Category Archives: Court

Smartphone – Stupid Driver

On the 10th of August 2016 Tomasz Kroker crashed his HGV into stationary traffic on the A34 in Berkshire. Immediately prior to the impact he was scrolling through music on his phone. He killed a woman and three children. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.

On 12th August 2015 Christopher Gard sent a text message to his friend about going for a walk with his friend’s dog. He was driving at the time and whilst his eyes were off the road he crashed into and killed a cyclist. He was sent to prison for 9 years.

Both cases outline the catastrophic consequences that can so easily occur when drivers use their phone behind the wheel. People who use their mobile phone whilst driving are a very real danger to themselves and every other road user.

In a recent survey by the RAC it was found that attitudes are changing but not in the right direction. _81248922_driver_paDrivers who felt taking a quick call was acceptable increased from 7% to 14%. Those who felt safe checking social media whilst driving increased from 14% to 20%. To compound these issues further the number of prosecutions over the last 5 years has almost halved from 178k in 2011/12 to only 95k in 2015. The net result is an increasing likelihood of offending whilst the chances of actually being caught and prosecuted is reducing.

Over the years the penalty for a car driver using a phone has gradually increased and is currently set to double to a £200 fine and 6 penalty points. What hasn’t changed is the actual offence itself. This still revolves around a phone being ‘hand held’. As such handsfree operation is, as far as this offence is concerned, completely legal.
When the legislation was first introduced phones were very simple devices capable of making calls and sending text messages. The offence very simplistically focused on ensuring the drivers hands were where they should be (on the steering wheel) and not on the level of distraction a call can engender. Any reasonable person will agree that a quick 15 second handsfree call to say you are on your way home is vastly different to a 20 minute business call or an argument with your partner. This wider distraction is not something the legislation ever covered.

If this danger wasn’t enough, phones have now evolved into powerful pocket sized computers capable of a vast array of functions. In addition to calls and texts they have a multitude of apps that vie iphone6vsnokia3310for our attention with notifications and alerts presented on large high definition screens. As the devices have changed our reliance upon them has increased too. Our desire to be informed and up to date has reached such a state that we have developed an ‘always on’ culture. Our devices have become an extension of ourselves and we have been led to a place where many suffer with FOMO (fear of missing out). We cannot leave our devices alone and when an alert sounds we are inextricably drawn to read it, sometimes regardless of the very obvious dangers.

We are now entering an era where cars have functionality built into them that allows phone applications to appear on the media screen within the vehicle. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are two examples carplaythat deliver mobile phone functionality into the driving arena. We are easily seduced by new technology but we would be wise to sit back for a moment and seriously think about what functionality we actually need whilst driving a car. At present these devices are limited to SatNav, calls, texts and music. CarPlay also allows access to Spotify. This can easily be seen as combining, in one place, all the functions we may enjoy from different devices already in our cars.

Simplistically this would appear to be logical progression but how long before other applications become available including social media and livestreaming applications? Without exception these products are marketed on the basis they make driving safer whilst giving the driver access to more information and all those things that are important to them. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Driving is a complex blend of hand, eye and foot coordination and demands our full attention. Advances in mobile phone and in-car technology have always focused on keeping the hands on the wheel and voice activation/control has been a big driver in enabling this situation. This has engendered a belief that keeping our hands on the wheel will therefore deliver a safer drive. Whilst in singularity this cannot be denied there are other factors at play that are close to being abandoned by the driver distracted by a phone.

In 2002 TRL conducted research into the use of phones by drivers both hand held and hands free. This was benchmarked against drink driving (a known dangerous driving practice). The results indicated that certain aspects of driving performance are impaired more by using a phone than having a blood /alcohol level above the current drink drive limit. The study reinforced all the concerns about mobile phone use by drivers. TRL concluded that;

“Drivers need to be strongly discouraged from engaging in any phone use while behind the wheel”

The evidence points to what has been known for a long time. Having our hands on the wheel alone does not engender safe driving. Our eyes and our mind need to be on the road too. Devices and technology in cars are increasingly providing ‘eye candy’ and feeding our desire to be connected all the time. They are creating an easy distraction that takes the drivers attention away from where it should be and consequently the risk of fatal and serious injury road traffic accidents increases as a result.

Some news outlets reacted to the RAC report by describing the use of phones by drivers as a pandemic. When coupled with the significant reduction in prosecutions it was argued it was a pandemic running unchecked.

