I always enjoy reading Dante Alighieri’s epic work called The Divine Comedy. It is in three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. It describes in verse the soul’s allegorical journey towards God, passing through Hell and Purgatory to Heaven. Dante’s Inferno describes the nine circles of hell in which the wicked suffer everlasting torment. The first circle is called Limbo and reflects Catholic theology at the time which saw pagans and the unbaptised as incapable of gaining heaven. The remaining circles contain those guilty of lust (2nd), gluttony (3rd), greed (4th), anger (5th), heresy (6th), violence (7th) , fraud (8th) and treachery (9th). I have a wonderful edition of the Inferno at home with illustrations by William Blake.
When I drive from Nell Bridge House towards Adderbury, I am frequently greeted by the sight of a policeman with a speed camera lurking like a thief in the night in the shrubbery, doing his best to catch motorists guilty of exceeding the absurd 30 mph speed limit on this open country road and I wonder where Dante would have placed the coppers who regularly persecute motorists in this way? I think the fourth circle of hell is about right because it is sheer greed that motivates coppers to turn out every week and to fine hapless motorists caught a bit above 30 mph on a road that looks and feels like an open country road. It is just too easy to rake in the cash for a momentary lapse that is perfectly understandable. And no, I have not been nabbed because I look out for these speed cops and I ensure I am driving at an absurd 28 miles per hour as I pass. I also smile at them, remembering my mother’s advice always to “smile at the camera”!
A recent opinion survey showed very high levels of distrust of the police among young people. There was a time when the familiar blue uniform and distinctive helmet was a sign both of authority but also of a guardian of the law and a friend of the lawful. I fear that image has taken a substantial battering for a whole host of reasons. I remember a senior fire officer telling me ruefully that his firemen and women were warmly welcomed when they visited schools but the police experienced a much cooler reception.
It is not just the young who have developed a jaundiced view of the police as an institution. There are plenty of motorists nursing eight points for speeding on their licence who resent the way in which a momentary lapse has left them with a fine and a worry that another could cost them their licence. Middle class home owners who suffer a burglary or anti-social behaviour and who wait weeks for a visit and then simply get sympathy and little else no longer feel they have the support they expect. The farce at the entrance to Downing Street and the subsequent antics of a small number of politically motivated police officers which cost a Cabinet member his job have not helped. Neither has the institutional failure over abused young women done anything to maintain confidence in the police.
At a different level, the virtual disappearance of the bobby on the beat and the dumbing down of their uniform has not helped. I recently observed a police car in the centre of Banbury which had clearly stopped a van with a couple of occupants to question them. Looking at the group of figures around the van and police car, it was impossible to distinguish the police from the suspected villains. They were all wearing dark, short-sleeved T-shirts, scruffy trousers and dirty boots. Were it not for the presence of the police car, they could all have been workmen, van drivers or off a building site. A very close look might have identified handcuffs suspended from the police officers’ belts but that was theonly visible sign of authority, lawfulness and trust.