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Loss of nerve: “just standing there watching”

Another one:

Hampstead Ponds constables ‘failed to help’ drowning Moshe Greenfeld because of ‘dangerous and murky’ water

The City of London has admitted that its health constabulary officers had not entered A Hampstead Heath bathing pond to try to save drowning teenager.

Moshe Yitzchok Greenfield, 19, a prominent rabbi’s son, began to struggle after going for a dip in the pond in north London on Wednesday, 15 April, the hottest day of the year so far, when temperatures in London hit 25C (77F).

[…]

James Eisen, a 43-year-old freelance journalist, told The Times: “I was walking past and I could see a lot of commotion going on over the far side of the pond. The guy’s friends were going in and out of the water and holding their breath and diving under frantically.

“There were police officers and paramedics and firefighters on the bank just standing there watching while the boys dived under. There were at least seven police officers on the side.

“It was a chaotic and surreal scene. I heard one of the boys shouting to one of the ambulance crews and asking how long someone could survive under water without breathing as they continued swimming around in a panic. I’m guessing the emergency services are told not to go into the water but if that’s the case they probably shouldn’t have let the boys carry on swimming about.”

If you want to know the sort of incentives that create such men of steel, look at the story of fireman Tam Brown, whose courage in risking his life to save a woman from drowning was rewarded with the threat of disciplinary action for “breaking procedure”, or at the three unarmed policemen similarly rebuked for daring to try and save William Pemberton’s life while their armed colleagues huddled outside waiting for orders.

Now, there are one or two caveats before we add Moshe Yitzchock Greenfield to the list that includes the Colly family who burned to death while police actively prevented attempts at rescue, Edward Paul Brown, a baby who died within minutes of birth in a hospital lavatory while nurses refused his mother’s pleas for help because they did not have the proper training, and Alison Hume, whom the Strathclyde Fire Brigade left dying for six hours at the bottom of a mineshaft because, after all, “the fire service was only obliged to save people from fires and road traffic accidents.”

The first caveat is this: Moshe Greenfield and his friends were swimming in an area marked as out of bounds to swimmers, and chose to go into the water after the lifeguard had left. That was irresponsible, though practically everyone can recall doing something equivalent at that age and coming to no harm.

The second caveat is this: as an official spokesman said, “The heath constabulary officers are here to enforce bylaws in the park — they are not trained lifeguards and the water is dangerous and very murky, so they are advised they are not to go in until proper assistance arrives.” He has a point, although it would be a stronger one if the heath constabulary officers actually had enforced the bylaw forbidding swimming. Perhaps our society would be better off if it were made completely clear that once you step outside the law, even a park by-law, you are on your own. The state washes its hands of you. I could go with that. A fine big notice board with shiny black letters saying “PAST THIS POINT WE WILL WATCH YOU DROWN” and helpful accounts of the last six people to whom this rule was applied; that would at least be fair warning. No longer would the citizen be treated as a spoilt child, emboldened to folly by the knowledge that the parental State would never let the worst happen.

That might be a better world than ours. But it is not ours. In general our government insists on rescuing people from their own folly. And what Hampstead Heath Park Constabulary actually provided was the worst of both worlds: officers who will act neither as police nor as parents.

By the way, it was not an act of courage beyond what can be asked of men to make some attempt at rescue. The “dangerous and very murky” waters” weren’t the North Atlantic. It was the pond in Hampstead Heath, for God’s sake. And some men – boys, really – did try. As the witness said, “The guy’s friends were going in and out of the water and holding their breath and diving under frantically.” It was just beyond what can be asked in these enlightened times of the men we pay, train and equip specifically to do that sort of thing.

The trouble with blogging for fourteen years is that one runs out of fresh clean ways to express foul things. I am adding very little to what I said in 2007:

Let me say (before someone says it for me) that I do not claim that I would have the courage to go into a house where a killer might lie in wait, or that I would have jumped in the bitter, fast flowing waters of the Tay to save some stupid woman who wanted to top herself. But such were the traditions that were honoured in the police and fire services. In fact, when I talk about “gutlessness” and “loss of nerve” here I am not talking about individual physical courage. Fireman Tam Brown showed great courage. At least three of the policemen in the Pemberton murders did as well and all of them showed more guts than I would. But institutional gutlessness surrounded them, was embarrassed by them, and will kill off their like eventually. Poisoned soil does not long give forth good fruit.

