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It is almost two months since the death of Euan Coulthard and since then four more people have fallen into the river. Yet, there are still no fences. We must ask ourselves the question, why is there so much resistance to implementing simple preventative measures? I believe this resistance can be found in the statement made by the Chief Constable of Durham Mike Barton, which has gone largely unquestioned.
The Chief Constable argued that the reason for the deaths of Euan Coulthard, Luke Pearce and Sope Peters was the fact that all three students were “paralytically drunk”. This is simply not the case. The inquest into Luke Pearce’s death concluded he was not “incapable” when he fell into the river and died ie. he was not “paralytically drunk” as Barton would have us believe. The inquest into Euan Coulthard’s death has just begun, therefore his comments are untimely and unprofessional. It is strange that he has decided to label these students as “paralytically drunk” when this is simply not the case.
This lack of sensitivity is furthered by his description of Durham students as “bright young things”. The phrase bright young things was first coined in the 1920s to describe young hedonistic and frivolous aristocrats and socialites. Does his comment disclose an unfair preconception he holds for Durham students? The Police have a duty to protect all citizens of the community regardless of class or age. He must be called to acknowledge that the students of Durham University are part of the Durham community and therefore are a sector of the population that he has a duty to protect. Many students will note a hostility some locals have for our presence and this is another example of it.
To leave his comments unquestioned is to allow these students to be remembered as irresponsible, ‘paralytic drunks’ who were ultimately to blame for their deaths when this is simply not the case. This is unfair representation and thus, an injustice. He seems to have no consideration for the grieving families and friends.
The deaths of Euan Coulthard, Luke Pearce and Sope Peters all had one thing in common. They were all trying to get home after a night of socialising with friends in licensed premises, which remains a lawful activity. Socialising and drinking are not behaviours exclusive to students. Therefore, we should question his decision to pick out student drinking rather than the drinking culture at large. His views on student drinking seem to be at odds with his previously published views on Class A drugs which he believes should be legalised. Again, another reason to believe he has an unfair preconception about the students of Durham University
It is also worth noting that he rules out the erection of a fence alongside the river but, as I am sure he would know, this is not a concern of the Police but rather one for the local authority. His adamancy is therefore simply bizarre. I have also noticed that the Durham Police force is backing the council’s initiative to install additional CCTV cameras to combat fly tipping, but is reluctant to install CCTV cameras around the riverbanks, even though this might assist in saving lives or at least locating bodies (it took five weeks to find Sope Peters’ body). Of course, I acknowledge that there is no direct financial advantage for the Council or Police force in locating or finding bodies.
Students are often portrayed in a negative light. Therefore, I think it is of the utmost importance that the Chief Constable be held accountable for his comments. He is making a direct attack on the integrity of the student body by branding us as irresponsible. Support from all members of the Durham community to make Durham a safer place is much needed, therefore his comments are simply unacceptable, highly inconsistent and are a cause for concern.
At the current time it seems as though students are being blamed for this series of unfortunate events, the fact that a petition of over 10,000 signatures can be met with such resistance is another example of this.
I fear that the culture of blame, or the ‘student shaming’ that seems to be appearing, unfairly brands students as irresponsible and ultimately to blame for any injury they may acquire from falling into the river. The readiness of the Chief Constable of Durham to suggest that it is a student drinking culture to blame for the deaths implies he has no desire to look at the matter in its entirety. This means that if a student falls into the river, the first question will not be how can we prevent it, or how did they fall, but will be a question of their integrity instead. One must remember all we are asking for is fencing around the river to stop people from drowning to death. Who knew such a simple request would be met with such resistance.
Photograph: Venus Loi
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