THE Channel 4 documentary series To Catch A Copper which concluded last week will have been an eye-opener to most viewers, writes columnist Graham Bartlett. It has proved controversial among many Avon and Somerset officers, whose colleagues are shown in various situations that have led them to an encounter with the force’s Professional Standards Department, the Independent Office for Police Conduct or the courts.

Many of the incidents shown have involved officers resorting to force to resolve calls for help. They will have been selected for the greatest TV impact and edited accordingly, but however representative they are of day-to-day life in that force, in the main it’s not hard to see why the encounters ended as they did.

Except, that is, the woman on the bus incident. It starts with a black woman with a toddler sitting down and calmly explaining to officers, who have been called by the driver, that her card was declined but she needed to pick her child up from school. The police officer offers to take her to the school in a police car. The woman, who remains seated, declines, saying that she has done nothing wrong. An argument starts as the officers want the bus moving but the woman needs to get to the school. Things get heated and one officer says that they might need to refer her to social services for getting angry in front of her child. Not the most helpful comment in the circumstances but it is an option. The woman then stands and makes a call where she tells the person on the other end she is about to “knock out two feds (police officers)”. This is taken as a threat and the officers go to restrain the woman who then gets angry, grabs her child and holds it to her. A struggle to arrest the woman while freeing the child ensues. Other officers arrive and she is pepper sprayed and eventually arrested after which she is released without charge.

Now, I as a white former police officer watched that and, unseemly as it appeared, thought that the officers’ use of force was proportionate and it was the woman who had been the aggressor. Then the programme alternated between a white police professional standards investigator voicing broadly the same assessment with members of an advisory panel, most of colour, taking the complete opposite viewpoint; it was the officers who had raised the stakes and their conduct had resulted in a young mum being forcibly restrained in front of her child.

This really got me thinking. The programme was bandying around whether the officers were racist or not – we certainly heard no racist language – and which side of the debate was in the right and which in the wrong.

The panellists, like the senior officers they were talking to, were articulate and justified their standpoint yet remained diametrically opposed. Neither side was budging yet both arguments had merits. Taken to the extreme, to wed oneself to either could mean that either perfectly innocent officers would lose their jobs, maybe their liberty, or alternatively the service would allow racist officers to remain, causing even greater harm.

For me it comes down to the values and beliefs we have been brought up with and how exposed or otherwise we have been to different cultures. One officer of colour is heard to tell those involved that it was them being unaware of how some cultures expressed themselves that caused them to react when they did, as they did. The chief constable says she would like to have seen more empathy. Maybe the woman concerned reflected on how she came across. It all comes down to there being more than one version of the truth, more than one standard of right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable. The only way to cut through that impasse is by investing time and commitment to deeply understand others’ cultures and experiences and to approach every situation, every human contact with empathy.

There is no logic on earth why a declined card leading to an unpaid bus fare should have degenerated into what we saw. Blame aside though, all those involved, including the bus driver, had a part to play in what happened and working out how to understand more and judge less is the only solution to imbue cultural harmony.

Former Brighton and Hove police chief Graham Bartlett’s Jo Howe crime novel series continues with City On Fire, out on March 22