Archive for March, 2011

I try but you see, it’s hard to explain…

This post was inspired by a very tricky question put to me by fellow blogger, Mike Downes. In struggling to explain how the law works to his children he came to realise not only that doing so was very hard, but also that defining what the law itself is can be even trickier. Mike has asked me, as a police officer, what is the law?

For someone who deals with the law day in and day out I thought my understanding might give me a head start in providing a satisfactory answer. The more I thought about the question though the more I realised that actually, regularly dealing with the law didn’t seem to offer any ready solutions and that the ‘right’ answer is much more elusive than first it seemed.

What IS the law then? Even knowing where to start looking for the answer is tricky. Is the law what is written in the statutes? Where do legal precedents come in and what about the impact of public opinion, shifting ethics and developments in technology on how we define the law? Is the law something that applies equally to all people across all regions and indeed should it be?

I think that even mentioning the word ‘ethics’ makes the answer so much harder to find and yet no answer to the question ‘what is the law’ could be satisfactorily answered without some reference to ethics. Why do we impose the laws that we do and how do we decide how they ought be enforced? What makes us rescind laws and who has the right to make the final decision when two or more opposing and equally valid arguments clash over what should be legal and what should not? Is a law passed by a legislature with a low majority as enforceable as one the comes into force driven by popular mandate?

Unfortunately rather than getting me any closer to formulating an answer, these questions awkwardly only yield further questions about what the ‘law’ is. I suppose I might also look to ask how far a government needs to go in passing laws that affect the rights of its citizens. Some laws are designed with our own good in mind – to protect us from ourselves – but how do these affect our relationship with those in charge? Does the cost of policing certain laws justify the benefit to society that the policing returns and if not, what does this say about the law itself? How do the outcome of these discussions affect how we perceive law?

I’m hoping that with my liberal use of the question mark key I’ve gone some way to suggest that there is no easy answer to the question ‘what is the law?’. I would imagine that in a room of ten different legal professionals you’d get at least eleven differing positions on what the law is and find none of them right or wrong, each as defensible as the last and all probably completely opposing. So what is the law? Having thought about the question I guess I’d have to conclude that whilst I know something of laws, the only answer I can offer is that ‘law’ itself is very, very hard to define.

As ever feedback is appreciated and the first person to post as a reply the correct name of the artist and song from this blog’s title will receive an approving nod from myself. I guess an interesting discussion to come out of this post might be around what ‘law’ means to you – what do you understand by the term and what do you make of some of the thoughts I’ve run through whilst trying – and failing – to work out what ‘law’ is?

In the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more…

Officers stand ready for store opening on the first day of the January sales...

This is a very, very quick post to bring to your attention an interesting video that has cropped up on the Guardian website filmed by one of their reporters who accompanied officers from the Met Police’s Territorial Support Group during their tour of duty for the ‘March for the Alternative’ protests in London on March 26th. It feels reasonably well balanced and gives an insight into what it’s like for the police officers who are deployed to maintain the peace during a march of such a huge size. If you’ve a short attention span like me you may well shudder at the video’s fifteen minute length but stick with it, it’s well worth the watch.

P.S. This PC couldn’t work out how to get his own PC to embed said video directly into this blog. The code provided by the Guardian didn’t seem to work in WordPress and despite locating the video’s source location I couldn’t coerce it into appearing as a playable video – do any web wise readers have any ideas on how to embed a .mp4 video into the body of a blog?

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet…

The ugly face of a Section 2 Public Order offence and imminent criminal damage outside The Ritz (Image from BBC/Reuters)

After London played host to as many as five hundred thousand peaceful protesters and a handful of violent-minded thugs on March 26th, there have been various reports that the Met Police have made a number of arrests for ‘public order’ offences. Both the BBC and Guardian have carried stories referencing these mysterious crimes and after asking a few non-police friends what they thought a public order offence might be, I have realised that the Public Order Act is perhaps not one of the better known statutes we have on the books. In this post I’ll attempt to clarify in as few words as possible, what exactly is a ‘public order’ offence?