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37 comments to Loss of nerve: “just standing there watching”

  • Mr Ed

    The only proper response is the Roman practice of decimation for this institutional cowardice, rounding up the numbers, of course.

    As a counterpoint, at the very end of George VI’s reign, a former Bomber Command Squadron Leader, John Quinton DFC, rejoined the RAF as a Flight Lieutenant and was killed after a mid-air collision on a training flight, He died after grabbing the only available parachute and he sacrificed his own life by it putting it on an air cadet, and instructing him to jump, the cadet did, and was the only survivor, Flt Lt Quinton was awarded a posthumous George Cross.

  • Jordan

    Never in my life have I heard of a pond being dangerous to swim in, aside from ones populated by dangerous wildlife. Does this pond actually have currents worth speaking of?

    The first caveat is this: Moshe Greenfield and his friends were swimming in an area marked as out of bounds to swimmers, and chose to go into the water after the lifeguard had left. That was irresponsible, though practically everyone can recall doing something equivalent at that age and coming to no harm.

    Calling that action irresponsible assumes that the rules here made sense. Given the massive proliferation of rules and regulations in our daily life, I find that to be questionable. I certainly don’t blame anyone else for thinking so.

  • Jim K.

    Sadly its no different here in the US, same health and safety crap punishing the brave and encouraging the compliant timid. We’re all so fucked its isn’t funny.

  • Jordan

    I should clarify my previous comment. I don’t believe it’s necessarily irresponsible to swim in an off-limits area of a pond, although I would agree it was irresponsible in this case, since it seems the guy was not a good swimmer.

  • Mr Ed

    I thought that this rang a bell. In R v Dytham, a police officer who watched a man get beaten to death without intervening or pursuing the offender was convicted of the Common Law offence of misconduct in public office. That was in the late 1970s.

    Should one report these officials to the Metropolitan Police for misconduct in public office? Parks Constables are attested constables, and have certain police powers in the park. If you take the pay, take what goes with it.

  • Gareth

    It sounds like the ‘standing there watching’ relates to making sure the other teenagers didn’t get into difficulty while they were searching for the body of their friend, as opposed to seeing a drowning person and doing nothing.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Natalie – the point is that in the this age of endless regulations (“health and safety” and other) people who behave with any degree of courage (or just independence) are punished.

    Violate procedure? You will be saying we should abolish the government overseas “aid” budget next…..

    So, Mr Ed, you are being a tad unfair to say that these people should be executed.

    Although it would fun to watch – you clearly miss the old days…..

  • Patrick Crozier

    On a First Aid course I attended a couple of years ago the first principle was “Don’t become a casualty yourself”.

  • llamas

    Peel’s Principles, number 5:

    5.To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

    Bunch of wallies, standing there and watching a man drown. Even if it is a 100% stone-cold certainty that he is already dead, a man would certainly have to ‘hold his manhood cheap’ (in the words of the Bard) if he were to simply stand there and not even try to help. Regulations be damned – necessity in an attempt to preserve life trumps your silly-ass regulations and SLAs.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Mr Ed

    So, Mr Ed, you are being a tad unfair to say that these people should be executed.

    But:
    1. I do not say that they should be executed so much as they should execute each other. Call it ‘team building’.
    2. I am suggesting this within the law, and that it be done ‘to change attitudes’ and to ‘challenge stereotypes about health and safety’, so who would disagree with that?
    3. It would reduce the public payroll, and therefore the National Debt.
    4. It might lead to some career decisions that would be in the public interest, to weed out (by resignation) those less suited to such work.

  • Bod

    I’d put together a Marksian-length essay here, but fortunately I refreshed and saw Mr. Ed’s feedback.

    The thing is that this philosophy of ‘self preservation’ is not only prevalent in ‘public emergency services’ – even the volunteers at corporations like mine, the training in very basic response such as CPR/AED is so heavily compromised by butt-covering that the greatest benefit derived from it is a certificate and the warm glow of smug appreciation that you’re a Special Snowflake.

  • R Richard Schweitzer

    Such trends in the actions or inactions of public authorities or employees (and agents) is the extension of the Rules of Policy replacing the Rule of Law.

    Expect further demarcations.

  • RAB

    The Met are playing a blinder lately aren’t they?

