News that a Police Officer may be charged over the recently employed tactic of deliberately ramming moped-riding thieves with marked police cars has, not unsurprisingly, been met with some disquiet by many ordinary citizens, and Labour’s Diane Abbot has been quoted as saying that ‘Tactical Contact’, as they call it, is ‘potentially very dangerous’. Of course it is, but isn’t that the point? If committing a brazen act of theft and in broad daylight becomes physically dangerous, then thieves will stop doing it.
Senior officers have defended the use of tactical contact, saying it was needed to stop dangerous chases and has helped reduce moped crime in London by more than a third. The manoeuvre has also been backed by Prime Minister Theresa May, who said a ‘robust’ response was needed from police to what she described as a growing problem of people using mopeds to commit crimes such as bag and phone-snatching.
Whether or not the Prime Minister’s endorsement is a good thing or not, given her present difficulties, remains to be seen but use of tactical contact is also approved of by many law-abiding citizens, and especially by victims, who are heartily sick and tired of seeing young men using mopeds to steal things doing so with apparent immunity and in the belief that the police will not give chase and they will not therefore be caught.
So the news that a Metropolitan Police officer who knocked a seventeen-year-old off a moped while employing tactical contact could face criminal charges has resulted in numerous social media posts condemning the idea of charging the officer.
The officer carried out the tactical contact manoeuvre to stop the teenager from riding dangerously - the boy, who was not wearing a helmet, was admitted to hospital with head injuries but later discharged. A decision is due over whether evidence gathered by the police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), should be passed to prosecutors. If he is prosecuted, the officer could be charged with actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm. The Met could also decide if there is a case to answer for misconduct, which could result in dismissal. Why, since tactical contact has been approved for use by senior officers, has this possibility arisen? Especially since the boy later pleaded guilty to five offences at youth court, including theft, dangerous driving, and driving without a licence. The answer lies primarily in the injuries he sustained and that fact that he was only seventeen at the time.
Does that matter? He was committing crimes, he admitted doing so and in a manner that presented a clear danger to members of the public, as well as to himself. That last point alone should mean that any injuries he ended up with are his fault rather than anybody else’s.
As it happens, I think it does matter. It matters not only to teenagers knocked off mopeds but also to those of adult age who are also committing crimes using mopeds (or any other motor bike). However, it matters not because a criminal gets hurt while carrying out a crime. It matters because of the kind of country we are. Or at least, the kind of country we should be.
Pause for a moment and have a look across the Atlantic at the USA and Hollywood’s depiction of police action. It makes a watchable movie or TV series to have the cops whipping out guns and blasting away at any potential criminal activity but the truth, as usual, is far away from the action film. Police Officers in the USA cannot draw their weapons with complete impunity. Simply by doing so, they have to file the relevant reports and can face questioning from their superiors as to whether or not getting their gun out was justified. Actually firing it results in even more intensive investigations into the officer’s conduct and an unjustifiable use of a weapon can, and does, result in serving police officers losing their job.
That may seem rather unfair in a country where random shootings seem to be ever-more frequent but there is a good reason for it. Police officers do not make the law and they are not above the law; they are subject to it, just like everybody else. The difference however, is that police officers are given tremendous power over ordinary people so it is entirely correct that they must be scrutinised to ensure that power is not abused or misused.
And in the UK, we police by consent. It is that consent that gives UK police the authority to chase criminals and, if needed, use their cars to knock fleeing riders off mopeds. But that power must be used with care and discretion.
To ensure that it is, the IOPC are right to examine cases of tactical contact, particularly if there is any injury to the suspect being chased and, once again, there is another good reason for it; what of the suspect turns out not to have done anything? In the case of theft using a moped, it may – only may – be less likely that a suspect hasn’t done anything wrong but that possibility still exists. So some care needs to be used.
An IOPC spokesman said: ‘Ultimately no police tactic can ever be used with impunity in a country where we police by consent - be that tactical contact, the use of firearms or the use of restraint. It is always a matter of whether it's reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances. But it would be wrong to offer guarantees in every case. Independent scrutiny is a vital part of public confidence in the way policing is done.’
Where things go wrong are threats of charges against police officers. This kind of thing gives no confidence to officers that they can do their job without facing the prospect of losing that job simply for doing it.
The message needs to be, go ahead and use tactical contact (amongst other powers) and a straightforward routine afterwards is an examination of the case to make sure things are done right. That does not mean facing charges or anything else, it simply protects officers themselves as well as suspects. Almost all of the time, police officers will be found to have done things the right way.
And if that means a real criminal gets hurt as a result, tough. Don’t commit crimes.
© Kevan James 2018.