To help with my explanation I’m going to recruit the help of ‘Billy’, a rather unpleasant young man under the influence of one too man pints of shandy who is currently sauntering his way through a busy town center near you. Billy’s about to commit a whole range of public order offences, here’s how he’s going to do it -

  • To get himself started he yells at no one in particular an expletive much worse than “Screw!”. Billy has now committed a Section 5 Public Order offence.
  • Not content with this, Billy picks out an unfortunate member of the public and screams at her “Screw you!”. As his expletives are intentionally directed at someone, Billy has now committed a Section 4A Public Order Offence.
  • Billy’s only just getting started though. Picking up courage he now shouts “Screw you, I’ll punch your lights out!”. Having added a threat of violence, Billy has moved another notch up the ladder to a Section 4 Public Order offence.
  • Any reasonable criminal – if such a thing exists – would have had his fill now but sadly not Billy. He screams again “Screw you, I’ll punch your lights out!” but this time raises his fists at the now very alarmed and distressed member of the public. Having taken his actions beyond words alone, Billy has now committed a Section 3 Public Order offence. This is also known as an affray.
  • As a final insult, Billy recruits two friends and all begin yelling at Billy’s chosen target, threatening violence and brandishing their clenched fists as they do so. As there are now three people present Billy and his friends are all guilty of an offence against Section 2 of the Public Order Act – violent disorder.

Public order offences are well summed up by the Act itself which refers to a public order offence as an act employing threatening, abuse or insulting words, behaviour or displaying writing of such a nature that is likely to be seen or heard by anyone and to cause them to suffer harassment, alarm or distress. These offences can occur anywhere with the exception of S. 5 through to S. 4 which can’t be committed if both offender and victim are inside a dwelling.

Due to their scope, public order offences can be incredibly useful in dealing with a wide variety of anti-social behaviour issues encountered not only on demonstrations but in the streets and in town centers on busy nights. It is owing to their flexibility that I imagine the police in London have opted to make many of their arrests under the Public Order Act and they often stand a good chance of successful convictions in court.

Hopefully this condensed summary of public order has lent a little clarity to the topic. There are all sorts of clauses and fine details contained in the Act not mentioned here for fear of muddying the waters but are available to read in the legislation if you’re sufficiently curious. On a final note, for anyone wondering what happened to Billy and his mates, I am confident that they are now sitting in the cells thoroughly regretting their actions and hoping that the judge won’t be too harsh on them in court.

As ever feedback is appreciated and the first person to post as a reply the correct name of the artist and song from this blog’s title will receive an approving nod from myself.

Born to run…

This is a quick post to promote the good – slightly crazy – work of fellow Walsall Officer PC Paul Swan who is entered into this year’s London Marathon and is hoping to run past the finish line and into the record books as the fastest person to complete the race wearing a costume. He is raising money for Cancer Research UK and had set a very modest donations target of £1000, which he has now exceeded but considering the scope of the challenge I don’t see why we couldn’t push that amount a little higher. Paul currently runs around a hundred miles a week (some LONG foot chases!) and was recently featured in the Express & Star, impressing their reporter with his commitment to training in readiness for the marathon. Paul’s in a better position to tell you about the attempt than I am so here’s what he has to say about it -

“I am a 48 year old serving Police Officer in the West Midlands and I am based at Walsall Police Station. I have run a number of Marathons and my PB is 2.29.54 and I ran 2.48.10 in last years London Marathon. During the past year both my wife and stepfather have been diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully my wife is on the road to a full recovery, but in my father’s case the outlook doesn’t look good at this stage. In order to raise some money and to raise the awareness of this terrible illness I have decided this year to run London, in full uniform which consists of the following:

Helmet, Shirt, Stab Vest, Trousers and also carrying Police issue baton and handcuffs.

This record attempt has been verified by the Guinness Book of records, Tracking ID 30823. The record stands at just under 5 hours, and I am looking to finish in approx 3hr 15 mins. My running number is 221 so if you happen to be in London on the 17th, please give me a cheer.

So please dig deep and donate now.

Any amount would be gratefully received and I know will be put to great use. Many thanks for all donations – Paul”

Donations can be made via Paul’s JustGiving site, and if you’re eligible for Gift Aid the Queen herself will boost your donation by round about 25%!

Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight…

From time to time I’m asked by curious children (and curious adults) to go through each and every pouch, pocket and holster to explain what equipment I carry with me whilst I’m on duty. As I have a little more space on the blog than I do on Twitter I thought I’d take the opportunity to give a quick run through of what I take out with me on a typical shift. I’ll list everything in no particular order, starting with –

