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Top marks to Strathy Polis

November 21, 2010

There was a violent incident in my tenement building last night. Without going into too much detail, there was a fight in a flat below me that involved front doors kicked in, broken glass, screams, knives and lots of blood.

We phoned the police, and when I went down to see what was going on, I was confronted with a young woman leaving the flat, covered in blood. I let the police into the close and sat with the woman until it was all over.

From phoning 999, it took exactly two minutes for the first officers to arrive. Within 10 minutes, there were more than 10 on the scene. They used pepper spray to stop the fight and lead the belligerent parties away. An NHS ambulance was there within half an hour to tend to the wounded. In the end, no one was dangerously hurt, and it was all over within an hour.

The priority of the police was a) Control the situation b) Restrain the violent characters c) Check that everyone is OK d) Take witness statements.

They did this excellently, and with a high degree of professionalism. Even the culprits got medical attention before being taken away. As a Leftist, I have a strong negative bias against the police – because my experience of them has usually been the heavy-handed repression of protest. It was a really good experience for me to see Strathclyde Police protecting people from harm.

Frankly, I don’t care what happens next.I don’t care whether anyone is charged and goes to jail. What is important is that the police were able to step in and prevent a dangerous situation from escalating. Top marks to Strathy Polis there.

None of this, of course, cost anyone any money.

Some people would be freaked out by a situation like this, and wouldn’t feel safe in their homes. On the contrary, I feel reassured – because even when things go dangerously wrong, this society has the capacity to step in and deal with it quickly and cleanly.

I have been involved in similar violent situations in South Africa. The police simply don’t come, or at least not quickly enough to be of any practical use. When they do come, they are likely to arrest the wrong people, based on their race and class prejudice, rather than listening to witnesses. They are also likely to use it as an excuse for a bit of a fight. If you can afford armed response, they’ll probably be there quicker, but there’s no guarantee that the response will be professional and proportionate, and you might have to live with the guilt of seeing people bludgeoned down by security guards you hired.

An ambulance won’t come either, unless you have private medical insurance. In South Africa you face the choice between shutting your ears to the screams or intervening yourself, neither of which are particularly attractive options. It’s lead me to wander into situations, scared stiff, with a meat cleaver in hand, trying to convince everyone to calm down and go home.

Unlike many expat South Africans, crime was not a factor that lead to me leaving the country – it was just an impulse to travel. My experience of crime in the 10 years I lived in Cape Town was probably quite average: I have been robbed at gunpoint twice, and threatened with a knife about five times. Once I escaped a gang by jumping out of a train window; another time by running into a corner shop. I’ve also had plenty of break ins, and had to intervene in a number potentially dangerous situations.

I resented the fact that I wasn’t safe, but I learned to live with it, and even convinced myself that being responsible for my own safety gave me a visceral sense of living on the edge. I was a young man, and young men are immortal.

It was only after I had lived in the UK for a while I realised that – like many South Africans – I was probably suffering from a bit of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I first noticed it when a car backfired and I instinctively dropped to the pavement, while everyone around me looked confused.

There is violent crime everywhere, though crime in South Africa is an order of magnitude higher than it is here. Glasgow is supposed to be the most dangerous city in Western Europe, but I feel safe. To be fair, I live in Shawlands, not Easterhouse. My neighbourhood is mostly thirty something white collar workers, and apart from the usual weekend exuberance, things are usually pretty quiet. The important difference between Glasgow and Cape Town is not the crime rate, though: it’s the fact that Glasgow can deal with crime.

I really would like to move back to South Africa, because it’s my home. But do I really want to live in a country where your right to safety and medical treatment is privatised, and dependent on your ability to pay? I really don’t know.

Functional emergency services are the sign of a civilised society. South Africa is poorer than Scotland, but we can do a lot better. And in the UK, we must do everything we can to protect them from the Tories.

They save lives.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Julian Williams permalink
    November 21, 2010 7:04 pm

    Most beautiful, frightening, eloquent. And relevant.

  2. Anthony Holland permalink
    November 22, 2010 7:15 am

    Have had to use the police several times when here including in 1999 so I had a strong sense of this comparison when I was back in SA 2000-2004. The police here are excellent and responded exactly as you have described when I called them (a couple of times) due to the neighbours having a punch-up, little gang skirmishes etc (Isle of Dogs this).

    Though one afternoon when I lived in Guildford some young teenagers were brazenly breaking windows of the local mental hospital across the road while I was doing DIY in my room. I called the police and again they were excellent and the kids actually got docked (or something like it), as did their parents who lied about their kids whereabouts (I had photographs) and the director of the hospital wrote to thank me. Yay. However, this more involved encounter with the police exposed me to certain problems that were not obvious from the snap-shot view I had when they came to calm violence the other times. Although they managed to pull the kids off the street in minutes, they arrived at mine at 8pm to get evidence and left close to midnight. The forms they had to fill in were utterly ridiculous. The number of times they had to phone the station was ridiculous. The officers themselves wre in no way stupid, though extremely tired, but they had to deal with seriously problematic procedures and were off the street all that time. You say you don’t care what happens next, an understandable sentiment and a statement I don’t take literally, but it matters very much what is going on in the background and how it happens. Again, I didn’t vote Tory and my big reason for not voting labour was the Iraq war, but it was obvious that the incredibly hard-working and tired officers I dealt with that night needed better systems and I just wanted to mention that: if you value the outcome (quick professional responses) you had best take an interest in the less visible aspects, and there is more to a service than just how much money you spend on it. For example, I think they could benefit from better IT systems, which they can barely afford. Having worked at the child support agency I have seen how much money can be wasted on nonsense by people who don’t know how to be intelligent or strong customers, and therefore attract the wrong kind of consultancy. I particularly despise EDS which as I see it swindled and murdered the CSA but in the end these people will always be in the market and you need intelligent buyers in government. This isn’t supposed to be water-tight or even conclusive – just some thoughts.

    The other distressing thing that I’m sure you feel too is this: as you assessed SA in terms of services above, you didn’t mention the effect *on SA* of your being or not being there. Someone like you could make an honest difference to security in Cape Town, just by being a sensible, ethical administrator in the police force for example (that would be funny sight!). But because you need a basic level of security yourself, you *and your contribution* are repelled. It may just be one person in your case, but cumulatively it’s a huge pool that is lost. And it may just be one factor in your case, but for loads of people I know it is the decisive factor. A very difficult problem and I know I’m on the wrong side of it.

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