Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major

2013-10-16 13:14

I imagine most South Africans were horrified when they saw video footage of a taxi driver, who later died in custody, being dragged along a street in their nation behind a police vehicle earlier this year. I know many people outside the country were.

US citizens were similarly appalled when they viewed images of their military personnel abusing inmates of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, when news of it broke in early 2004.

Residents in Kenya are currently pondering what sort of ethics exist within their police and military, following allegations of looting by them at the Westgate Shopping Mall terrorism scene and also following the fire at Nairobi’s international airport.

Londoners are presently mystified by the machinations of what the UK media calls ‘Plebgate’; an incident in Downing Street involving a senior politician and the Metropolitan Police officers whose job it is to guard Britain’s Prime Minister, where it was alleged that the politician had insulted the officers but where it is now also alleged that police staff have fabricated evidence and misrepresented what happened.

Horrified. Appalled. Mystified. All good phrases to sum up the reactions of ordinary citizens when they see, or hear about, abuses of power and authority on the part of those police or military personnel we expect to look after us and, importantly, maintain the highest standards of behaviour. Unfortunately, and very regrettably, ‘surprised’ is not a phrase that can readily be used any longer in relation to such incidents. It seems that every passing week, every day in some places around the world, our newspaper pages or television screens contain word of yet one more alleged example of abuse of power, corruption or racism by those we have appointed to defend our rule of law, our homes and our nation’s borders.

What on earth is going on? As a retired police officer, I probably should be better-placed than most to answer. But I have to admit that I sit and stare at the page and screen just as horrified, appalled and mystified as everyone else. Worse, I sit there sick to the stomach over the behaviour of those men and women who bear a uniform similar to the one I once wore or who are asked to carry out duties similar to those that took me to work for almost four decades. I am utterly and deeply embarrassed to declare myself to be an ex-police official when I witness what some of those who use the same job title are doing.

During one of my relatively rare visits to his office, I once asked my Chief Constable – what we in Scotland call a Police Commissioner – which rank in the Police had brought him the most satisfaction. His reply came with no hesitation whatsoever, “Sergeant”. Were someone to ask me the same question, my reply would be identical. Those three stripes provide one with enough responsibility to give you command over others, direct immediate response to all manner of incidents (minor and serious), yet keep you very much in touch and involved with what is happening on-the-ground or at the front-line. Sergeants (forgive the coming non-PC phraseology) remain ‘one of the boys’ but one step removed. And that step is a vital one in the chain of command and control.

‘Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major’ is the title of a favourite song of the troops in World War II, especially after they’d had a few drinks. Although humorous and sarcastic, it actually reflects the respect and regard front-line soldiers had for their NCOs (non-commissioned officers), albeit they might only have admitted that grudgingly.

When old soldiers or coppers get together and reminisce, many of the tales that are told involve the men and women who were their Sergeants. In many respects, it was the Sgts who determined, by what they said, but more importantly what they did, how police officers or soldiers would conduct themselves for the rest of their careers. It was the people with triple chevrons on their sleeves that we looked to for example and direction. When I joined the CID, my first Detective Sergeant taught me more about policing, investigation and, especially, interviewing witnesses and suspects, than anyone else before or after. He is someone I will have the highest regard for until the day I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Now, whilst the military has a number of ranks held by NCOs, such as Corporal, Sergeant and the Company and Regimental Sergeant Majors of the song title fame, the police tend to just have Sergeant. In both uniformed forces, there is a significant jump to the next level, what the public views as the ‘officer class’. Has something gone wrong at the Sergeant level recently? I cannot picture any of the Sergeants I served under standing by and watching me attach someone by handcuffs to the back of a police van and drive off. None of them would have allowed me to tie a dog collar to a prisoner in the cellblock and pull that person, stripped naked, along the corridor on the end of a leash. Over the course of my career, I attended many hundreds of break-ins to shops, bars and other premises in the company of dozens of different Sergeants. Not once did any of them suggest that we fill our pockets with items from those places before the owner arrived.

I’ve sat here trying to recall whether I set a good example over the several years I was a Police Sergeant and one simple, but maybe silly, incident comes to mind. Just after I was first promoted Sgt, I took up the position at a Police Station where I hadn’t worked before. On entering the Muster Room, where all the Constables gathered at the beginning of shifts, wrote their reports and occasionally interviewed witnesses, I saw a calendar pinned to the wall. It was one produced on behalf of a local garage and breakdown service; a firm that was used regularly by us at the scene of traffic accidents, etc. It was of a type that most UK garages used in those days and emulated one that a major tyre company was world-famous for. If any readers remember them, they will recall that each month featured a picture of a scantily-clad, bare-breasted or totally-nude female model, often draped over the bonnet of some high performance motor. By today’s standards of pornography, those calendars were not terribly offensive and certainly far removed from ‘hard-core’.

But they were not appropriate for a public service building and certainly not for a room where all types of people, men and women, young and old, including children, could find themselves in at any time. And I said so as I tore the thing from the wall and consigned it to the trash bin. In those days, the second half of the 1980s, political-correctness maybe wasn’t a well-used or known term. And the varied looks from the cops in the room showed that. They went from approval to ‘this new guy’s over-the-top’. However, all the Constables’ faces also reflected their common thought, ‘Well, we know where we stand with this Sergeant’.

If I were a Police Commissioner or an Army General, and I wanted to find out why the Constables or Privates in my service seemingly thought it had become acceptable to abuse their power, treat fellow citizens in a racist manner, steal from premises which they were meant to be securing or lie about how they had conducted themselves, I wouldn’t go and talk to my Lieutenants, Captains or Inspectors. I’d go see the Sergeants. And if I were still a Sergeant, I’d be asking myself how this sort of thing could be happening among my shift, watch or platoon.

The men and women with stripes on their arms determine, more than anyone else, the standards of our police and armed services. It seems, although the reason remains unclear, there is something very badly wrong with some of the people who ought to be proud to have the initials ‘Sgt’ in front of their name.

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