• Black trousers – I can’t imagine ever going out without these, standard issue tough cotton trousers with large pockets on either leg to keep bits of string, toy soldiers etc in.
• Black t-shirt – Last summer we said goodbye to the uncomfortable white shirts and clip-on ties and hello to the far more appropriate t-shirts. I for one am a big fan – they’re much better suited to the type of work we do and are cooler during the summer meaning we don’t melt when the sun is hovering over Walsall.
• Belt – For the above mentioned trousers.
• Boots – Not standard issue, I wear a pair of giant Magnum boots with reinforced soles and toecaps.
• Stab vest – Our vests are reasonably light and have a ballistic rating sufficient to stop all but the most determined projectiles. They are designed to protect all the major organs and are stab proof as well as being bullet proof.
• Gloves – Leather with a Kevlar type mesh underneath which gives them a degree of slash resistance against bladed objects. I think the general idea may be that I’m able to intercept throwing knives mid flight, although I’m yet to test this…
High visibility harness – A little like a waistcoat, the harness means that we can be seen and also gives many different points from which we can hang things, a bit like a Christmas tree.
• Equipment belt – Worn over other belt and much bigger, tougher and meaner.
• Baton – An extendable friction lock steel baton. I carry mine on my belt and have a licence to carry it which is subject to my personal safety training being up to date.
• CS Spray – A canister of CS mixed with propellant to project it across a range of several metres. CS causes the eyes and nose to water uncontrollably for several minutes during which the target is disorientated and rendered unable to do anything other than concentrate on their watering eyes and running nose. By all accounts its unpleasant stuff, I’ve never used it myself.
• Limb restraints – Two Velcro ties that can be used to restrict the movement of a person’s legs and arms if it is judged that they are posing a danger to others or themselves whilst being arrested.
• Rigid handcuffs – Also known as ‘speedcuffs’, can be applied to the front or back to ensure that a person can be safely transported.
• Torch – Essential for poking around nights, basements, lofts, cupboards etc. My torch is an LED type which has an adjustable beam with a spotlight function. It also has batteries which don’t seem to know they’re allowed to run flat as they’ve not been changed since June and are still going strong.
• Airwave radio – Not only a radio for talking to the control room but also a mobile phone, I can use my radio to call directly other officers and can switch channels to communicate with other forces. The other emergency services also use the same type of radios so we can all talk to each other too. Battery life is fantastic and the handset has a panic button which we can use to summon assistance if we need to.
• Multitool – Not issued as standard, I carry one as they’re very useful for unscrewing things, cutting at stuff or whatever the other various extensions are there to do.
• First aid kit- A basic assortment of medical bits and pieces including gloves, resuscitation mask, sterile wipes, hand sanitiser and a bag for waste.
• Handcuff keys – It’d be fairly embarrassing if these were misplaced so they’re kept securely on a karabiner attached to my harness.
• Tracker peg – A little like a plastic key needed to book out vehicle keys at the station. I put my peg into the key board, remove the corresponding car key and that way we can track who is in possession of the keys to which car.
• Pocket note book – A very important bit of kit, my PNB is a little like a diary of what we’ve done during each tour. It can be used to record statements made by people or to make notes regarding jobs we’ve been to. Contrary to how PC Butterman uses his PNB in ‘Hott Fuzz’, we tend not to draw cartoons in ours.
• Note book – Different from my PNB in that it’s not evidential, I use this book to write down information I’m likely to need when I’m out and about e.g. important phone numbers.
• Various calling cards – Notes I can leave to say that I’ve visited an address or to say that there’s been a burglary in the local area, business cards etc.
• Encounter book – A book a receipts issued to people after a stop and search detailing the circumstances of the search, when and where it was conducted etc.
• Warrant card – My identification card confirming that I am a police constable and that I have all of the associated powers. It’s not only carried for identification purposes though, it’s also smarter than the average ID in that it acts as an entry key to get into the station and log onto our computers.

The above list is not exhaustive and nor is it standard – different officers may choose to carry different items in different configurations as suits their roles. I don’t, as an example, carry a taser or a head cam. It also doesn’t include all the items I’ll carry in the bag that I take out with me which includes extra layers of clothing, the helmet, scene logs, scene tape, a digital camera, sat nav, breathalyser tubes and a variety of other things that I’ve probably forgot I carry. I addition to all of this I’ve also got to take out with me that all important paperwork folder containing blank statements, crime reports, ticket books and last but not least, pens.

I think I’ll leave this list be for the time being until, that is, I’m issued with the ‘public order’ kit and will have to fire up the word processor and spend an afternoon listing all of the new toys that come standard as part of riot policing.

As ever feedback is appreciated and the first person to post as a reply the correct name of the artist and song from this blog’s title will receive an approving nod from myself.

This tune was composed by Spencer the Rover…

Me at Limestone Corner, Northumberland, during my four day passage across Northern England via the Hadrian's Wall path

The night will always win…

A Day In The Life – Parading at Walsall Police Station, Wednesday March 16th 2011, Tour of Duty – 22:00 to 07:00

The final shift of our six day set, the last night is usually the one that everyone looks forward to on the grounds that come seven in the morning, we’ve been working suitably hard over the past week to earn ourselves firstly some sleep and then after that a few rest days to recover before starting all over again. I arrive at the station just after nine as I like to catch up on my emails before briefing, something I often do with liberal use of the ‘delete’ key as the majority of the messages that find their way to my in-box are inevitably junk. Come ten o’clock the rest of the shift will have drifted into the station and we all gather in the parade room where we are brought up to speed about the latest intelligence concerning our area e.g. who is about to be released from prison, where we’re having issues with certain crimes and what are taskings are to be for the shift.

