Plod Blog

The North-South Divide (legally speaking that is)

It’s a well known fact that Scotland only has two criminal offences: a) Breach of the Peace and b) Behaviour likely to cause a Breach of the Peace! There was also murder but this crime has plummeted in recent years, the general consensus being that these were only actually occurring to give Taggart something to do.

Scottish forces have now amalgamated into one force known as ‘Police Scotland’. Whenever I hear the term ‘Police Scotland’, I’m tempted to say, “I wish somebody would! Have you seen the parking in Edinburgh?”

I’m in the unique position of being both a cop and a comedian. During the Festival many local police attend my shows, since buying them a ticket is much cheaper than a training course. The massive differences in our two legal systems (England’s and Scotland’s that is) are soon highlighted: corroboration for example – meaning unless two Scottish police officers laugh at one of my jokes at exactly the same time, then it never actually happened.

We sometimes go for a beer afterwards and it’s always very entertaining to see whether it’s the Scot or the Yorkshireman that gets to the bar last. With the pride of my county at stake I’ll usually feign some mobility injury and come out on top. It’s then that we really get into the glaring differences between English and Scottish laws and policing.

For example, the English police’s ‘caution’ is quite wordy – ‘You do not have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you do not mention…’ Which is in contrast to the Scottish formal police caution, ‘You looking at me, pal?’

Scotland also has some little known quirky laws which I adore:-

• “Any Scotsman found to be wearing underwear beneath his kilt can be fined two cans of beer”. One reason why glass dance floors have never caught on north of the border.

• ‘It is illegal to hunt haggis between 1st April and 30th July’. (It would be inappropriate for me to joke about this one as there has been deep concern from environmentalists about the depletion of wild haggis stocks in recent years).

• ‘In Scotland, if someone knocks on your door and requires the use of your toilet, you must let them enter’. Could be worse – in Russia you have to smile and give them your house!

It’s probably fairly obvious that I am a big fan of the Scottish legal system and I think English law should adopt it – and for that reason I don’t like to hear all this talk of independence.

My other concern with independence is that, just as Vladimir Putin is bullying his neighbours and threatening to cut off the gas supply to the dissenters, I worry that Alex Salmond will also become a tyrannical dictator and cut off the Irn-Bru supply to the South.

Scotland is so politically charged at the moment that comedians have been advised to be very careful not to use any discriminatory material. I have been very meticulously and sensitively editing my jokes to be absolutely certain that they do not offend. For example, “An Englishman, Irishman and an alcoholic walk into a bar…”

I know it’s not my place to say, but please don’t give us the elbow, and get all pally with Europe instead, Scotland.
Europe have even sillier laws that they will impose on you. Please keep your history and tradition, William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered – far more dramatic than being hanged, drawn and 0.25′d.

 

Police and Crime Commissioners: A Voyage of Discovery

Having just read the Bernard Rix story about lack of interest in the upcoming first police and crime commissioner (PCC) by-election in the West Midlands, I found the lack of interest interesting.

If I said PCC to a passing member of the public they would probably say ‘Press Complaints Commission’, possibly ‘Primary Care Commission’. And, if I’m still shaking my head, they may have a stab at ‘Pembrokeshire County Council’.

Let’s not just single out ordinary folk in the street. I’m usually promoting some show or other and am often interviewed by local BBC types. One of their favourite questions, (albeit off air), and usually delivered with a slightly screwed up face is “What do these police and crime commissioners do?” To be honest I’m sick of responding by screwing up my face and saying “I’m not really sure”.

History lesson

I know that we used to have something called a police authority. This was an elected committee that had representatives from the local authority and also independents that had the same voting power. Then we replaced it with one person. But why? I needed to make some enquiries to stop embarrassing myself.

I tried to keep it simple by asking serving cops but they didn’t seem to have much of an idea either. Even a superintendent’s best effort was “they’re politicians who hold the police budget”.

Politicians? Hang on I thought the government keep banging on about depoliticising the police? This being the case, surely PCCs should be completely independent. But they’re not are they? In fact most of them are directly affiliated to a political party.

I needed further research. As an experienced cop (with 18 years’ service) obviously I take active measures to avoid reading any mind-bending online drivel that has the letters .gov.uk/ anywhere in its address.

So I tried to do it the easy way and watched a recording of Channel 4’s ‘copumentary’ entitled ‘Meet the Police and Crime Commissioner’ (originally broadcast in May). As I’m a bit ‘street’ these days I’d sum up my response in contemporary fashion – OMG! Less eye-opening and more sadistically cruel retinal abusing.

Now I know we’ve all made mistakes (I once volunteered to chair a multi-agency anti-social behaviour committee in Scunthorpe) but when I watched this show I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or self-harm. And at the end of the experience I was little the wiser in respect of the actual role of PCCs.

I ought to just add that I’ve been a ‘candidate’ on a reality TV show and so ‘there but for the grace of God’ and all that but really, what’s the first thing a basic plod learns about the media? Answer: Their agenda versus your agenda. Maybe if Kent PCC Ann Barnes – the focus of the Channel 4 show – had been a tad more approachable then one of the cops would have whispered that basic piece of info into her shell-like.