Nothwithstanding the pending increases, some quarters are calling for stiffer penalties for those caught. Others are calling for technology advances that prevent drivers using a phone whilst the car is in motion. Both are riddled with complications. A car that isolates the driver’s phone may also isolate any the passengers may have. A driver could of course simply have two phones and bypass the safety features. It has been evidenced that using a phone whilst driving can be equivalent to drink driving and yet the penalty for drink driving is significantly harsher. Would an increase to bring mobile phone use in line with drink driving help reduce its prevalence? In some regards yes. However, we know that education, penalty and enforcement are all essential factors in changing behaviour. This final factor requires the fear of being caught . It would seem from the numbers admitting to using phones coupled with reduced prosecutions that the fear of being caught is quite low.

The government have gradually increased the penalties for drivers caught using a phone whilst driving. The evidence to show it is as dangerous as drink driving has been available since 2002 yet 14 years later the penalty is some distance from the two matters reaching equal footing. Education by many road safety organisations such as Brake and national media/social media coverage continue to highlight the dangers. Regular enforcement action by the police helps to tackle the issue but the reduced numbers of traffic officers across the country is likely to be contributory factor in the dwindling number of prosecutions being brought. In a time of austerity it would take a considerable amount of investment from the government to allow Chief Constables the flexibility to dedicate resources to tackle this issue more aggressively.

Technology will continue to evolve and in years to come a realistic prospect on how to manage phone use in cars will no doubt become a reality. However, in the interim people are dying on our roads every day. The solution is simple in theory but complex in application in that it needs multiple stakeholders buy in to move forward. Changing the mindset of today’s drivers is hard because behavior engendered by ‘handsfree is legal therefore ok’, is embedded deeply. It is not impossible but, as we know from 50 years of drink drive campaigning, it takes many years for the impact to be seen. Regular innovative campaigns, sensitive highlighting of tragedies stemming from phone use and encouraging people to take pledges such as the Brake Pledge all help. Manufacturers should be encouraged, maybe even required, to wind back on the ever increasing use of unnecessary technology in cars that seems to prioritise profit and novelty over safety. A recent survey by Brake has shown overwhelmingly that distracted drivers are considered by many to be the biggest danger on our roads. Drivers need to understand the degree of impairment using a phone engenders and that driving safely is far more than just being handsfree. Passengers need to comprehend the dangers and feel empowered to challenge drivers using their phone.

Only if everyone works together will we see positive change in the use of phones by drivers. The government, police, manufacturers, road safety organisations and the public must all combine their efforts to effect change. The original mobile phone offence making handsfree use legal was misinformed and set us down the wrong road. A road we have been travelling since 2003 and it’s going to take some considerable back peddling to get us back on track. However, it’s a journey we have to make because peoples lives depend upon it.

In Pursuit of Drivers

There was a pursuit underway. I was a fortunate passenger in the divisional van as I had no driving authority and would normally be out on foot patrol. Traffic cops were running the pursuit on the VHF car sets they had. We only had our UHF radios but there was a traffic officer somewhere relaying location updates for the car being pursued on our channel.

“It’s coming this way” said my colleague. We parked up in a quiet side street along the main road and waited. “Here it is. Here it is!” my partner shouted. Excitement filled his voice and he wasn’t alone. My heart was racing and was full of adrenalin. The “bandit car” flew past us at well over 70mph in a 30 but we didn’t turn a tyre. Why? Because it was rapidly followed by a fully liveried traffic car with everything on. Then another, and another and another and a plain unmarked car with a Kojak lamp and another traffic car, a dog van and more. It seemed to last forever. A whole daisy chain of vehicles at least 10.. probably closer to 15 .. were officially “behind” it. That’s before counting all the local pandas that were not behind it but positioning themselves in places in anticipation of the vehicle being abandoned.

The pursuit ended in a crash. Not a bad one if I recall correctly and the two lads in the car were locked up. There were many smiling traffic cops and much back patting and recounting of some of the more exciting moments of the pursuit. There was definitely a feel good factor. Stolen car recovered. Baddies locked up. Primary policing duty complete.

Cops 1:0 Baddies

It took several more years for me to find myself behind the wheel of a traffic car. A post I held for 7 years and, if not for transferring forces, would probably still be there now.