Fully briefed, me and my partner grab a set of car keys, pick up our kit and head right out the door. We start off with a drive around the town center and stop to speak to a male wearing a rather fetching silver tracksuit who comes up to the car and sings a little Robbie Williams to us before stumbling off into the night. An interesting way to start the shift! We then continue our patrols, focusing on the areas where it is likely that people will congregate before heading down the Wednesbury Road and over into Caldmore.

We’ve been out for about thirty minutes before we receive our first call across the radio – CCTV operators have spotted someone attempting to break into a disused transformer station and we’re asked to make the area along with several other units. As the incident is believed to happening there and then, we’re required to make the location as quickly as possible so on go the sirens and lights, my colleague puts his foot down and we accelerate past the usual speed limit and skip across Walsall in no time at all. Other cars have made the location before us and it is apparent that whilst an attempt has been made to gain entry, the offenders have been unsuccessful and so one car stops to investigate whilst we conduct a search around the vicinity in an attempt to locate any suspicious looking suspects.

Unfortunately the surrounding streets are empty and with only a vague description given there’s not a great deal more we can do so we resume patrol, this time floating over towards Brownhills and Rushall. The night was fairly cold with a combination of mist and rain keeping people indoors meaning and so there was not a great deal to see. We know where we’re likely to encounter problems with anti-social behaviour, traffic offences and the like so when we’ve not been deployed to an incident we’ll proactively focus on these areas, often finding something that requires our attention.

For a while our radios are relatively calm and so we continue our patrols heading through the industrial parks around Bloxwich and Bentley. We then hear another unit being dispatched to answer a call from a male who has dialed 999, apparently drunk, to angrily complain about his neighbours and that he can no longer stand living next to them. As the male has threatened a, how can I say, less than amicable solution to his issues we volunteer to back the other unit up and again pounce on the accelerator and make the location. Joining another two officers there, we speak to the male in his flat and try to calm him down. He is irate and very drunk and so we have our work cut out for us convincing him that we’re able to help him if only he will engage with us. Unfortunately after many attempts to reason the decision is made that considering his violent temper he’d be best spending a night at the station so is arrested by the other unit and brought to Bloxwich Police Station where he is bedded down for the night.

We’re more than half way through the shift by this point and so swing by Tesco to pick up a few chocolate treats before returning to the station to eat said treats. I’ve gone for Minstrels and have eaten about two of them before a call comes in to say that a homeowner has just disturbed some people in his back garden. We shoot out the station and I do my best to polish off the Minstrels as I’m being thrown about in the car on the way to the location. We’re one of the last units there but join a very impressive turnout of at least three others cars including one from the traffic department. Descriptions of the suspects aren’t great but we conduct a search of the area before returning to join colleagues at the house who are taking details from the occupant. We think it possible that the offenders may have been after the car keys to the vehicles parked on the drive, showing how important it is not to leave such items on display.

By this point we’ve entered the slowest part of the night shift during which calls tend to dry up with even the most hardened criminals deciding to catch some sleep. It’s usually at this point that I get a bit envious of them as without being occupied, tiredness can begin to catch up. Luckily we’re called back to the station to speak to our supervision who have a task for us. As part of an investigation conducted by another department an offender has been identified and we’ve been asked to go and make an arrest. The offence is serious enough to justify an early morning wake up call courtesy of West Midlands Police so having reviewed the case we take a short drive to the person’s address and deploy a knock loud enough to find its way through even the deepest of sleep.

The door opens and standing in the hallway is our man so we explain to him and his family what is about to happen and then sit him down in the living room whilst we conduct a search to identify any items that may be evidence relating to the alleged offence. There are several things that we need to seize so we gather them up and then head over to Bloxwich again where we book our prisoner on in the custody suite and sit him down in a cell until the relevant department are ready to deal with him. It’s then back to Walsall to book the seized items onto our property computer, complete the evidence labels and deposit everything into the evidence locker. This is a fairly long process and takes us past our scheduled finishing time and into a grey area in which the night has caught up and probably even overtaken us meaning we have to take care with what we’re doing with it becoming harder and harder to concentrate.

Thankfully as we’re working together it doesn’t take too long to complete our task and we hand the paperwork over to those dealing with the matter before finally finishing, putting our radios onto charge and hanging up our kit ready for another shift. It’s not been the busiest of nights but the two arrests made it feel fairly productive and certainly gave us the right to a nice long sleep when we finally got home.

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