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Vigilantes, voyeurs and a nation of backseat drivers – why the police get the worst of our community spirit | Zoe Williams

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We were promised a “big society” some time ago and, finally, it has arrived. Vigilantes are patrolling the streets of Hartlepool. How can you tell a vigilante from a regular, alert person, going about a town centre, possibly in search of a pint? It used to be balaclavas, and before that it was flaming torches. Now, judging from the photos, it seems to be blokes walking around. In other words: you can’t.

The residents of the County Durham town, population 92,000, have a point: on a recent Saturday night, there were only 10 police officers for the whole place. Factor in a two-hour round-trip to a cell if they arrest anyone and that frequently whittles it down to none. In a vexing blend of ancient and modern, timeless crimes – such as getting your tools nicked from your van, a go-to job for the unimaginative scofflaw since the stone age – are captured on CCTV but, with the arm of the law being so very short in these cash-starved times, there is nobody even to watch the tape. So roaming about, looking for crime on a voluntary basis seems like a bit of civic resilience. What else are you going to do – resign yourself to the new normal and buy more tools?

But the problem with vigilantes – and this is the key difference between them and police officers, more important even than the uniform – is the worry that they are never looking for no trouble. Peaceful, law-abiding streets would be the ultimate anticlimax. Broadly speaking, and depending on the weather, it’s more fun to invent a wrong than it is to give up your hunt for the wrong ’un.

Police, for this reason, tend to be chary of accepting the public’s input. Earlier this week, Ken Marsh, the chairman of the Police Federation, delivered a dire warning to BBC Radio 4 listeners: if we didn’t start to be more supportive of the police as they carried out their duties, policing would cease to function. The situation was a little bit worse than simple indolence from bystanders: a witness to a vicious attack on a female police officer recently filmed it on his phone and it fetched up on YouTube, with a callous voiceover of mainly laughter. Marsh’s point, though, was not that onlookers should pile in: rather, that they shouldn’t film crimes on their phones. The message was a bit too depressing to process fully: “Members of the public, we don’t necessarily want you to come to the rescue, because you’ll probably mess it up,” it seemed to say. “Just try not to be horrible people. Decency, empathy, karate skills … these are all big words. Let’s just take the baby-step, when you see someone getting their head kicked in, of not videoing it.”

Of all public servants, it is the police who get the worst of the community spirit, and that is without even considering the criminals. If they’re not dealing with roaming bands of brothers trying to help out, or callow voyeurs trying to unpick the fabric of society, it’s a nation of back-seat drivers telling them how to prioritise. How is it that they have time for speeding, yet can’t catch a mugger? What are they doing wasting themselves on hate crime, when there’s a fly-tipper over there – and if that’s not hateful, what is? It’s strange that you rarely see roaming gangs who have identified a shortage of care workers and want to offer their services to take someone to the optician. But none of us is immune from wanting to help out when a sheer lack of qualified staffing threatens civilisation. I am ready to start a vigilante cabinet. Who’s with me?

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