The exuberance with which some members of the police force have over-extended themselves isn’t just a waste of everyone’s time. It’s insulting to anyone who has suffered a serious crime, and found that enthusiasm wanting. For me, it’s resurfaced trauma I could have done without.
Within less than a week, I received the letter telling me that the case was closed.
It was about 3pm on a bright September day in 2017. I was walking through Southwark in South London, to visit someone in hospital. As I pulled my phone out to check Maps, I became aware of a bicycle coming up behind me, slowly. I felt a man’s hand close over mine.
I instinctively tightened my grip on my phone. As I did, the man dismounted, and told me to give it to him. Before I could respond he started punching me, over and over again, in the face. I started screaming and let go of the phone, but he carried on hitting me. My face felt numb, and I could taste blood in my mouth.
I sank into the ground, and as I did so I saw another man running down the road, shouting. My attacker got back on his bike. As he rode around the corner, a few people from the houses nearby came out to look.
The police arrived within about 20 minutes. I gave them a statement, and they took a photo of my mashed up face before driving me to hospital. My T-shirt was soaked with blood. In the car, the officers assured me that there were cameras all over the neighbourhood – and said they thought their colleagues might already have caught him. They made it sound like a done deal.
Within less than a week, I received the letter telling me that the case was closed. Shortly after, I learned my right cheekbone had been broken, crushed inward by the force of the man’s punches. I had been lucky not to suffer brain damage.
The rigour with which they have been implementing made-up ‘rules’ in recent weeks is only putting their inaction in other areas into harsher relief.
When I called the police to tell them that I might be permanently disfigured, and ask why they had dropped the case, I was told that there wasn’t a camera “on the spot where it happened.” My face was an inflamed mess, a billowed yellow-purple caricature studded with two wincing black eyes. It took six weeks for the swelling to go down. Luckily, my cheekbone bounced back (not the medical term), and I didn’t need reconstructive surgery.
I sympathise with the police. They have been under-resourced for years, and are in the unenviable position in the midst of a pandemic. But the rigour with which they have been implementing made-up ‘rules’ in recent weeks is only putting their inaction in other areas into harsher relief, and undermining public confidence.
I’m wholly on board with measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus and well-versed in the guidelines for doing so – but I don’t want to feel scared of a police reproach every time I leave the house. In the few years since my attack I have been proud of my ability to walk outside as I love to do, without the anxiety I felt in the weeks after, when my black eyes and distended face drew stares.
Now more than ever, the public needs to feel it can trust the police to have their best interests at heart. At the very least, they could pay the same attention to the rules that the rest of us are bound to.
Holly Thomas is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @HolstaT
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