There has been plenty of comment in Lib Dem circles and elsewhere about the 'Tomlinson affair', and I'm not going to spend any time adding to the words of my esteemed colleagues. However, I feel that I should touch upon the threat of civil society caused by the increasing breakdown of trust between the police and the communities they serve.
Many years ago, there was an acknowledgement that, if you came from a minority community, the police were perceived as people to be avoided and not to be trusted, especially if you were young. White, male and reactionery, and that was just the senior officers. Racism and homophobia were thought to be rife, and a series of incidents merely reinforced that suspicion.
That said, as long as you weren't black, gay or Irish, you could be reasonably certain that the police wouldn't trouble you. They weren't armed, they had limited rights of detention, and they had a bit more discretion in the absence of targets. Add the fact that police officers were more tightly connected to their communities, and you had a degree of confidence in their actions.
Increasingly, things have changed, and in doing so, the view of the police has changed. The McPherson Report, following the shambles that was the investigation into the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence, highlighted the perception of institutional racism, and led to a re-evaluation of how the police should act in a multi-cultural society. Changes to 'stop and search', amongst other traditional bugbears, were intended to reassure minority communities that the police were there for everyone. Community outreach projects were designed to encourage migrant communities to build stronger relationships with the police.
Surely, this was, and remains, a good thing. Good policing requires a flow of information backwards and forwards. The police can't be everywhere, and data gleaned from honest citizens going about their day to day activities is, if properly evaluated and applied, invaluable in attacking terrorism and criminal activity.
And yet the police find new and imaginative ways of shaking that trust. Jean Charles de Menezes' death may well have been a horrible mistake, but the lies and subsequent coverup sent out a clear message that, when things go wrong, the gut reaction is to pretend that they didn't.
The recent case in Merseyside, where a young man was arrested for turning in a lost mobile phone was, in many ways, more worrying. I was brought up to believe that, if I found something valuable, I should turn it in. If the actions of the Merseyside Police are reflective of current practice, that's clearly the last thing I should do. It implies that the police look upon everyone with suspicion, and that they are not one of us.
The Tomlinson incident and the two videos showing an officer in riot gear attacking a middle-aged man walking away with his hands in his pockets, and using an inappropriate level of force, implies a police force overly keen to use violence against those engaging in perfectly legal activities. Yes, there was tension, yes there were incidents of violence against the police and against property. However, I expect the police to be sufficiently well-trained to resist temptation.
All the community outreach in the world comes to nought, if incidents like the three I have quoted overshadow the activities of the majority of decent officers. If the public feel less trusting of, and more distant from, those whom they trust to police their communities, we are all that little less safe, and a little less free.