By Daniel Fitzsimmons, Chartered Legal Executive
Recent footage of Metropolitan Police officers using “tactical contact” to apprehend alleged criminals has caught the attention of the public and politicians alike. Tactical contact is a form of “hard stop”, a technique where police drivers make contact with a suspect’s vehicle. Watch the video below to see it in action:
The Prime Minister announced her support for the police officers and praised the Met Police’s “robust response”.
No doubt Ken Marsh, the Police Federation chief, is encouraged by the government support. He said:
“There need to be protections around this afforded to our colleagues – both in law, from the force and with public, political and media opinion. They are doing nothing more than their jobs, trying to apprehend someone who, nine times out of 10, has committed a horrendous offence.
“They must be backed.”
Changes to Police Driving Laws
The Home Office is listening. It has proposed changes to the law giving police officers more legal protection if they are involved in motor-related incidents. Such incidents include, but are not limited to, those involving the moped-riders who are getting the public’s attention.
Presently, officers, like all other motorists, can be prosecuted for careless or dangerous driving if they fail to drive in a “competent and careful” manner. The new rules would apply a different legal standard to police drivers. Police would only have to show that they
- drove in a “necessary and proportionate” manner in the circumstances
- used appropriately authorised driving tactics
- took into account “the standard of a careful and competent police driver of a similar level of training and skill.”
This planned rule change is problematic. As one of my client’s cases shows, the police are already given a great deal of leeway under the current law in motor-related incidents. Easing legal restrictions increases the potential risk to public safety.
Use of Tactical Contact by Police
My client “Mohammed” is a successful driving instructor who recently earned a degree in quantity surveying. He is also an enthusiastic motorcyclist. He owns a top-of-the-line BMW S1000RR motorbike. He rides wearing full and very distinctive leathers, which have a large shark logo on the back.
At about 10 pm one evening last year, Mohammed was stationary at red traffic lights. He was sitting on his bike chatting to a friend using his in-helmet Bluetooth. He had just left his girlfriend’s and stopped at a nearby petrol station. Mohammed was at the lights for a full minute when suddenly he was hit from behind. The impact, which he was not expecting, knocked Mohammed off his motorbike. Mohammed thought he was being robbed. He turned to find a man standing over him. Mohammed lashed out, hitting his assailant. Three more men appeared and overpowered the motorcyclist. The men pulled Mohammed’s hands behind his back with such force that he thought they had broken his right wrist. One of them handcuffed him, and only then did Mohammed realise that he was being arrested by police officers.
Mohammed saw that the officers had come from an unmarked police car. He learned that they had been involved in an incident earlier that night. The police arrested Mohammed because they thought he was part of a criminal gang on motorbikes who evaded them. Mohammed explained why they were wrong and that he had an easily-proved alibi. He asked them to check his telematics equipment. The device on his motorbike monitors speed, journey, miles covered etc.. Mohammed knew that it would show that his bike had been stationary earlier as he had been at his girlfriend’s. He asked the police to contact her to verify this. He also asked them to check the CCTV at the petrol station he had been to moments before, which showed he was not in the area they were searching.
The police refused to do any of this, but detained Mohammed for over half an hour. Mohammed’s wrist was still painful. He asked for medical help and the officers called for paramedics. Eventually, the police accepted that Mohammed was not a suspect and agreed to let him go. They issued him with a ticket for driving without due care and attention and left the scene before the paramedics arrived.
Mohammed went to hospital and got a temporary sling for his wrist. Later he got a hard-cast. Thankfully, his wrist was not broken but he used the hard cast for over a month, ruining his graduation day photographs.
Mohammed was upset at the police’s heavy-handed, unprovoked, and unnecessary treatment. They had caused £2,000 worth of damage to his motorbike, injured his wrist, and kept him against his will. They issued him with a ticket for driving without due care and attention. So, the next day he went to his local police station to file a complaint about the police’s actions. He found out that the police officers had body-worn video cameras. He was relieved, thinking this would help prove the complaint. But, as my colleague Kevin Donoghue described here body-worn cameras only work when they are turned on. Three of the four officers at the scene wore the cameras. Conveniently, none of them turned on their body-worn cameras until after the arrest.
Frustrated, Mohammed contacted my firm because we specialise in civil actions against the police. I agreed to help with his police complaint and civil action against the police. But the internal investigator for Professional Standards had very little patience. He decided to adjudicate based solely on Mohammed’s brief description and statements from the four officers. Unsurprisingly, he found in the officers’ favour and recommended no action.
We appealed this decision, referring the matter the Independent Office of Police Conduct. The IOPC was not impressed and ordered a re-investigation. It told the police investigator to address the following matters:
· Consider whether the police officers should be charged with assault.
· Take more detailed accounts from all four officers. The IOPC noted that none of the officers mentioned the distinctive shark logo on the back of Mohammed’s leathers when describing the motorcyclists in the earlier incident.
· Get the officers’ body-worn camera footage of the earlier incident, in which the police claimed they were trying to apprehend law-breaking motorcyclists who got away.
· The three officers wearing body-worn cameras must explain why they did not start recording when the decision was made to detain Mohammed, ie.. before they assaulted and arrested him.
· Whether the police driver acted in accordance with the College of Policing authorised professional practice for police pursuits.
· Why they held Mohammed for a further 10 minutes after the arresting officer announced to his colleagues that there was no reason to detain, especially as, the IOPC noted, Mohammed appeared “calm and non-threatening”.
Criminal Prosecution Effects
Mohammed’s faith in the police and legal system has been shaken by this incident. He was arrested and injured through no fault of his own. The police damaged his motorbike. He had to go to the time and trouble of finding and working with solicitors to bring a claim. The police brushed aside his (initial) complaint, forcing him to spend more time on an appeal. On top of this, he has a criminal case for careless driving to defend. Unless something changes his case will go to trial. He will have to defend himself in court even though he is clearly innocent: after all, he was stationary at red traffic lights when the police hit him. He is stressed about the consequences of fighting at court to avoid points on his licence. Driving instructors pay enough for insurance already, and points carry a professional stigma.
Consequences of Proposed Changes in the Legal Standard
The police denied Mohammed’s complaint applying current misconduct rules and laws. The investigator felt that the officers’ actions were reasonable and justifiable. Mohammed’s determination to pursue a police complaint and civil action will ensure that this is not an end to the matter.
But the Home Office’s plans to relax the legal standard in motor-related incidents sends a worrying signal to the police. As Diane Abbot, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, posted on twitter:
Knocking people off bikes is potentially very dangerous. It shouldn’t be legal for anyone. Police are not above the law https://t.co/boptGhJYbB
— Diane Abbott (@HackneyAbbott) November 27, 2018
Her fears are merited. Home Office proposals will create a two-tier legal system which may encourage police drivers to use tactical contact, hard stops, and other high-risk driving techniques more frequently, with potentially devastating consequences for victims.
Daniel Fitzsimmons is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives who specialises in civil actions against the police. Contact him here.