All coppers are bastards. ACAB. Fact. I learnt that lesson practically with my mother’s milk. (Actually, I was bottle-fed, but them was the late Sixties…) ACAB was daubed on every garage, shed wall, disused building on wasteland in west London in the Seventies. I didn’t especially feel the same way. I had no real reason to. Not until I actually met one.
There were a couple of occasions when I was young in that decade when my dad would be stopped by coppers for a routine traffic offence. They would be perfectly civil as he wound down his window but as he addressed them with respect and even deference, always calling them “officer” as he had been taught growing up in rural Ireland, their attitude would change visibly at his accent. It was at the height of the IRA mainland bombing campaign and anti-Irish sentiment was prevalent in the UK then, despite the fact that the IRA was a Northern Ireland organisation that had relatively low support in the South.
I would be reminded of this in The English Patient many years later when the initially friendly English soldiers in North Africa would turn into sadistic bullies, accusing the Hungarian Count László de Almásy of being German, in a wholly English blend of ignorance and aggression that we still see today with so many on the right. It made me angry that someone so decent and kind as my dad would be spoken to like that, and that anger would express itself a number of times over the years. I spent my first night in custody when I was about 15. I won’t say it became a life-long pattern but neither will I lie and say it was a one-off; far from it, if truth be told.
So what are the police like in Spain? First up, there are three layers. Policia Local, like glorified traffic wardens. Modest chaps with a great deal to be modest about. A little power that, by God, they will exert to the greatest of their ability. Employed by the municipality. Then there is La Policia Nacional. More serious, these supposedly investigate real crimes, though you would be forgiven for thinking they prefer to cruise around or pose in their sub-CHiPS outfits, trousers tucked into calf-length lace-up boots, mirrored aviators and baseball caps. Then there is La Guardia Civil, who cover remote rural areas or, if you are really in trouble, can be deployed in cities. They have military status so if they come trampling up your stairs (as once happened to me in Tenerife), may God have mercy ’pon your soul.
Anyway, I digress, as ever. My experiences of the police in Spain since I arrived five months ago just before lockdown. One Sunday during lockdown, I took a cab to a gasolinera to buy some fags. We arrived at 3pm. By chance, the hour when the shifts change over and all these little Franquistas from La Policia like to pose in their Aviators and baseball caps, smoking, hangin’ out an’ chillin’ an’ shit.
There was already a queue of people wanting to pay for their petrol. The kiosk was closed and you can only pay through the service hatch. One by one, these little Francos pushed to the front of of the queue to order a cortado. The poor woman had to cross the kiosk each and ever time to go to a machine in the corner to fulfil the imperious order. So each time, it took about two minutes. And when one officer took his coffee, another would take his place – or “push in”, as we call it, in the UK.
By now, I had waited 30 minutes while these arrogant little cocks of the walk showed utter disdain and contempt for those who pay their wages, so I took a few photos. (I admit, I was also annoyed that I had a cab on a meter that was clocking up, shoot me…)
One of them came up to me and asked me what I thought I was playing at.
I said, “Nothing”.
He said, “Why are you taking photos of us?”
I said, “It’s a public place, I can if I want, surely?”
He said, “You are not allowed to.”
I said, “I am a journalist, I have a press card [which I showed him] and, as I say, this is a public space.”
He said, “You are not in London now, you can only take pictures with prior approval from the Ayuntamiento.”
I said, incredulously, “So if I see something, I have to ask the State if I can report on it and get it in writing? Are you serious?”
He smirked and said, “Yes, caballero.” With heavy sarcasm on the caballero.
Then took the phone from my hand and deleted the photos.
And gave me un aviso (a bit like a parking ticket, for minor infractions, for the benefit of UK readers). Niiiiice.
After 45 minutes, handover completed, they allowed their employers to gratefully pay for their petrol and me to buy my fags. All the while with a taxi on a meter. So my quick journey of €4 to take a cab to buy some fags ended up costing me €20 plus tip…
One day during lockdown I used the exemption to walk through near-deserted streets to the local supermarket. My sunglasses fell off my head while I was packing my shopping and landed on the packing area, so I left them to one side.
After I finished packing, I turned around to give a few euros to a homeless woman in the shop doorway, as I had promised to. When I turned back round, my beautiful sunglasses had disappeared. The cashier knew nothing.
The customer immediately after me was several hundred yards up the street. I shouted after him but he pretended not to hear me.
I ran after him and caught up with him. He was a short, fat South American chap in baggy shorts and sliders with the bag of beers he had just bought. I asked him where my sunglasses were.
He feigned surprise and said, "It wasn’t me, you can search my bag if you like."
This threw me so I returned to the shop and started searching the area around the cashier but no joy. A colleague went to the back of the shop to replay footage from CCTV on a large screen at the front of the shop, replaying from the moment I paid. The chap after me took a few seconds to pack his beers. As he did so, they froze the exact moment he picked up my glasses and slipped them into his bag.
Reader, it was our South American friend.
