The story of the Manchester policeman who ignored a gang of street vandals but arrested their victim raises all sorts of issues. Police who neglect their duty, and misuse arbitrary power are bad enough. What of the prosecutors, who hauled the victims through the courts whilst declining to prosecute the policeman who struck newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson? And what hope is there for David Cameron’s big society?
In most stories where a victim of crime takes on his or her tormentors, they have been driven to it because the police prefer to stay in their warm police stations ignoring calls for help. The Telegraph article Women arrested for swearing at yobs, tells of an occasion when PC Plank was actually present, and made an arrest. You must have someone to drag off to the cells if you are going to get your bonus points, and the small female victim will do if you lack the guts to take on the perpetrators.
A brick was thrown through Miss Harrop’s window, and her boyfriend “left the house to confront six youths standing outside, but a patrolling police officer witnessed him being chased away by the group, who later returned to the street outside the property”. The policeman just “witnessed” this did he? Perhaps some Health & Safety regulation barred him from doing anything to help. Perhaps he was just too cowardly.
In the absence of any intervention by the police, Miss Harrop went out and gave her undoubtedly strong views using, so the charge sheet said, “abusive words within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress”. I cannot quite picture the sort of yob who throws bricks through windows and chases people down the street but who is likely to be distressed by a small woman shouting at him. Thick policemen I can understand, but the charge-sheet was presumably drawn up by someone notionally possessed of a brain.
The story gets worse. PC Plank “asks” the women to go back into her house and arrests her when she declines. Some of the comment about this story suggests that the proper answer to a policemen who makes such a request is “piss off”. I think it might be better to invite him to point to the statute which entitles him to require a citizen to leave a public street. Perhaps one of New Labour’s many new laws allows the police to impose ad hoc curfews – a rather selective one in this case, since Plank seemed happy to let the brick-throwers stay out there.
Manchester Police have form in relation to this sort of thing. There was a story a few years ago of a woman driven to desperation when the police ignored her repeated pleas to protect her home and family. She resorted to a gun, and the police moved fast enough then. Nor is it just Manchester. Leicestershire police ignored many such pleas from Fiona Pilkington who, with her daughter, was bullied at her home. Abandoned by those who are paid to protect her, she set fire to her car, killing herself, her daughter and the family rabbit in the resulting explosion. The reaction of the senior policeman at the inquest showed that they do not get brighter as they climb the ranks.
Another stone-throwing incident, in Blackpool in October 2009, involved a 71 year-old disabled widow who prodded a yob in the chest after he threw gravel at her window (see Daily Mail story here), one incident of many which had made her life a misery. Gallant Constable Clod was quickly on the scene, and made an arrest – of the widow, bundling her into his van “like a sack of spuds”. The prosecutor apparently said this:
‘Had the defendant accepted her criminality in prodding the aggrieved in the chest there and then, this could well have been dealt with in a different way.’
“Criminality”, eh? That must have taken Mrs Bowling straight back to Communist East Germany, whence she had fled to Britain. One assumes that the Crown Prosecution Service puts its more able prosecutors on to bigger cases.
What are we to do with people like this? Most policemen just do their jobs, protecting the public, keeping the peace and preventing crime. Every so often – but only too often it seems – some thick copper gets it wrong. Sometimes the story is of neglect, as in the Leicestershire case; sometimes, as in the case of Mrs Bowling, the policeman is not bright enough to understand what policing involves. The latest Manchester story combines these – PC Plank lacked the courage to tackle the yobs, but needed an arrest to take back as a trophy.
It is hard to say what is worst out of these stories. If the police are too scared or too idle to take on street bullies even when they are on the spot, then we are descending into an anarchy in which the yobs rule the streets. When policemen purport to order people into their houses and arrest them when they decline to go, then we are heading towards a police state. It is the worst of all worlds is it not – to the extent that a police state has any benefits, one hopes at least for public order.
The worst thing, I think, is that the Crown Prosecution Service employs lawyers who thought that it was right to prosecute Miss Harrop or Mrs Bowling. I am sure that the CPS employs many good people, just as most policemen are competent and conscientious, but it is not they who make the headlines. It is bad enough that either of these cases involved the arrest of the victim. That someone with a legal qualification should have thought it right to prosecute these women is truly alarming.
This is the same CPS, of course, which recently decided not to prosecute a policeman who deliberately struck a middle-aged newspaper seller (from behind – we don’t want to risk a confrontation, do we?) at the G20 demonstration. The man died a few minutes later. Compare and contrast the circumstances – a prod from a widow driven to desperation by unchecked yobbery and a vicious, unprovoked attack from a thug in uniform. Which would you prosecute?
To the extent that David Cameron’s big society means anything, it involves ordinary people standing up for what is right and registering disapproval of what is wrong. It takes a certain courage to do that in the face of groups of youths who are already confident that they rule the streets. It seems unlikely that anyone will volunteer to get involved if they run the risk that a thick policeman will throw them into a van like a sack of spuds and that some third-rater from the CPS will prosecute them for it.