News: Handing Your Life to the Agents of the State
The Police in the UK, for many, many years have, by and large, been an admired and respected organisation. For most people across the country, the ordinary front-line and uniformed copper is a welcome sight, a person to be trusted and relied upon. Even for something as simple as asking for directions to somewhere when in an unfamiliar town, a police officer is somebody to whom one may turn with confidence.
I’ve done so myself. Bournemouth and Poole, on the south coast, is a lovely area and a resort packed with visitors, in the summer especially. I’m reasonably familiar with it, having been there more than once and I’m fortunate in having a decently good sense of direction so find my way around most places with relative ease. That however, doesn’t mean I know Bournemouth intimately, because I don’t. Around twenty-five years or so ago, I thought about going to live there so paid a visit to have a look around. As I ambled about I spotted a pair of police officers on their beat so, having said why I was there, asked them whether or not there were parts of town to avoid, which areas figured most highly in the normal course of going about their business. The answer was that there were no parts of town to avoid in particular, although (like everywhere) there are some better than others. Whether that is true today or not is another matter – I’d have to go and ask again.
As a slight aside, I also went into a local estate agent, having seen a couple of interesting looking homes in their window and the first thing the agent said to me was, ‘Have you got plenty of money?’ This part of England, despite the attractions (or maybe even because of them) has never been a cheap place to live. Poole’s Sandbanks Peninsula has some of the highest property prices in the country and the area next to it is not far behind.
As a general rule, I am unstinting in my admiration for police officers who spend their working hours on the streets, never knowing what they may face as they start their day (or night). That doesn’t make them perfect and police officers are only human, just like the rest of us, so can be subject to the same flaws that we all have. The fact remains however, that most police officers will put their lives on the line to protect the rest of us and its worth reminding ourselves that, for the most part, police officers remain unarmed in the UK.
Even so, there are, today, some serious problems with UK policing. Not usually from front-line officers but from those who lead them. Senior officers have become detached from ordinary lives (just like their political masters in Parliament) and Chief Constables even more so. Many of those of the highest rank are University-educated, well versed in theory but have never pounded the beat and while they can tell you the technical aspects of arrest, they have never actually made one.
The consequence of this is that Policing policies, when led by senior officers, have become rather oppressive and this is seriously and adversely affecting the rights of people to live their lives without undue interference by the state and its agents – those agents including the police. One manifestation of this is the sight of uniformed officers dancing and ‘hanging out’ with demonstrators on the streets of London recently, citing the right to demonstrate as the reason. That’s fine and I’m all for the police being approachable and friendly when it comes to ensuring that demonstrations are peaceful and yes, even enjoyable. It is after all, an inalienable right to demonstrate and protest in the UK. But so is the right for everybody else to go about their daily lives without (again) undue interference – including having the streets blocked by protestors. That the police allowed that and thus adversely affected those who merely wanted to go to work and then home is due to senior officers wanting to be politically correct, cool, funky and ‘in touch’.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the highly disturbing move by the police to demand that people who have made allegations of rape hand over their phones for forensic examination.
As KJM Today’s home page opinion (Thursday May 2, 2019) points out, everyday lives are increasingly dominated by people’s phones. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a debate for another time but the fact remains that the mobile phone is today a vital and important part of many people’s daily lives.
Rape is one of the most insidious and plain nasty acts that one person can carry out upon another and it is entirely right that somebody who forces themselves on somebody must be rigorously pursued and brought to book for it. However, to be on the end of a false allegation of this kind is just as bad. And it is this that has brought about an initiative by the police to compel victims to hand over their phones, the threat of their being no investigation if they don’t.
The reason for this is actually quite sound. There have been a number of rape cases recently where having looked through the relevant phone and social media records, the allegations have been found to be at best, questionable and at worst, fake. That some people will make false allegations is an unfortunate aspect of life today and the police have a duty not only to investigate if a crime has taken place but also to investigate if a crime has not. To do so means they must have access to all the information they need to conduct that investigation. And this is where the problem arises.
Investigating any allegation of sexual offending can and usually is, a lengthy and time-consuming process. It has to be – as I have already said, any allegation of this kind is a devastating ordeal for anybody who is innocent so an investigation must be thorough and entirely complete, establishing beyond any doubt at all that the crime did, or did not, take place. To do that means the police must have access to all the information they need to get at the truth. It is however, how they do so that is the problem. The idea that the police will have the right to force a victim to hand over a device upon which they rely, upon which practically every aspect of their private lives is held, is very disturbing. Again one must emphasise that whether or not it is a good thing to have so much of one’s life on a phone is debatable. But that is not the point; rightly or wrongly, many people’s lives today do revolve around their phones, for their personal lives, their working lives, shopping for food, holidays, family photos, birthdays, whatever. Almost all of it is contained on the average phone. So the idea that the owner is compelled to meekly hand it over to the police for an indeterminate period of time – and remember, these investigations can go on for not just months but stretch into years…yes, really…years – is an affront to the idea of freedom and democracy. It is the element of compulsion, and the threat that goes with it, that matters.
Its also worth pointing out that many phones are not cheap. Their owners have spent a sizeable chunk of their income paying for one.
To find the truth, yes the police must be able to look at phones, of those making the allegation and of those against whom the allegation is made. The same applies to home computers, laptop and desktop. It is how they do so that is coming into question – simply taking them away and for an unknown and lengthy amount of time is not acceptable in a free society. The police in the UK have fallen into a trap of using a big stick against the people they are supposed to serve, and to the exclusion of everything else and to any other way of doing things.
Whilst Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was very fond of saying, ‘There is no alternative’, about most of her policies. There are always, always, always alternatives. Some of those alternatives may not be especially palatable, some may not be easy but they are there. One just has to look for them. This idea of forcing people to hand over what amounts to a record of their entire lives, private and public, and by threatening them that a crime will not be investigated if they don’t, is a savage indictment of police leadership and policy.
© Kevan James 2019.
You can read more of Kevan James’ views, including what the police can and cannot do, in his book, ‘Comments of a Common Man’, £9.99, available from Amazon
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