    Sarge, there’s an alarm gone off in the Hatton Garden Safety Deposit… Ignore it Constable, probably a false alarm, fancy a sausage sarnie and a cuppa down the canteen?

    Sarge call from Hyde Park, member of the public says there’s a Hate preacher there handing out leaflets that says Homosexuality is a Sin… Get the cars out Constable, and crank up the sirens and flashing lights.

  • Mr Ed

    RAB, to be fair, this was not the Metropolitan Police, it was the Hampstead Parks Constabulary, a local council force maintained by the City Of London (although the Heath is outside the City, the City maintains it, but not as an exclave). The same ‘force’ collared the editor of the Guardian recently for using a tripod on Hampstead Heath (and that is not a euphemism!).

  • mike

    Whilst I agree with the general sentiments being expressed here, I will point out that…

    “At no stage were officers made aware of the location of the man in the water, nor could anyone indicate the approximate area where he might be within what is a large expanse of water.”

    If that is true*, then they very likely weren’t going to be able to find him in time anyway as it seems he had already gone under before the police arrived. It does not take long to drown.

    Putting myself in the shoes of a police officer arriving on the scene, being told that there is a man drowning in a pond whom I cannot see, my first thought is “where?”. However, my first afterthought would be that the man had probably drowned before I had even asked my question.

    *The article does not make clear if the boys who were diving after their friend knew his location or were just making various guesses.

  • Laird

    Well, I’m going to argue the other side here. In general, I see no obligation on anyone’s part to attempt to save fools from their own folly. That can be overridden by a contractual obligation, of course (lifeguards are paid to rescue swimmers, firemen are paid to save people from burning buildings), in which case the failure to do so constitutes a breach of contract. But park constables are not lifeguards and aren’t paid to be such. I don’t fault people for volunteering to try to save someone, and if it were my friend or family member I would probably to so too, but for a stranger? Again, no obligation exists, and one makes one’s own moral judgments about whether to assist. The probable futility of the effort, and the risk to the rescuer, and certainly factors to consider.

    We are regularly treated to stories of fools who ignore warnings and refuse to evacuate dangerous places in advance of a hurricane, or who climb mountains in bad weather, etc., and who then expect to be rescued when things go awry. And far too often such events result in death to would-be rescuers. In my opinion, such people should be left to their fate. If someone wants to volunteer a rescue attempt, have at it and best of luck to you. But no one should be forced, or even expected, to do so, and for that matter none of my tax dollars should be spend in furtherance of the effort. Call me heartless if you’d like. But there should be consequences for folly, and the world can do with fewer idiots.

  • Bod

    I think the key here is that this is an Information Problem.

    The public, rightly or wrongly, have the expectation that these people in uniform are heroes who will save them from whatever imperils them – even their own actions. I don’t think we need to rehash all the reasons they’ve become wards of the state.

    I should have posted my Marksist Post, which talked about other such misconceptions such as “Protect and Serve” and “When They Walk Through The Gates Of Hell … We’ll Be Waiting With A Hose and Ladder”, but really, it was just a list of fatalities caused by public servants not doing what they are (commonly believed to be being) paid for.

    Misconceptions have consequences.

  • Mr Ed

    I see no obligation on anyone’s part to attempt to save fools from their own folly.

    Well they are constables under English law, see my post at 12.30pm. The office of constable confers legal privileges on its holders, but also obligations. You can’t have one without the other. You took the taxpayers’ shilling, you pay the price when the fates call. This is the Common Law, not statute.

  • Mr Ed

    But there should be consequences for folly, and the world can do with fewer idiots.

    And fewer bureaucrats! There are the Darwin Awards for the idiots. The laws of natural selection, and survival of the fittest, cannot be repealed.

  • Dale Amon

    I will hold my judgement on this particular case, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were a yearly award for the most cowardly action in public service? The golden (yellow) Ostrich award perhaps? Select from all the cowardly actions which allowed people to death and since the awardees are unlikely to show up, they could be delivered after the public ceremony. The video could be placed on You Tube and the link passed around to give it maximum coverage.

  • Greytop

    This may be vaguely related, in that it is authority though not authority in the UK. Anyway, I recall a story posted once by an American film-maker visiting Paris to interview some man and it was decided to shoot the footage in a local park. The camera crew people was immediately stopped by the local park officials who informed them they could not film there without the appropriate licence and paperwork. All around them, the film-maker recalled, there were drugs being openly dealt in full view of everyone. One can only conclude these drug dealers must have the necessary licence and paperwork so no problem.