At this time we didn’t have a helicopter and we didn’t have advanced TPAC tactics. We chased. We chased until we lost them, they crashed or they abandoned the car and tried to make off on foot.

Gradually, over the years, the whole way pursuits were managed and run began to change. They have continued to change and be modified ever since. It was fairly obvious that things had to change. A local car thief was, at one point, stealing cars with one purpose in mind. To get into a chase with the police. He loved it. It was a drug to him. The cops loved it too though. We were chasing down a villain but we were having a good time doing it. We chased him all over the division and beyond. Looking back he took ridiculous risks and in many ways deserved to be dead. As the pursuits continued his risks increased. It was a very unpopular, but sensible Inspector who asked one day, “Is it definitely person A driving the car?” The replies came back “Yes Boss. Definitely him”. What came next was not what the traffic cops were expecting but was the most sensible thing to do based against the risks this young man was taking. “Ok. We know who he is. We can get him to court other ways. Call off the pursuit.”

So began the change in the way we started to deal with pursuits.

This week I undertook pursuit training. Not to sit in the driving seat again but to oversee, authorise (or not) and manage any pursuits in my area from the control room. It brought back many happy memories and I could have easily spent the whole day talking war stories! During the course we were shown a number of videos. Two in particular stood out.

The first one was footage about this incident from 2001. Burglars were pursued and eventually went the wrong way down a dual carriageway at speeds in excess of 100mph. The police officers followed them. The fleeing burglars were involved in a head on crash with an innocent motorist. The burglars car burst into flames and all 3 died. The driver of the other vehicle also lost his life. The video concluded with a spokesperson outside of a court saying the officers actions had been proportionate and had done nothing wrong.

Then there was this one from Hampshire Police. I remember this case well and observe a text book drive. The officer, PC Holden, was taken to court for dangerous driving. After a long drawn out process the matter went before a jury who concluded he had done nothing wrong. Sadly, after all the pressure and stress of the case PC Holden then left the force. The local police federation said he had been ‘prosecuted for doing his job’.

The two cases are quite stark. I was a traffic officer in 2001 and would never EVER have gone on the wrong carriageway of a dual carriageway. I would have done my best to keep with it by being on the correct one. The decision the officers made though was seen to be correct and they faced no prosecution. Yet jump forward 11yrs and how PC Holden was prosecuted and it stands to reason that the change in mindset would have those officers from 2001 in the big house for manslaughter.

The one thing that was fairly obvious from the two videos was that as time goes on the actions of the fleeing vehicle become more dangerous. Bursting a red light at 70 and getting away with instils a confidence in the mind of the driver that it was ok. They run another and another.

The driver in Hampshire increases speed, runs red lights, goes the wrong side of bollards, navigates a roundabout the wrong way and eventually bursts through a level crossing. The consequences of that could have been enormous.

The early video shows the drivers increasing speed and risks and then continuing those speeds on the wrong carriageway of a dual carriageway in the dark.

My observations of these driver’s behaviour drew me to my #DontStreamAndDrive campaign . I have watched many broadcasts by streaming drivers since I began looking at this issue in earnest. Some have been repeat offenders. Yet with each driver, they stream once and if they don’t crash then the assumption is that it must be ok. They stream again and nothing happens…  their confidence grows and increases and the risks increase with that. Eyes are off the road longer. More comments are read. Drivers ‘perform’ a little more. The phone is adjusted and the camera flipped. All the time adding more elements into the mix of driving that shouldn’t be there. Actions that put them and every other road user at risk. Yet they don’t see it because nothing has happened. Until…..

This is why #DontStreamAndDrive is so important. Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 20.41.52Many streaming drivers if presented with footage of another driver streaming would readily accept it was dangerous. Yet when they get behind the wheel of their car it’s ok. This disconnect needs to be addressed. This is why I need your help. This is why I need you to sign up to the Thunderclap and get behind the campaign. If you already have thank you. If you haven’t yet then please do. You might just save a life.

In the meantime I will continue to identify and challenge those drivers I see who are livestreaming. So oddly, although my advanced ticket has expired and I drive a desk in the control room instead of a high powered car, I am still in pursuit of drivers.

Please help me drive this message home. Join the Thunderclap, spread the word and get involved with me on April 8th.

