Imagine you’re walking down a street. You turn the corner and see a woman police officer being attacked. There are no other police around to help her. What do you do? 

Do you rush to her aid? Do you quickly cross the street and get away as soon as you can? Or do you take out your phone to video what’s going on, with a view to posting it online, possibly with a commentary mocking the police? According to the Police Federation of England and Wales there is an increasing chance you’ll do the latter. And the police are outraged about it. So what is the responsibility of the citizen when those we employ to protect us themselves need help? And what might this say more generally about what it is to be a citizen?

You may think the very idea that people could behave so deplorably as merely to film and mock a police officer suffering a brutal assault is so far-fetched as not to be worthy of consideration. But it is based on an event that actually happened last weekend. A video was posted online of a policewoman being punched, kicked and sent falling towards a bus in a London street on Saturday night. The video clip was posted by Nehemiah Adams, the captain of Guildford City football club with the caption: ‘South London at night …Lol’. There was also an anonymous narrator saying: ‘Oh dear me, [the attacker] just kung-fu kicked her… I’m getting this all live, boys and girls, thought I’d just stop, have a little watch.’

While all this was going on several cars went by without stopping, though a member of the public wearing a motorcycle helmet did go to the policewoman’s aid.

After the video clip went viral, Mr Adams, who did not himself record the video, apologised for the caption.

John Apter, the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), said: ‘It deeply saddens and frustrates me that we seem to be seeing an increase in people filming officers being brutally assaulted. This says a lot about our society when people’s first instinct is to get their phones out rather than help a police officer being attacked.’

No one is claiming that such behaviour is commonplace but Ken Marsh, the chairman of the London Met’s branch of the PFEW told me in an interview on Today that it certainly wasn’t the first such incident and that mockery of the police by members of the public when they are doing their job was far from uncommon. He acknowledged that such behaviour was often alcohol-based or drug-fuelled but that didn’t make it any more acceptable. And it became more alarming as violence on the streets has been increasing, affecting not just the public but the police themselves.

Knife crime is at an eight-year high, mostly affecting young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. There has been a particularly sharp increase in the number of under-eighteens caught up in the epidemic. And according to Home Office figures there are seventy-one attacks on police officers in England and Wales recorded every day, though the PFEW believes the actual figure to be much higher.

Meanwhile there are 20,000 fewer police in England and Wales than there were ten years ago, which is why the police believe they deserve greater support from the public rather than to be mocked or for the public just to stand by and look on, phones in hand. Mr Marsh acknowledged that it wasn’t a matter of just asking the public to ‘have a go’ when they saw the police being attacked: the question of ‘fight or flight’ was always a difficult one. His point rather was that without public support, the police themselves might turn away and, for their own protection, not take on violent offenders.

Some might see the PFEW’s response to the videoing of the assault on the police in south London last weekend as a clever way to exploit an incident that would outrage all decent people in order to pursue its campaign for greater support and more resources. Although the PFEW has welcomed the recent Assaults of Emergency Workers Act, which increases penalties on those convicted of attacking emergency workers such as the police, it is also campaigning for extra funding to employ more officers, for more body-worn videos to be supplied to the police and to be allowed more use of tasers.

And it is saying that without this support – and without greater support from the public – it feels justified in stepping back itself from dealing with violence on the streets. Mr Apter said: ‘If an officer does not have the right equipment or adequate back-up, I support them withdrawing for their own safety’.

It is, of course, up to the government to decide what police numbers should be and what practical support, in terms of equipment and methods allowed, should be provided. But the PFEW is saying there is more to it than that: the public needs to show greater support too, and to realise that the responsibility for maintaining law and order is not just the police’s but is the responsibility of all citizens.

What Mr Apter is getting at when saying the south London incident ‘says a lot about our society when people’s first instinct is to get their phones out rather than help a police officer being attacked’ is the idea that we may be beginning to see ourselves less as citizens than we used to do and more as mere onlookers of what is going on around us.

There is plausible evidence of this on the streets every day, at the mundane level of pedestrians being so engrossed in the texts they are reading on their phones that they pay no attention to anyone else. Such behaviour could be said to be an indicator of individuals’ growing sense of insularity within the world we share, which itself leads to an undermining of any sense we might have of sharing in the responsibility for that world in short, of being citizens.

Ultimately such a trend would lead us to regarding our world as no more than some sort of virtual reality that exists merely for us to observe, record and post online in just another meaningless contribution to the ephemera of social media. That, at least would seem to capture the tone of Mr Adams’ posted video.

Does that stretch the meaning of a single, awful incident too far? Or is it, as the police seem to be suggesting, a warning about how things are going? And as for my first question, what would you do when you turned that corner?

Let us know your thoughts.

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