I was almost mugged in 2015. Two kids, and they really were just kids, on their bikes grabbed my headphones and tried to take my phone with it. All they got away with was my cheap Flying Tiger headphones which sounded tinny anyway. I reported it to the police, ‘for your statistics’, and a polite officer came round to my flat, took my statement at my kitchen table, and left. That was it. I’d done my duty as a citizen, and he had done his. That is the sum of my personal experience with the police. It was just as it should have been.
It’s the August bank holiday in 2017, my brother and I were sat on the grass in a little square off Portobello Road. It’s sunny. Magnificent. We’ve had a couple of cans of cold Red Stripe sold by someone from their front porch and we’d had a glorious hour dancing to Sister Nancy remixes. My brother was wearing the Jamaican flag that he had bought on the walk down from Notting Hill Tube station like a superhero cape and eating ackee from a food vendor who was surprised that I knew what a Johnny cake was when I asked for one.
Our father’s family are Jamaican, but we pair look Mediterranean. My brother has never been stopped and searched. We watch as a couple of police officers start talking to a young white woman who had been clearly dealing. They escort her away. My brother turns to me and wonders ‘would they have been that nice if she was black?’ We look at each other and raise our eyebrows. We’ve both heard the stories our father tells about being young and black in the eighties when people couldn’t be bothered to hide their prejudices in the way that they do now behind encrypted messaging services.
It’s spring 2020, the pandemic is raging despite the birds chirping outside and I’m stuck in my flat watching reruns of Bones in between drafts of a novel that is the only thing getting me up in the morning. I check my phone and see that it’s happened again. I temporarily delete the Twitter app from my phone because I feel sick as I scroll through – my usual diet of cat memes and literary fluff replaced by howling injustice. My best friend calls and says that she keeps crying. We don’t understand how the world can be this awful.
If I could have persuaded myself to detach from the events unfolding in Minnesota and torn myself away from the news reports coming in, if I had lost my ability to weep for another life pointlessly lost, told myself that it was in another country, it was America and they are so messed up over there, and the situation was nothing like how things are here in the UK then I would have been lying. I don’t need to list the names of the people failed by the police – I say failed, but I mean killed, violated, humiliated, dehumanised – we’ve all read the same news reports.
Do you trust the police? If something terrible happened, would you trust them to help you, to protect you? I’m not entirely sure that I would anymore. The world feels too different from 2015 – this is the darkest timeline. There’s something between brutal cuts to police budgets by the ideology-driven idiots in power and the police’s apparently wilful prejudiced incompetence that makes me unsure. If I was burgled, I’m sure a diligent officer would come, survey the scene, fingerprints would be taken and they would say how sorry they were that it happened and then get so swamped in paperwork that means they don’t actually get to do much policing. I wouldn’t hear from anyone ever again and then receive an email a year later saying my case file had been closed.
We all have heard an anecdote from a female friend who calls up about a ‘pesky ex’ who terrifies them only to not really be taken seriously, to be told that he’s been spoken to, and he didn’t really mean any harm. We’ve all read articles about the WhatsApp groups that officers make jokes at our expense on; poking fun at ethnic minorities, or women or LGBTQ+ people – which if you think about it, when all those groups are combined it’s actually most of us. Is your safety a joke?
I would at this point like to state that I don’t hate the police. I don’t think they’re all bad, that they’re all incompetent, but there are enough of them that are and prop up a system that is fundamentally unjust.
I watched a lot of Agatha Christie as a child with my beloved grandmother and Miss Marple seeped into my soul. Christie’s detectives are not police. I’ve wondered as to why that is and have decided that it is so that Miss Marple can move freely amongst suspects who think she’s just an old dear and Poirot can stay at grand country houses as a guest and complain about the cold.
I wrote a crime novel over lockdown because I was bored but also deeply frustrated with the world. Murder is unnatural, it’s wrong. Crime is fundamentally political. It is a violation of the social contract that we are all bound by, and this violent act allows us to poke holes in the fabric of society, to find the loose threads and dropped stitches. Britain is a deeply fractured society. This isn’t my opinion. This is fact. The system is not fair to all – it discriminates against people based on their class, their race, their religion, their sexual orientation, their bodies.
Ian Rankin, godfather of the contemporary crime novel, said in an interview in 2021 on The Cultural Coven podcast that ‘in the current state of the world, how can you write about a police officer and make them the goodies, when we look around us and see that so often the police are not the goodies? They’re not the knights in shining armour protecting all and sundry from whatever evil happens to be out there. So there’s big questions coming for people who write police procedurals.’
My answer to that is that they can’t trust the system either. They have to see the injustices and rail against them. My main character, DI Caius Beauchamp, a young mixed-race idealist, is in the Met. He is principled. No one spoke to him at the last Christmas party because he called out a popular racist colleague. He suffered for that. In fiction as in life those who push against the system are pushed back against in return.
The Other Half by Charlotte Vassell is published by Faber