 

CIAO

No two people are the same. I’ve sat behind the charge desk over a period of seven years and seen people from every walk of life. From those in penury to those who have more than they will ever need. From those who couldn’t give a toss about arrest to those whose life I could see unraveling before me as we spoke. Those who were confident of their innocence when guilty and those who were innocent scared of what guilt may mean. I’ve seen them all.

Some I’ve seen once and never again. The more concerning ones are those who come regularly. Our frequent flyers. Some who landed so often that if we had a custody club card they would have amassed thousands of points!

The relentless vicious circle of crime, drugs, poverty, domestic violence and other factors means many people are trapped in a world they cannot escape from and pretty much becomes normalised. One young woman used to be in custody every week. Sometimes every day. She was involved in drugs, she was stealing, dealing and also getting knocked about by a procession of “boyfriends”. Her life was in a total mess. My dealings with her were regular but I can’t, hand on heart, say that I had any influence over her. She was so regularly with us it was almost like she was one of my team. She was skinny, unhealthy and looked.. for want of a better word, like shit.

Then suddenly she stopped coming in. The assumption was she was finally back inside prison. It really was only a matter of time. She probably was for a short while. However, a few weeks became a month or two. A few months became 6 and life moved on. I hadn’t heard she was dead but it could have been a very real possibility.

Then, 18 months later, local cops arrived with a prisoner. The prisoner had been arrested in another force for a matter she had been identified as being responsible for some time ago in our area. I barely recognised her as she walked in. She had clean hair and clothes. She was clean. She had put on weight and the gaunt face she always wore had been replaced by a rosy cheeked, sparkly eyed one with a somewhat cheeky grin. It was like meeting an old friend. What a transformation. Underneath all the abuse she had put herself through (and been exposed to) was a good looking young woman.

We chatted as I booked her in. She had made a change in her life. She had moved to another area, was off the gear, had a stable home, was trying to learn new skills and find a job. I was, to much consternation from my colleagues, utterly delighted for her.

She was ultimately charged but with a lack of recent offending and a new life at her feet she was granted bail. Something she never got and this also put a smile on her face. She left. I don’t know what happened next but over a period of a few weeks she went to court. She met up with old contacts in her old town and suddenly, defying all logic, she was back in the town and back on the gear. She spiralled rapidly downward into the hole she had so successfully crawled out of. Regular arrests, remands into custody, lost weight, gaunt face, dirty and unkempt and her health crumbled. She was right back where she started from. It was all her doing but it was tragic. My heart cried for her.

I’ve no idea where she is now. I hope and pray she found her way back out of that dark place. I hope she is healthy, happy, clean and living the life she was clearly capable of giving herself.

Having spent 7 years in custody I met many people like this. I often pondered about how this circle of behaviour could be broken. Over the years my only hope was to talk to people in custody. I never knew if I got through to someone but, where I could, it was worth trying. I was then introduced via Twitter to a lady called Clare McGregor whom I then met at the very first BlueLight Camp in Manchester. I have remained in contact with Clare ever since and she has been doing some amazing work with women at Styal Prison. Working with women to help them break this cycle of crime, prison, crime.

She has now written a book about her work which is really making a difference for women in prison.

Coaching Behind Bars

I have met many women similar to those Clare speaks of in her book.   Women trapped in a revolving door of crime and despair for a whole multitude  IMG_1132of reasons that we, the police, rarely get beyond. The cycle of reoffending is notoriously hard to break but Clare took this project on and once she has something in her sights she is like a dog with a bone. Her determination, passion and commitment to succeed and help women at Styal shines through on every page.

This book will open your eyes to a world rarely seen. It will make you think and seriously challenge any stereotypical perceptions you may have of offenders. These are people that are lost who, ironically, have the map to freedom and a new life within their own head. They just need a coach to show them where to find it.

At a recent TEDx event I listened to a presentation by Clare. She said she had realised she couldn’t tell people what to do. She had to ask them what they wanted to do. What they wanted to change and then help them explore how they were going to do it themselves… and it’s working!

It’s a remarkable book detailing some amazing work by a team of dedicated and passionate people who can only inspire you.

In Italian the word “Ciao” means both “Hi” and “Bye”. It is fitting that CIAO is the name of the organisation. The coaches say “Hi” to a new client and later say “Bye” as they wave them off to a more rewarding and satisfying life. Brilliant.

Ciao!

You can find out more about Coaching Inside and Out here

Let it go..