  • Paul Marks

    Your arguments are winning me over Mr Ed – clearly you are skilled advocate.

    Although it helps that I am a sadist who likes watching people kill each other.

    That will be quoted on the next Labour election leaflet.

  • lucklucky

    I will hold my judgement on this particular case, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were a yearly award for the most cowardly action in public service? The golden (yellow) Ostrich award perhaps? Select from all the cowardly actions which allowed people to death and since the awardees are unlikely to show up, they could be delivered after the public ceremony. The video could be placed on You Tube and the link passed around to give it maximum coverage.

    I never understood why libertarians don’t have something like that. Likewise an different inflation rate calculation, ect. Competing with state political complex information system.

  • Regional

    Does’t the Left promise the state will provide support to absolve everyone from all responsibility?

  • Laird

    Mr Ed, I did see your referenced post, and would agree if these were in fact police officers (see the parenthetical in my second sentence). But as I understand it constables aren’t police officers, and they most certainly aren’t lifeguards. I stand by my comment.

  • RAB

    Laird. I’m a human being. If I saw another human being drowning, I would wade in to the rescue. Just as I would, and have in a streetfight where a person is getting beaten to hell and back. It’s called humanity… no contractual obligation is involved beyond your conscience.

    Mike has a point though. We do not know all the details. If you can’t see a struggling body in the water, where do you start to look? How big/deep is the pond etc?

  • Laird

    RAB, I have no doubt that you would do that, and it’s admirable. But neither you nor anyone else has a right to demand that someone else make the same choice, or to criticize someone for choosing differently.

  • Mr Ed

    Meanwhile, per a BBC report, the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, opposite the Ashmolean, has caught fire in broad daylight. 14 fire engines turned up and the Fire Service stood around and ‘assessed’ the fire as smoke and flames belched through the roof, before eventually deciding that hosing some water on the fire might be helpful.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32356845

    Laird, in England all police officers hold the office of Constable. To hold that office, one has to be attested and take an oath. Lifeguards here are often volunteers, having no legal status, just a sense of honour, one might hope. And the private RNLI still manages to rescue people in far worse situations. http://rnli.org/NewsCentre/Pages/Seven-RNLI-Gallantry-Medals-awarded-to-lifesavers.aspx

    And Laird, yes we do have the right to demand action from Constables, they enforce the law, they have a legal duty to act, or face consequences, a fact-sensitive matter, which might not apply here, but I would venture that there is a prima facie case in this situation to show wilful neglect. It is Rothbardian nonsense to say that one can take the pay and then chicken out when it suits you, damages for breach would be an inadequate remedy.

  • Incunabulum

    “I’m guessing the emergency services are told not to go into the water but if that’s the case they probably shouldn’t have let the boys carry on swimming about.”

    *sigh*

    No. As screwed up as this incident is, at least the emergency services have learned not to get in the way of other people attempting the stuff they’re too afraid to do anymore.

  • Mr Ecks

    If they are employees of the park–and said Park has bodies of water that pose a danger of drowning–they should be trained in swimming/lifesaving etc. Now–not knowing where the boy was (if such was the case)– would cramp the style of any rescuer but they could have tried. If the pond is that big a death trap such that trained swimmers and rescuers are in danger it should be filled in or reduced to 2 ft deep–which would still be ok for ducks etc.

  • Tedd

    Perhaps our society would be better off if it were made completely clear that once you step outside the law, even a park by-law, you are on your own. The state washes its hands of you.

    I agree with the sentiment, but the unintended consequence would probably be a narrowing of the law to reduce the scope of what the state could be held responsible for.

  • Sceptical Antagonist

    The next time I’m driving at 45mph in a 40mph limit, I wish the fuckers would stand back and watch me risking life and limb at my own stupid expense!

  • bloke in spain

    “Never in my life have I heard of a pond being dangerous to swim in, aside from ones populated by dangerous wildlife.”
    As I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life living within 10 minutes drive of Hampstead Heath & quite a lot of it within 10 minutes walk & have regarded it as an extension of the back garden I’ve probably got some informed input to make here.
    Answer to the above is a very definite yes.

    Hampstead Heath has the peculiarity of being a slightly manicured area of rural wilderness stuck near the center of a major city. Although there’s some doubt about all the ponds on the Heath being natural, they’ve certainly been there long enough to have all the attributes of natural features.