London calling

My search for the meaning of PCC continued. Perhaps I needed to start at the beginning. Why did we need them? Were police authorities underperforming? Were PCCs proving a big hit elsewhere and we wanted some of the action?

We tried it first in London. Obviously somebody considered that Mayor of London was only a part-time job and someone thought we could tag on the role of PCC. That astute academic strategist in fools clothing Boris Johnson was the first, and clearly Theresa May was of the opinion that he had done such a superb job of eradicating police scandals, building trust and keeping public order problems to an absolute minimum that it was a no-brainer to churn out PCCs on a national level.

In fact Boris is so community conscious that he’s decided to keep Londoners nice and cool this summer by ordering some big mechanical water sprayers just in case we have a heatwave.

How forgiving those Londoners are. Boris didn’t even rush back from his jolly holidays when rioting broke out in 2011 but as soon as he picked up a sweeping brush and grinned for the Evening Standard the avuncular one was a shoe-in for re-election using the old absent fathers line of ‘I know I wasn’t always here for you but I was thinking of you and…I’ve bought you a new bike (well quite a lot of them actually but you do have to pay to use them).’

Information is power

There was a slight flaw in The Home Secretary’s strategy of imposing PCCs on us. Her biggest error was in assuming that in the absence of readily available (and more importantly palatable) information the public would be interested enough to do their own research. No chance – I’ve had to motivate myself just to enter PCC into the search engine, let alone get off my arse and go to the ballot box.

So now we have our first PCC by-election in the West Midlands and the same air of apathy prevails. Will people cast their vote? No of course they won’t because they don’t understand what they’re voting for or why. You won’t ‘sell’ PCCs until people understand what they are ‘buying’ Mrs May and it’s no good saying loads of information went out blah, blah, blah. If the ordinary person in the street doesn’t understand the purpose of PCCs then you have failed – no excuses.

I know that you know best Home Secretary but the public aren’t naughty children to be told what to do. If you want to get us on board then treat us like grown-ups and make us feel involved in the process. Until then my search for the answer to question what do those PCCs do continues.

As this article will be online I’ve asked PoliceOracle.com not to use the word PCC in the title in case it confuses people trying to locate the Pocklington Cycle Club.

Article written originally for the Police Oracle – 19th August 2014

Skegness is like Miami Vice…… only with socks, rain and tattoos

I grew up on a diet of exciting American cop shows like Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice, while our own home grown TV offered up all the excitement of Inspector Morse gurning over a pint of Dancing Dog real ale. So I guess that although I always wanted to be a cop I actually wanted to be an American cop. I knew I couldn’t be of course, I don’t look American, and I don’t sound American. I haven’t got a cool cop name like Baretta, McGarrett, or Dirty Harry. Dirty Harry – cool as anything isn’t it? Dirty Alf? Not quite got the same ring to it!

I had to settle for joining the blighty ‘boys in blue’ and got stationed at Skegness. Skegness is on the coast and so a bit like Miami Vice only….. with socks, persistent rain and fairly aggressive tattoos (not all spelled correctly).

Don’t get me wrong – I had my moments but it wasn’t quite like those exciting American TV cop shows I’d grown to love. The Californian Highway Patrol had Harley Davidsons – we had Hondas and push bikes. Our American counterparts also know how to sort the bad guys out, they’ve got chain gangs – we’ve got litter pickers on community service helping out the Big Society. They’ve got ‘three strikes and you’re out’ – we’ve got three strikes and we’re going to start counting your strikes soon if you’re not careful.

The US cops also seemed to have a stronger work ethic. When they get suspended they’d put their gun and gold shield on the Lieutenant’s desk and then go out and solve the murder in their own time. I’m not prepared to do that – if I get suspended I’ll just stop at home and watch Ready Steady Cook. If they want me to investigate a murder I want time and a half!

Then of course there’s that dangerous last week in the job, you know the one where the veteran cop gets drawn into that big case and gets shot two days before he was due to retire. I wasn’t risking that one and put a sickie in. That’s one I’ve got over Dirty Harry – he never rang in with gastroenteritis.

Article published in The Scotsman  – 11th August 2014

Indecent Exposure – a Flash in the Pan?

In the press over recent weeks, there has been a spate of reported incidents of indecent exposure. In just the last month, three men have been arrested in connection with an alleged exposure in Slough; police in Kirkcaldy are appealing for witnesses following an incident, and another similar story has been reported in Colne.

Clearly the laws, powers, politics and procedures in place to help the police deal with this type of crime are not currently sufficient to stop it happening. Indeed in my personal experience as a long-serving police officer I would say that the detection rate for the offence of indecent exposure is frighteningly miniscule. By detection rate I mean successful police prosecutions in comparison to the number of offences committed, rather than those reported, because indecent exposure has to be one of the most unreported offences there is. It’s almost impossible to officially quantify the specific offence of exposure, even from the most reliable information from the Office of National Statistics, as it is amalgamated within ‘other sexual offences’.