On 12th August 1966 in a street in west London, 3 police officers were gunned down; murdered. The country was appalled. This was something that simply didn’t happen. Less than two weeks prior to the incident the England football team had won the World Cup. The country was on a high and this brought everyone back down to earth with a huge bump.

_78466208_78466207

The three officers, DS Christopher Head, DC David Wombwell and PC Geoffrey Fox were all shot dead. The offenders were Harry Roberts, John Duddy and John Witney.

There is a good overview of the case here by the Channel 4 news team.

1415781017557_wps_12_Police_and_members_of_theOn the day of the funerals the public turned out in their thousands and lined the streets with police officers to pay their respects. The public sentiment on that day is identical to those we experienced more recently in Manchester.

In the meantime the might of the Metropolitan Police began a manhunt. Witney was arrested within hours. Duddy fled to Scotland but was arrested within 5 days. Roberts on the other hand vanished. It took three months to locate him. He was finally brought into custody in early November. He has been behind bars ever since.

The crime was awful and described by many as the most heinous of a generation. It also led to the formation of the Police Dependants Trust.

After a 6 day trial and overwhelming evidence the three suspects were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The judge, on handing down the life sentences and a 30 year tariff said;

“I think it likely that no home secretary regarding the enormity of your crime will ever think fit to show mercy by releasing you on licence. This is one of those cases in which the sentence of imprisonment for life may well be treated as meaning exactly what it says.”

The death penalty had only been withdrawn the year before. Many called for it to be reinstated. It does appear, based on the evidence and the sentencing, that had the crime occurred when the legislation was in force, the death penalty was a very real possibility.

Either way two of the men have since died. John Duddy died in jail on 8th February 1981. John Witney was released on licence in 1991. This caused huge controversy as he was released before the expiry of his 30 year tariff but his release stood. In 1999 Witney was beaten to death with a hammer by his flat mate.

Roberts on the other hand remained in prison. He completed his 30 year tariff and up until this year (18 years later) the parole board never saw fit to release him. This is a good blog by Rachel Rogers that discusses life sentences, tariffs and whole life terms.

The news of the impending release of Roberts spread like wildfire. The response was overwhelmingly outrage. The national chair of the Police Federation said that “officers up and down the country were furious”. He said Roberts gunned down police officers in broad daylight and “quite frankly, he should never be released from prison”. He went on to make a further statement that “there will be people out there, planning to murder police officers, thinking they can get away with it”. He closed with “It’s not about rehabilitation or whether Roberts is now safe. It’s about the punishment fitting the crime”. Steve White’s comments can be watched here.

John Tully the Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation branch tweeted; “a total betrayal of policing by the criminal justice system this man should never see the light of day again, life should mean life”

As a contrast the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was asked about the release on LBC.

He, dodged the direct questions but he defended the justice system and the probation/parole system. His overall view was that we cannot allow the justice system to be run on emotions and popular opinion.

Then, most importantly, behind all the froth in the media are the families of those three officers. The families who have spent the last 48 years living without their loved one.

A few years ago a good friend of mine, a police officer, was stabbed to death on duty. On the day I wasn’t furious. I was speechless. I came home, sat on the sofa and cried. The man responsible was convicted and sent to prison. Over the following weeks and standing as guard of honour at the door of the cathedral I didn’t feel anger. I wasn’t furious. I was sad but I was also enormously proud. The offender never really crossed my mind.

In more recent years we have had the murder of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone in Manchester. I think of them a lot and I think of their families and friends too. I don’t think of the murderer himself and I never ever name him. As I look back on those events was I furious? No. I was intensely shocked and saddened by their deaths and I also know that it is what police officers face on a daily basis.

With all the comment in the media I began to think I should be outraged. I should be angry at this man and those responsible for allowing his release. Then I stopped because I realised I wasn’t furious and I wasn’t angry.

This man took away the lives of those officers and their families lives changed that day forever. There is no getting away from that. No matter how much we discuss, debate and argue about the release of Roberts we cannot bring those men back.

When someone you love dies you don’t simply get over it. You can only learn to live without them. It has to be the same for those who lose a loved one in such tragic circumstances. They will never get over the loss but they will learn to live with it in their own way. I can only imagine it being much much harder when there is someone to blame. A person who is responsible for your loss.

