Phronesis and musical policing

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An extraordinary story from the BBC: Police ‘cool’ Belfast trouble with ice-cream van music. Fifteen  youths start throwing bottles at a police Land Rover in Lisburn. One of the officers  inside has an idea: to play ‘ice-cream van music’ through the vehicle’s tannoy system to try and defuse the situation with a bit of humour. Guess what – “The youths stopped throwing the bottles.”

“However,” continues the spokesperson, “police accept that this was not an appropriate action.”

Now, call me stupid, but in what way is this not appropriate action? You’re surrounded by 15 kids throwing bottles at your car, and you use whatever resources you can to defuse and end the situation. You do that without even raising your voice, let alone using any physical aggression. Surely to achieve that peacefully shows imagination, resourcefulness, calmness under pressure and intelligence.

So what would the Belfast Police Service consider appropriate action’? To get out of the car and start acting like they’re in The Bill? Would have been better if the officer had used music as an instrument of torture instead? Perhaps there’s a whole bit of this story missing, but on the surface, it looks to me as if the officer’s only ‘inappropriate’ action was undermine the macho aura of traditional policing by showing that music – ice cream van music no less  – does indeed have ‘charms to sooth the savage breast‘.

That’s how it seems when you listen to Sinn Fein councillor Angela Nelson, who told a local newspaper that she thought the officer’s actions “beggared belief…The PSNI are put on the streets to do a serious job and that is to keep order on the streets and face down anti-social elements. This is like a sick joke.” Don’t look to Angela for the traditionally feminine approach: she wants her policing the good old bad old way: serious, authoritarian, combative, punitive, humorless – oh, and unmusical.

In Aristotelian terms, the officer’s action was surely an example of phronesis, and if anyone in this life should be capable of phronesis, of acting appropriately according to your knowledge and experience but guided by ethical considerations, it’s a police officer. And if in the 21st century, your average police officer has evolved far enough to understand that music has a role to play, as it always has done, in reducing tensions and defusing difficult situations, and can apply that understanding effectively under threat, then surely that is a matter for celebration?

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