I went to La Comisaria de Polica de Ruzafa (near where I live) and told them that I had the exact time, CCTV footage and a transaction ID. After I gave my statement in Spanish, the policeman smiled and tried out his English: “With all this, I do not think we are going to need Escollan Jard.” After I got him to repeat it three times, I twigged. He meant Scotland Yard...
I was told that the CCTV company keep footage for 15 days. Months later, you will be as shocked as I was to hear that nothing has happened.
Two weeks after this failure to deal with a crime that was wrapped up and given to them on a plate, I was walking back to the same Consum. It was the last day of lockdown; a few hours later, we would enter Fase Uno, a more relaxed epoch. Suddenly, in fromnt of me, a Policia Local car mounted the pavement, slammed on the handbrake and two short coppers jumped out, shouting at me.
I had no idea what they were talking about, explained that I had only recently moved to Spain and could they speak a little more slowly? This enraged one of them, who started shouting in my face, spraying flecks of saliva over me, screaming, “Tu me entiendes perfectamente!”
He was saying that I was walking too closely to someone without maintaining social distancing, although I was wearing a mask. I did not respond sycophantically and with sufficient chastisement, it seems, so he gave me another aviso. This joined the previous one in the bin and I have yet to hear anything.
A couple more incidents. One day, I saw a bus being stopped and a man being called off. The bus waited patiently for ten minutes while two coppers admonished them, for what I don’t know, and then pulled out a card reader, into which he inserted his card, and paid some kind of fine. What happened to due process?
And another time, a woman posted in a toxic Facebook group for “expats” (as an aside, God, I hate that word! If you have brown skin and come from a poor country, you are an immigrant; if you are wealthy and come from northern Europe or the States, you are an expat). She lives in a village on the outskirts of Valencia. During Fase Uno, the authorities relaxed the rules slightly to say people could go out for exercise between 6am and 10am and 8pm and 11pm. Her husband had gone out for a cycle one evening and at 8:15pm, he was surprised by a roadblock on a country lane. Two coppers stepped out on a bend without warning and pulled him over. They asked for his address, and use Google Maps to calculate retrospectively that he must have left his house – in the countryside – at 7:50pm, and gave him una multa of €600. Facepalm emoji.
I mentioned some of these incidents in afore-mentioned toxic swamp and was trolled with comments such as the following:
• if you don’t like it, fuck off back to England
• perhaps it’s your attitude, I have never found the police to be anything but polite
• I Googled you and see you are a ‘journalist’, no wonder everyone says the MSM is fake news
Etc, etc, ad nauseam
The other night, I was having a beer outside my local bar, un chino, when suddenly I saw a large chap punch the phone out of the hands of little Sofia, the owner, then kick the phone into the street. I sprang to my feet, as did my drinking buddy, and we ran at him. He landed a couple of glancing blows to the side of my head but the worst damage was I caught him in the face and a week later, still have a very swollen knuckle. But I digress…
He threw a chair at me but I caught it and hurled it back at him; it bounced off him into the street, and a car had to brake sharply to avoid hitting it. Around us, all the customers of the terrace were quickly getting the hell out of there. I called to Sofia and her husband Pau to call the police and this idiot strode away. A few minutes later, a van from La Policia Local arrived, and as I tried to tell him where the guy had gone, he instead shouted at me to put my mask on and sit down or he would arrest me. Interesting priorities…
At least he called La Policia Nacional, who arrived on motorbikes and went off to look for this guy, when suddenly the idiot reappeared. They took him to one side and spoke to him for ten minutes.
And then, to my astonishment, they allowed him to go.
I approached one of the officers, and said, very politely, “Excuse me, sir, I am a journalist from London, can you explain to me what has happened here? In London, he would be arrested for assaulting a woman in the street, you have many witnesses. I don’t understand?”
He replied, equally politely, “Sir, this is what we call a minor felony. The lady can make a complaint and he will have to go to court. If he doesn’t appear at court, a warrant for his arrest will be issued. If it had been her husband who had done it, it would have been a serious felony and we would have arrested him. But the lady doesn’t want trouble, and does not want to press charges.”
I said, “But isn’t it equally bad that it was an assault in the street and she simply tried to take a photo of him because he refused to pay his bill? Is it not a public order offence?”
He replied, not unkindly, “Sir, I see that you are a good person. But thing are not the same here as in your country. You have moved here at a very strange time and you will get to understand how things are, poco a poco.”
On Christmas Eve, I went down to buy a few last-minute items. Outside, a Policia Local was giving a ticket to a neighbour’s car, a tiny little Smart car. I asked him why. He said, their wheels are over a white line, they are blocking the garage.”
I said, “That is not true, they are only just touching the white line, and they are certainly not blocking anything.”
He said, “The law is the law.”
I said, “This is hardly in the spirit of Christmas, though.”
He said, “The law is the law, even at Christmas.”
Then, “Is it your car, caballero?”
I replied in the negative.
He said, “With respect, I advise you not to put yourself in the matters of others, and I wish you a happy Christmas. Caballero.”
It’s not true that all coppers are bastards. But God, they sometimes make it hard to argue the opposite.