An Oxford Mail story Police scramble helicopter over “stolen” twigs has been picked up by the BBC. Put briefly, a family collected some fallen twigs whilst walking in woodland, and a “heated confrontation” took place when a warden told them to leave them where they found them. When they got home, they found that Sergeant Thick and PC Plank had scrambled a helicopter and followed in hot pursuit (picture them running across the grass from the mess to where their plane is warmed up and ready for battle with civilisation’s enemies). The Oxford Mail reports that “four officers in two cars were also sent and found no offences had been committed”. It apparently costs £350 to use a helicopter in this way. One can only guess at the cost of four officers in two cars.
There are several elements here, but let us begin by making it clear that I do not particularly approve of people carting off armfuls of wood from nature reserves, that I am glad to know that we still have the occasional warden to look after places like this, and that I have some sympathy in general with under-resourced police forces.
That sympathy, however, speedily evaporates when you read stories like this and, indeed, almost the worst aspect of it is the fact that Thick and Plank have undermined any case which their superiors might have made in support of claims for extra funding or as excuses for failure to deal with real crime. Even if you ignore the £350 spent on the helicopter, one assumes that four officers in two cars could have been doing something useful whilst they were instead investigating the loss of a few twigs.
The excuse for scrambling the helicopter was, apparently, that no ground unit could arrive in less than 15 minutes. This reveals some interesting priorities. The last time I called out Oxford’s finest, it was because I saw a man trying to break in to the garages of the houses opposite mine, testing each in turn in the hope of finding one which opened. It took 30 minutes for Thick and Plank to arrive; they listened very politely to my account and moved off very smartly when I pointed to the dark corner where the villain had gone – very smartly back to their car, that is, leaving me standing open-mouthed in the dark street where Bill Sykes presumably still lurked unseen. There were two possibilities – either health and safety regulations required a better ratio than two to one, or some ludicrous targets system meant that the police got more points by the number of incidents attended (as opposed to their outcomes), and needed to clock up a few more before their shift ended. If I had taken on the burglar myself, you can bet that Thick and Plank would have been back at once – to arrest me for assault.
However important the twigs, most of us would reckon that apprehending burglars is a more useful allocation of police time. Every individual story of police stupidity undermines public support for the force generally, particularly where it involves obvious waste of resources – obvious, that is, to everyone except those involved. A more proportionate response would have been for the warden simply to note the vehicle’s registration number and report it to the police if, indeed, he thought it worth doing anything about it at all, for them to follow up if they thought it justified the use of their stretched resources.
And that is the other point here – was this incident worth doing anything about? The problem is that we now have too many unnecessary regulations and far, far too many people invested with apparent authority to enforce them. The warden may well have been a decent chap seeking to enforce a duty imposed on him by a legitimate authority for good reason. The last twelve years, however, have seen an enormous rise in the number of petty officials with powers to exercise petty powers, and it has become hard to distinguish between legitimate demands by duly authorised people and excessive authority wielded by power-crazed nobodies – see my recent stories of the Bristol park officials demanding that a windbreak be taken down and of the arbitrary curfew imposed by Manchester police who, like Thick and Plank when they came to my street, lacked the guts to do anything about the villains.
It is difficult to make an instant assessment of one’s rights as the ordinary citizen confronted by this sort of thing. My own reaction varies. Am I on public or private land? What will the officious little runt in the Hi-Viz jacket do if I politely ignore him? Is it worth the argument even if I believe I am in the right? Every so often, a story comes along which subtly alters the balance to the detriment of the citizen and of liberty – a police bully strikes a passer-by to the ground, causing his death, and is not charged with any offence; now, a helicopter, four policemen and two cars are mobilised in defence of a few twigs. It becomes easier, to say nothing of safer, to comply.
The helicopter was out yesterday evening as I walked the dog on what was otherwise a peaceful evening. Back and forth it went above the tree-tops of Jericho and North Oxford. Down below, bicycles were being stolen, and old ladies mugged; Bill Sykes was getting ready for another night spent safely burgling garages; perhaps the Chief Constable was penning yet another letter to the Home Secretary about the cuts he must make on his reduced budget. I used to assume that the police sent out a helicopter only when it was vital to do so. Yesterday, I assumed that the Pigs were just out looking for twigs.