We know that the death penalty still exists in the USA. We know that the family members of a victim can attend and watch a person put to death. Would observing such an act cleanse you of your pain?

We know that a person can be sent to prison for life and never be released. Would a person being in prison forever ease your pain?Would their ultimate death behind bars finally allow you to find peace?

Do any of these scenarios reduce the pain suffered by the families? Do they make the situation better? More bearable? I don’t think they do. I’m sure that having the offender in prison gives some comfort but I don’t think it brings release from hurt.

Whether you like it or not, Roberts has been released. A 78 year old man has served 48 years  (longer than I have been alive) for the murder of police officers. What difference will this make to my life? None at all. I’m somewhat shocked at the statement by Steve White about ‘getting away with it’. We hear a lot of talk that people who are given a police caution are getting away with it. I’m really stumped at how 48 years in prison can be seen as such? If this is getting away with it what would be suitable? I’m sure the response to that will be life means life. I’d agree. I think if life imprisonment without chance of release makes legislation then so be it. Until then we have to live with the system we have, no matter how unpalatable it may be to some of us. Getting angry about the promise of legislation promised but yet to come and applying it to a 48 year old case is absurd.

The crux of this matter is that Roberts appeared before a court, was sentenced and has seen that sentence through with an additional 18 years on top. That justice system, removed from the emotion of being too close to the offence, has now deemed him fit for release and have done so. My immediate thought? So what!

The tragedy of the loss cannot be underestimated but what needs are satisfied by keeping him inside after all this time? I have only seen anger and hurt. It seems to me that in trying to hurt him we actually hurt ourselves. Revenge imprisons us.. forgiveness sets us free. How can anyone move forward whilst holding bitterness, hatred and revenge within them? A toxic mix of emotions that destroys the person you are and who you can be. It’s like having a tumour inside you and instead of treating it you hold onto it and allow it to define you.

Some may ask if I would feel the same way about the man who killed my friend. Some may ask if I would feel the same about the man who killed Nicola and Fiona. The answer is yes. Would our loved ones want us to remain static. Would they want us to remain angry, bitter and vengeful for 30, 40, 50 years or would they say.. “Move on. Be as happy as you can be. Don’t let this tragedy define who you are”. I hope and pray that nothing ever happens to me when I’m on duty but if it did… please show this to my wife. Tell her to be happy.. life is far too short.

I understand my view here is contrary to popular opinion and I do not post my thoughts with any intention to offend, upset or hurt anyone. I just feel strongly about being able to ‘Let it Go’. Free yourself.

By forgiving those who hurt us we are not letting them off the hook; we are in effect letting ourselves off the hook.

Looks Matter

We are told these days that looks do not matter. We are told that those who are slightly, or even heavily overweight should not be ashamed. They should be proud of who they are and how they look because looks do not make the person. The person makes the person. We have adverts where shapely women show off their curves and point two fingers at the sterotypical size 6 figure that has, over the years, been portrayed as the perfect form. Oddly, as women’s magazines start to use models with a fuller figure, the mens magazines are full of tanned muscle bound, six pack toting chaps.. it seems a bit odd to me.. but that’s another blog. I’ll stick with my family pack! The bottom line though is that how you look is not a factor that should determine your opportunities or you abilities. It is most definitely not something that should be used against you in a discriminatory fashion.

A person should be proud of who they are without fear of being singled out, sneered at, abused or overlooked. Conversely everyone also needs to be accepting of others and challenge those who are not. Looks and appearance DO NOT matter.

With nearly 24 years service I have been IMG_4601very fortunate to have been awarded three medals during my service with the police. I am very proud of them and whenever I get the opportunity to wear them I will. There was a time when turning up at court to give evidence meant a tunic (as above) was essential. Times have changed and now officers turn up at court in combat trousers, body armour and the well worn coat or fleece that they wear every day on duty. Sadly, even after my fight for a tunic, I’m not allowed to wear it at court. I think I’d probably defy the rule for crown court but for magistrates I wear my fleece.

In addition to my physical medals I also have a ribbon bar. This is always attached to my fleece when attending court. I’m proud of my uniform, I’m proud of my service and I’m proud to be a police officer. Granted, I do not wear the medals themselves, but I wear my ribbon bar because I can and because I’m entitled to. I have never been asked to remove the ribbon bar.

