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“Tis but a scratch” – bravado, policing and assaults

Fionnuala Ratcliffe
25 Nov 2022

I don’t let them assault me, I’d hit them first

How do police officers talk about the violence and abuse meted out on them? Dr Lee Johnson, a serving police sergeant, sought to answer this question through research in his home police force of Lincolnshire. He interviewed police colleagues and observed dozens of discussions between officers back at the station.

Dr Lee Johnson found that officers love discussing any violent run-ins at the end of shifts. Some related incidents dramatically: “Whilst he is saying this, he is striding around the parade room, acting it out. Suddenly he turns and says ‘AND THEN’ with his two hands stretched out in front of him. He makes a pushing motion in a big grand action. As he does this he shouts the word ‘WHAM!’” (observation report).

Most people who assault police don’t plan to. Assaults usually resulted from what Lee called “aggressive non-compliance”, for example from members of the public who felt they were being unfairly treated: “A lot of the time they were just pushing me away so it was more of a resist and I can understand why some people would resist arrest. They get their liberty taken and they don’t always agree with why that is happening” (police officer).

How an officer approaches a situation has a big impact on whether things escalate to violence: “I think that some people go into situations and incidents far too aggressively…where that’s not warranted or not needed” (male police officer). Some officers recognised that a calmer approach could be more effective in de-escalating situations. But the “bravado” culture, fuelled by discussions amongst officers back at the station, teaches new officers that the “quintessential frontline police officer” is someone who is ok with confrontation, makes a lot of arrests and resolves incidents by use of force rather than communication skills; a “hands on cop”.

Not everyone conformed to the bravado culture. Female officers in Lincolnshire talked about assaults very differently. They tended to be “more subdued and conservative”, speaking more “factually” and “calmly” about incidents. Some male officers admired  this calmer approach: “As a [older] man, I have been doing the job for eight years and I often look at some of the female officers who are able to calm the situation before it becomes violent…and I admire them” (police officer). But this doesn’t translate into police decision-making. Earlier research by Professor Nicole Westmarland found “a highly gendered division of labour”: sergeants and control rooms were more likely to deploy male officers to deal with people or incidents seen as likely to be violent, with female officers sent to support the victim. Dr Lee Johnson observed domestic call-outs where male officers often chose to approach the man, leaving the female officer to speak with the woman at the address. This despite officers in interview saying that female officers are equally capable (perhaps more capable) of making arrests and dealing with alleged aggressors.

The bravado culture, according to Lee Johnson, also taught officers to “repress pain and the immediate impact of lower level assaults” – like the knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who said “tis but a scratch”. Many officers saw public complaints, violent interactions and assaults as part of the job: “I think it’s just the nature of the role we’re dealing with. If you’re dealing with violent people for a living, we get paid to put ourselves in those situations. I think if you’re not prepared to put yourself in that situation then you’re probably in the wrong job” (male police officer). Dr Lee Johnson described officers putting up a “mask of toughness” – downplaying the impact of a violent incident or assault. Some officers were even challenged by their colleagues if they decided to arrest someone who had just assaulted them.

This “mask of toughness” had another effect. Lee  found that if a police officer had attended a traumatic incident earlier in the shift, this could increase the risk of the next incident they attended turning violent. Frontline officers have to deal with very distressing cases, for example, a child who has been badly neglected, or road traffic incidents where someone has been killed. Such incidents understandably impact the officers involved, who often go straight to another call out. Lee observed that officers can be “swifter to use force or raise their voice as they feel emotionally vulnerable and unappreciative when attending a new encounter in close proximity to an emotive occurrence. Oftentimes, officers’ can feel that the second incident is unimportant when compared to the circumstances of the first encounter, and are dismissive of a person’s arguments or actions, viewing them with disdain and unworthy of their proper attention or basic negotiation.” A bravado culture discourages officers from taking time out and seeking support following difficult incidents – instead going straight to the next case with frayed patience and high emotion. Could assaults on police be reduced by encouraging officers to take time to recover after traumatic experiences rather than getting straight back to work?

When it comes to reducing risk of assaults on police, is there strength in numbers? Police officers we spoke to about our research on assaults sometimes blamed “single crewing” for a rise in assaults, i.e. officers attending incidents alone. This wasn’t borne out in Lee’s research, which found that in the majority of assault incidents, two or more officers were present. Some officers said that having another officer present can actually create problems – officers may feel safer in applying force if they have a colleague with them, rather than using “soft” communication skills: “single-crewed officers, in more rural locations, appeared to use discretion and other less confrontational tactics when attending violent encounters in an attempt to diffuse them”. Lee concluded that the macho, bravado culture of the police was the greatest influence on assaults. And that a different culture might prevent police being attacked.