Warning: There is strong language in this post. It isn’t blanked out. This language is out there and in daily use. We cannot hide from it.
It was around 9.30am. The rush hour was over and I had parked up in a small access road to some flats. I brought my pocketbook up to date and then focused my attention on the traffic on the road in front of me. Soon enough there would be an old wreck, an overloaded van, a mobile phone or a seatbelt…. There it was. A driver goes past in his car with no seatbelt. I pulled out and followed him down the road to see him turn left into a side street. I continued to follow but before I could try and stop him he turned onto the driveway of a house. I pulled up outside the address and got out of my car. The male, about 6 foot but at least twice my physical size had got out and was walking to the front door.
This was all I needed to say. He went off like a bottle of pop. He came down the drive and out onto the street. He had clenched fists and came at me. “What the fuck do you want? You can’t do fuck all. I’m on my drive.”
I pointed out his seatbelt offence whilst backing off from him. “I was wearing it. Prove it. You’re all lying cunts.”
This was at the top of his voice. Some mothers were walking back from schools or going shopping. Curtains were twitching. I loosened my gas canister and flicked the release to my cuffs. I asked him to calm down whilst I spoke to him. He continued to remonstrate and wave his arms around. I felt threatened. I called for backup. “Come on then copper. What you going to do about it you little fuck in a uniform.” he walked away from me back toward the house. I followed him. “I still need to speak to you about your seatbelt. Don’t walk away.”
He turned and came back toward me. “Fuck off. You can do fuck all. You’re all a bunch of twats.” I told him to stop swearing and calm down or he would be arrested. This had no effect. I was again under pressure and still had no back up. If this chap on the verge of violence actually used it I’d be in trouble. He continued to come at me shouting similar phrases and expletives. Then an opening. He put a hand out toward me as though to grab at me. My cuffs were out like lightning and my bottom cuff wrapped around his wrist and snapped into place. Just for a fraction of a second he stopped and looked at me. He then smiled as though he had the measure of me and I was going to lose. “What the fuck do you think you’re going to do with that wanker?” My only reply was “This.” I put my confidence in my training pushed the top cuff away whilst holding the bottom and then span around dropping to one knee as I did. The pain in his wrist and my motion were too much. He hit the deck like a sack of spuds. I had no need to worry any further. A detective in a plain car had heard my backup call and he was now with me.
The male was arrested for S5 public order and taken to the police station. Within two hours he was processed and released. He was the first person I issued a PND to as they had not long been introduced. He apologised profusely for his behaviour. I led him out to the front door of the nick and before he left I stopped him. “I have to let you know something” I said to him. “When I pulled up outside your address I had already decided to simply advise you about the seatbelt matter. If you hadn’t gone off on one that would have been the end of it.” The look on his face said it all. He knew he’d been an idiot. He shook my hand, apologised again and left.
It’s difficult to relay in text the full effect of this incident. It was dealt with as an offence contrary to s5 of the Public Order Act. Those of you with personal experience will think that s4 was probably more appropriate. However, considering his previous history, instant remorse and ease of processing we opted for the lesser offence.
What this occurrence identifys is that police officers can be caused harassment, alarm and distress.
In the Daily Telegraph and across Twitter yesterday there was wide condemnation of Mr Justice Bean and his decision to allow an appeal for a s5 offence. The officers were swore at during a drug search and arrested for s5. He stated that the word “fuck” was such common parlance that officers were unlikely to be distressed by it and neither were the group of teenagers standing nearby. This defence is written into the legislation.
(3)It is a defence for the accused to prove—
(a)that he had no reason to believe that there was any person within hearing or sight who was likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress
The upshot of both of these cases is that officers can be caused harassment, alarm and distress. Officers should be stoical and our tolerance should be greater than a normal member of the public but we are susceptible.
The conclusions illustrated by both cases is that the decision as to whether the offence is complete is a question of fact to be decided in each case by the magistrates. They may take into account the familiarity which police officers have with the words and conduct but the surrounding circumstances are just as important.
The judgement on the recent case is, I understand, not yet available. No doubt as more information becomes available the decision will seem more laudable or quite possibly the complete opposite.
There is an underlying issue though. That is the selective attitude we have to profanity. I never heard my parents swear. I can remember the shock when I first overheard my Dad swear when talking to a work colleague. The courts are ready to accept that police officers are used to such language but just because we are does not make it acceptable.
Judges and magistrates preside over cases where foul language is included. Granted, it is in controlled evidential format but they are used to it. Yet the defendant who stands in the court and tells the DJ he is “fucking wanker” is likely to find himself in the cells for contempt. A phone caller to a radio or TV program who then starts swearing will be cut off. We clearly wont tolerate it in any way at certain levels.
There has been a gradual release of standards in society to the point that such profanity is commonplace. Yet whilst we accept it on one hand we deplore it on another. Ignoring the mixed message this sends out there still has to be a line.
I will question quite robustly police officers who bring such offences into custody. I have to be satisfied the arrest is lawful. In 99.9% of cases they are but I have been known to refuse detention.
There are some people who know no other way to speak. Conversely, as a police officer we may have to use profanity to get through to such people. In public order cases the whole facts of the case have to be considered but one fact remains constant.
Police officers can be caused harassment, alarm and distress depending on all the circumstances. Anything wider and more relaxed than this undermines basic low level public order in our towns and cities and separates police officers from everyone else as a free for all target of abuse.
You as a citizen wouldn’t accept it. We too are citizens and whilst we may see more of it than most folk it doesn’t mean we should just take it on the chin. That would be crossing the line.