If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Friday, 7 January 2011

What is the point of the Police?

Bit late to the party on this one, but I've been busy, and I couldn't let it pass.

What is the point of the Police? That's not a rhetorical question. Most people would probably agree that their purpose is twofold: firstly to deter and prevent crime from happening, and secondly to detect offenders and bring them before a court. I would hazard a guess that most people would regard evidence of successful policing as a low crime rate, however that may be achieved. But of the two approaches, which is the most important? Is it better that the Police act in such a way as to prevent crime from happening in the first place, or should they devote their energies to chasing the bad guys and bringing them to justice?

To take an example: if a policeman were walking down a busy street and met a gang of armed bank robbers, which would be preferable: that he spoke to them, advised them that the area was bristling with coppers and that they were bound to be arrested, and sent them home to think again; or that he allowed the robbery to take place, and then pursued and caught them, and turned them over to the CPS for prosecution, with all the risks to the general public that this would entail? There is an argument to be made for both. Prevention and deterrence is surely the ideal; but if there are repeat offenders, ones who do not seem to be amenable to deterrence, it may be necessary to catch them and then bang them up for a long time. But would the police ever be justified in allowing a crime to take place, purely so that they could get the evidence to do this? That is a step on the road to deploying agents provocateurs, which would be abhorrent to most people.

I am thinking of the recent case of Michael Thompson of Grimsby. He flashed his headlights to warn oncoming motorists of a mobile speed camera. He was pulled over by the police, taken to court, and found guilty of "obstructing a police officer in the course of her duties". He was fined £175, with £250 costs, and the iniquitous £15 'victim surcharge'. This is an outrageous decision, and one that must be overturned. If it isn't, it calls into question the principles of policing that I mentioned above.

The mobile speed cameras are part of a strategy to improve road safety by reducing speeds. That's a whole debate in itself, but let's accept for the moment the notion that reduced speeds mean fewer accidents, which is something we would all welcome. So what were the Police doing there? Were they deterring motorists from speeding, or where they trying to catch offenders? The fact that mobile camera sites are all well-signposted with those camera signs suggests that deterrence is the main aim. In that sense, someone warning other drivers of a camera is actually doing the Police's work for them. He is acting to slow down drivers who are approaching a hazardous area (it is a hazardous area, isn't it? I mean, that's why the cameras are there, aren't they?). Why would the Police advertise camera locations with those signs otherwise?

Unless ... unless the Police actually want people to speed so that they can catch and fine them. Here we come to the crux of the matter. Mr Thompson has angered the Police, and by extension the courts, by alerting people so they conform to the law, rather than blunder into a trap. He's shot their fox. And that reinforces our deep suspicion that these cameras are all about punishment, and by extension revenue, and nothing about safety and compliance.

Of course, the people he warned were probably only a few mph over the limit. If a lunatic in a big 4x4 doing 120 had been approaching and by his actions he had slowed it down to a safe speed, would the Police not have commended him for his public-spirited actions in preventing a possible tragedy? We'll never know. If speeding is as dangerous as they say it is, then any action to moderate other people's speed should be commended, surely?

To go back to my original example: here we have the Police, knowing that an armed bank robbery is about to take place, allowing the gang to go down the road, into the bank, waving their guns around, but ready to collar them when they emerge and then boast about their detection rates.

It's simple, really. He was "obstructing a police officer in the course of her duties", and now we know that those duties consist of allowing a crime to happen, and then catching the criminal red-handed. Anything preventing the crime is 'obstruction'.

It stinks. And if this judgement isn't overturned on appeal, then the cat is out of the bag. Speed cameras are money-machines, and nothing to do with safety.


  1. Check out the kerb-crawling case in Bradford that a commenter alerted me to yesterday. It's in the 'Mail' this morning, and it makes the headlight case look tame!

  2. Heh. Good thing she was a woman, and therefore automatically innocent. As she correctly says, if she had been a man, no amount of protesting would remove the suspicion that he had been up to no good. On the other hand, if it's a company car, the police can only contact the registered keeper, which will more than likely be the company. Rule 1: if you're up to something, do it in your own wheels :)

  3. I think an appeal is called for.


    That should give them something to think about !

  4. One significant difference between the two cases: the lorry driver [1] claimed he was alerting other drivers to the fact he was slowing down, whereas the Grimsby driver [2] acknowledged he was warning other about the speed camera, as his 'civic duty'. [1] may well have been untrue, but wasn't a direct challenge to the system. Easy for the court to say that it was impossible to prove, and dismiss the case. [2] didn't have that ambiguity. It was a direct challenge to the speed camera system, and he had to be made an example of. I seriously hope he appeals, and several legal-type blogs I have read are pretty confident he would get off if he did.

  5. The fact that it is revenue raising has been quite clear for a long time.

    As you say, if speeding is that dangerous, then letting people speed, film them, and sending them a fine in the mail does not stop them from carrying on speeding, at least until they get and accept the fine a few weeks down the road. The police could and should be rightly called to account for putting people in danger, as well as abeiting crime.

    Not counting the fact that you are punished for creating a potential danger, real or not, not for having actually harmed anybody.

  6. First point, agreed. As to your last sentence, there is a precedent for this. If someone let off a shotgun in a crowded shopping centre but happened not to kill anyone, would you let them off because the danger was potential, not real? I'm sure that's how they justify prosecuting speeders who do no measurable harm to anyone. I'm not sure that the two are comparable, but the authorities seem to think so.

  7. Of course, when there's Brownie points for diversity going begging, the top brass in the police force are quite happy to provide forewarning of enforcement activity themselves.

    Even if they aren't obliged to, and doing so puts their own officers at greater risk as a result....

  8. Hmmm ... travellers (or should that be Travellers?) are a whole different ball-game. There are crimes there that, according to the Police top brass, don't merit investigation, let alone action. As other commenters there have said, just try missing a few mortgage payments and see how fast the forces of law'n'order come to evict you, if you are an ordinary, non-violent citizen.


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