    Like most of the ponds, the pond in question is quite deep & surrounded by full growth trees. Inevitably leaves & in gales, whole branches, fall off those trees & end up in the water. So the water’s full of decomposing vegetable matter & nutrients. So it’s very cloudy at the best of times & sunlight causes a great deal of algal growth. From quite early in the year it has the transparency of economy brand pea soup. Although the branches that fall into the water, some of them very large branches, initially float, in due course they become waterlogged & sink. But not straight to the bottom. It’s a progressive process & they’ll be drifting about at mid water levels for a considerable time.

    If you go to the ponds on a sunny early spring weekend you’ll likely find the top layers of the water are relatively warm. A couple of months ago that same surface was likely covered in ice. The physics of H2O mean the water is at its densest at 4degC If ice has formed, the bottom of the pond will have been at that 4degC. Unless there’s been a lengthy period of high winds preceding to mix the waters, in early April the depths of Hampstead Ponds will be not much above that temperature. There’s the same danger of hypothermia as swimming in the North Atlantic in mid-winter.

    So you’ve temperatures low enough to cause unconsciousness, in minutes, combined with the danger of becoming entangled in submerged vegetation. Hampstead Ponds can be a death trap. That’s why they put the NO SWIMMING signs up. The lido areas are no less of death traps, but at least they’re supervised death traps during opening hours.

    The above applies to any piece of open water deeper than about 6 feet in the entire country. Particularly if it has trees by its banks. Particularly lakes & ponds. And most people who live in proximity to such places treat them with appropriate caution.
    And now we come to the problem with Hampstead Ponds. Because they’re part of a wilderness within a major city, folks expect it to be an innocuous wilderness with all the sharp corners fitted with rubber bumpers. It ain’t. It can’t be. If you followed Mr Ecks’ suggestion & reduced the Pond’s depths to 2 ft, they wouldn’t stay that way. Because a 2ft deep pond’s a bog in the making. The ecology of 2ft deep water won’t keep it from silting up. It’ll freeze to the bottom in a hard winter & dry up or stagnate in a hot summer & won’t have much of an ecology at all. It’d be an artificial thing requiring constant & costly management to preserve it. And stink.

    While I’ve every sympathy for the family & friends of the kid that drowned, he got what you get if you stick your head in the lion’s mouth. The fault lies with people being mislead that nature’s some friendly puppy you can play with. It bites. And I don’t blame the park coppers standing back & letting it get on with it. It’d bite them just as fiercely.

  • Richard Thomas

    The police are there to maintain the peace, not to be superheroes. Their obligation in such a scenario is really no more or less than any other civilian which, after all, is that the police are supposed to be in the UK (even according to the Peelian principles which were partially quoted elsewhere).

    Having been affected by an attempted water rescue gone wrong and seeing the heartache it brings, I can affirm that the principle of “Don’t become a casualty yourself” definitely bears consideration.

  • Thailover

    I’ll preface with the fact that I’m an Ayn Rand Objectivist so that you’ll know where I’m coming from. While it’s a nice idea that “rescue personnel” will risk their lives to save potential victims and sometimes idiots, it’s unfair to place some moral standard of expection on someone to undertake a significant threat to their own lives and welfare to save those who place themselves at peril, or indeed, anyone at peril. If someone volunteers to, then that’s their choice. But to suggest that someone is immoral or a “coward” if they don’t significantly risk trading their lives for a complete stranger’s life is a moral standard that doesn’t stand strong scrutiny. You are, in essense, saying that the rescuer’s life is de-facto worth less than the life of the person in peril. Maybe you would prefer that all rescue personnel job positions be held by people with masochistic and suicidal tendencies.

  • lost-lost cousin

    Maybe you would prefer that all rescue personnel job positions be held by people with masochistic and suicidal tendencies.

    The average person here is convinced that the only good cops are the ones who are being carried by six other cops wearing white gloves.

  • Mr Ed

    to suggest that someone is immoral or a “coward” if they don’t significantly risk trading their lives for a complete stranger’s life is a moral standard that doesn’t stand strong scrutiny.

    But this is not entirely on point, the issue I raised is the office of Constable these people hold, and the legal, not moral, duties arising. Take the job if you will, but don’t complain when things go wrong and duty calls. You do not address this point, perhaps it is outside your comprehension.