This week we have had the case of Cpl Mark Kershaw appearing in court in Hull as a witness. He was the victim of a dreadful assault by 3 people and attended at court, in a civilian suit wearing his medals. His wearing of the medals was challenged by the defence on the basis that they might ‘unfairly affect the jury’. The suggestion here was that standing in the witness box wearing his medals may cause the jury to incorrectly give his evidence greater credence. The jury may fall on the side of the victim because he was a war hero and would get favouritism. The judge agreed and for the four day trial Cpl Kershaw was banned from wearing his medals.

Does the wearing of medals sway a jury so easily? I’ve never been asked to remove my ribbon bar. I’ve proudly stood in the witness box wearing my medal ribbons and been called a liar, told I’m making things up and I’m particularly rubbish at my job. The defence have not had any qualms in challenging me, regardless of the decoration on my chest.

There was some discussion about the Cpl Kershaw case yesterday and one of the arguments put forward supporting the barrister and judge was that the Cpl has previous cautions. He apparently has cautions for violence and, if I understand the circumstances correctly, a deal was struck that the cautions would not be mentioned if the medals were not worn.

I find this a little odd. If the court is interested in the truth then the truth was something very different than that presented to the jury. The truth was that Cpl Kershaw is a decorated soldier commended for bravery. The truth is that Cpl Kershaw also has a police caution/s for violence. It seems a little odd to me that the defence asked for the medals to be removed. I can’t imagine, after the treatment I’ve had in the box, a barrister giving up the opportunity to build up a witness based on his gallantry and medals and then shoot him down with his previous history.

Ultimately the case concluded and the 2 suspects (a third had pleaded guilty) were unanimously convicted of assaulting Cpl Kershaw. Sentencing will follow in December. So it was a win for the victim yet it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. A deal was struck. It shouldn’t have been. The Cpl should have been allowed to wear his medals if he chose to do so and any self respecting barrister would have been able to leverage them to the advantage of the defence in this case. One of the purposes of the defence and the prosecution is to discredit the witnesses. Why did that not happen in this case?

The defence and judge claimed that wearing the medals may ‘unfairly affect the jury’ or give a ‘false impression’ of his character. Cpl Kershaw had the medals but also had cautions. As the defence chose not to try and discredit his character by use of his previous cautions it seems clear to me that it was his ‘appearance’ that was the issue. The worry was what the jury may assume based on what they see and not on what they hear.

Many years ago I dealt with a pretty awful young girl in care. She had committed a nasty robbery on two young girls, of around the same age, walking home from school. The evidence was compelling but she pleaded not guilty and went to trial. She turned up in court in jeans, a scruffy top and hair like she’d been pulled through a hedge backwards. She looked a mess. My two victims on the other hand turned up in school uniform, ties and blazers. They were beautifully presented, spoke eloquently and were a credit to both themselves and their parents.  The contrast between the two sides was stark. Granted this was not before a jury but before youth court bench but were they asked to dress down? No.

If we had a frail pensioner beaten and robbed during a burglary by a violent thug what would happen at court? Would a jury be swayed by the fact that the witness in the box is a frail, weak, elderly pensioner in need of a sympathy vote? No. They would consider the evidence. We do not hide such persons behind a screen to stop the jury drawing conclusions based on how they look or speak.

If Cpl Kershaw wanted to wear his medals he should have been allowed to do so. If the defence then worked those medals against him then that’s his own fault. Even if not wearing them, a shrewd barrister, with the requisite knowledge, who wanted to discredit him may have asked about them anyway.

The fact remains that in this case the medals of Cpl Kershaw were seen as a fact that could adversely influence the jury. His appearance may cause the jury to believe him to be honest and trustworthy. His appearance may secure him a conviction he wouldn’t get if not wearing them. Is this really the trust the judge and barrister had in the jury?

Then we find the two defendants were both allowed to wear a poppy. What does a poppy signify? What mindset might it engender in a jury? Someone who cares perhaps? Some one empathetic to the losses our military personnel have suffered over the years? An upstanding, compassionate and caring member of the community?Would the presence of the poppies ‘unfairly affect the jury’ or give a ‘false impression’ of the character of the defendants?

In the court room it is EVIDENCE that is king. Not the appearance of the witness. So it would seem that whilst we say appearance doesn’t matter and we should take people as they are… this doesn’t apply to medals in court because, it would seem, that ‘Looks matter’