Fragile policing

4 Sep

What explains the very high casualty figures among the police in the Belfast riots over the past few days? Forty seven officers injured on Sunday night!* Another fifteen last night.** It raises the under-explored area of what constitutes ‘injury’ or ‘casualty’. It is worth stressing that this posting does not condone the rioting nor seek to shift the blame away from the rioters. But it does raise an interesting question about the metrics used by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to designate an officer as ‘injured’.
Peace Studies has designed various metrics through which to measure violent conflict. Perhaps the most well known of these is the Conflict Data Program from the University of Uppsala.*** Relying on battlefield casualties, it divides conflicts into war, medium armed conflict, and minor armed conflict. Counting battlefield fatalities is a fairly blunt instrument but it does have the advantage of being absolute: you are either dead or not.
Which brings us back to the PSNI casualty figures. There is a world of difference between a permanent life-changing injury and a minor injury that heals quickly, and between physical and psychological injuries. The PSNI does differentiate between its casualties by noting that some have been hospitalized. Indeed, this accounts for a very low proportion of the overall figures, suggesting that many of the injuries are quite minor. But how minor? Only four of the forty seven officers injured on Sunday night required hospital treatment. So forty four injuries did not require hospital treatment but did merit inclusion in the casualty figures.
To some extent one can see a logic of the PSNI ‘talking up’ its casualties. It underscores the seriousness of the situation and may help shock community leaders into action to help restrain the rioters. But the high casualty figures risk sending out another message: that rioting is hurting the police, that it works. That despite all the body armour, plastic bullets and riot cannon, it is still worth talking on the police.
When I posted this on Facebook, one respondent noted that post-Patten officers ‘were not police material’. I’m not persuaded by this. The issue lies in the reporting of incidents by field commanders and the PSNI press office. They’ve decided to go down the let’s report everything route, but I wonder if this is counterproductive?

It is worth restating, lest there is any doubt, that television footage attests to vicious rioting by perpetrators who care little about the safety of the police, or of those living in houses adjacent to the rioting.


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