I am glad to see that 10 years on from September 11, 2001, it is finally ok to criticise poor performance by police and emergency services when it happens. The UK Prime Minister David Cameron felt it was ok to stridently criticise police performance in the London riots, and the London Met obviously were not used to it. Closer to home the Western Australia Fire and Emergency Services Authority has reportedly been given a blast for its totally inept performance in the Roleystone fires of earlier this year in which over 70 houses were destroyed in a report by an enquiry led by ex AFP boss Mick Keelty. The WA Cabinet won’t release the report but details leaked out on the weekend. The performance of some emergency services in the Queensland floods of earlier this have also come in for heavy criticism.
I have high regard for people who commit themselves to public service. I did fair stint of that myself. But for a long time after the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 it seemed that staunch criticism of police and emergency services was unacceptable in the US, Australia and the UK and other countries. It seemed that after any incident involving police or emergency services, the requirement was fulsome praise of all the officers involved if they performed well, or silence on the matter of their performance if they obviously performed poorly. Criticism, especially staunch criticism of poor performance, wasn’t an acceptable option. After the genuinely heroic deeps of the NY Police Department and especially its Fire Department on 9/11 police, fire and other emergency fire departments in the US were elevated in public estimation of their importance and commitment to public service. They also became elevated in their own self importance. Criticism of their performance, and especially the way they treated the public wasn’t really acceptable for a long time.
My experience from seven years of living in America was that criticism of law enforcement officers was very muted even before the 9/11. By way of example, in 1998, when I had only been there a short while, a guy in a town in Vermont near in home in New Hampshire became demented. He went to the altar of a church in the town seeking protection from the demons in his mind. He had a knife but was not threatening anyone. Police entered the church and ordered him to put the knife down. He didn’t ever threaten them, but when he ignored their orders (he couldn’t hear them above the voices in his head) they shot him dead right at the altar. The local paper reported this as the police doing their job, and expressed no concerns about it. When I raised the matter with work colleagues and neighbours their reaction was the same. The Police had done their duty and should not be criticised in any way. After a while I became accustomed to those types of incidents in the US. After 9/11 it got worse.
America is its own thing. They have a complex love-hate relationship with authority, with the love part coming more to the fore after 9/11. When I returned to live in Australia in 2004, having lived in the UK and US since 1992, I was surprised at how much the public attitude toward police and emergency services had changed. Australian is more of a Celtic expression of British culture, whereas America is a more a Germanic expression of British culture — British culture being the confluence of Celtic, Germanic and other influences. Australia has never had a love affair with authority — quite the opposite really. Expressions of authority have to demonstrate their utility in Australia, otherwise they are swept aside. But, recently I have been starting to wonder — policing (especially) and emergency services in Australia seems to be becoming more aggressive, more American, more pumped up, more self-important than it was back in the day.
So, I am glad it is ok to criticise the police and emergency services again, if they act in a capricious of arbitrary manner, 10 years after 9/11, as well as giving well deserved praise when it is due.