Why would that be? Is the victim too embarrassed? Do they lack confidence in the police? Or doesn’t the victim actually care enough to formalise the incident?

The last point might appear a bit harsh but it’s certainly a question that needs to be asked because society’s attitude towards this particular sexual offence needs to be challenged.

I explore this topic in some depth in my new Edinburgh Festival show ‘The Naked Stun’. Is it wrong of me to use humour to highlight the issue? I realise that I could be accused of trivialising the offence and therefore become part of the problem. But I would argue not. I believe that humour is one of the most effective ways to raise awareness especially in respect of uncomfortable subject matter such as this particular sexual offence.

Make no mistake that’s exactly what this is – a sexual offence. Or at least it is now. For most of my policing years the main legislation in place was the Vagrancy Act 1824. Yes that’s what I said – 1824. This is a law which was brought in to stop soldiers begging on the streets after the Napoleonic Wars. The part of that Act that covered indecent exposure even read in old English ‘every person wilfully, openly, lewdly, and obscenely exposing his person in any public highway, with intent to insult any female shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond’.

You haven’t been transported back in time, until 2003 those were the actual points to prove. A ‘rogue and a vagabond’, you wouldn’t know whether to taser him or glove him across the face and challenge him to a duel!

‘Wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely with intent to insult…?’ Really? Surely it’s much simpler than that? Has he purposely indecently exposed himself or not? That’s all I need to know. No-one in the history of the world has ever accidentally masturbated in public.

Tony Blair’s New Labour brought in a record number of new laws, over 3,000, and his government eventually got around to bringing in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This Act, for the first time, made provision for the specific offence of indecent exposure and thankfully coppers like me could at last replace the word ‘person’ with the word ‘penis’ on the charge sheet. Nowadays it doesn’t have to be a man (Sexual Offences Act 2003 – Section 66) although in my experience it almost always is.

But do all flashers intend to shock? Jane Warding-Smith, an experienced psychosexual consultant who specialises in sex addiction, told me that that’s not necessarily the case. “The most common client group I deal with are the guys that strip off and perhaps go for a drive in the car. These people don’t necessarily even need to be seen’ she explained ‘It’s the risk of being ‘caught out’ that gives them the thrill they’re seeking.” She went on ‘”The flasher who masturbates in front of people is primarily seeking their sexual gratification from shocking people”.

Apparently both these groups have something in common – they’re chasing the ‘dopamine high’. This naturally produced feel-good brain chemical fuels their compulsive sexual behaviour in a similar way to that of a heroin addict.

Just like an addict they build up a tolerance and will have to take greater risks in order to experience the same thrill. For this reason it is possible that some people will go on to commit ‘contact’ sexual offences. In fact Jane told me “If a flasher who goes out to shock doesn’t get his intended reaction – let’s say, for example, the victim laughs at him, then this could act as a stressor which could make him unpredictable and potentially violent”.

There has been a lot of discussion about whether this type of behaviour is an illness and whether we should have some sympathy for the offender. Not from me I’m afraid, I’ve been a copper for too many years and I’m institutionally victim-focused. My priority will always be to protect the public.

In America they have a clinic to treat this ‘disorder’. One of their methods is for women to be employed to completely ignore a man whilst he sits masturbating. A rather radical take on Supernanny’s ‘Naughty Seat’ perhaps; but if effective in cutting the rate of reoffending, then potentially worth consideration.

When I told Jane about this method she said, “That seems a bit extreme and not something that I would recommend. However there are recognised forms of one-to-one treatments that have proven to be very effective”.

So if we accept that a flasher’s behaviour may escalate towards more serious sexual offences and we also accept that there’s a good chance of successful intervention work all we have to do now is catch the offenders.

I’d be the first to admit that the police haven’t always taken this offence as seriously as they might. In the ‘bad old days’ of New Labour’s target culture I’ve known flashers receive an on the spot fine – a questionable practice I used to think of as ‘Pay and Display’. Looking back it’s hard to believe that that could have ever been the correct way to officially deal with a sexual crime.

So should the Criminal Justice System prioritise the offence of indecent exposure? I’m careful not to use the ‘P’ word too liberally. Prioritise is a nice quick-fix buzzword that can be interrupted as ‘problem solved’ when on a practical policing level it actually means ‘problem compounded’. The police already have a plethora of priorities and if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. What I personally would like to see is a formalised police procedure for ascertaining information from perpetrators of more serious sexual assaults, about whether they started out as ‘flashers’, and what if anything would have stopped them. That will help give us more understanding and insight into their world and potentially suggest ways to combat the escalation of their offending.

The courts already have a power to impose treatment orders on offenders which can be used as an effective alternative to custody. However in order to catch them the police need evidence and that means many more victims and witnesses reporting incidents.

Whilst recently previewing ‘The Naked Stun’ I’ve been approached by many women who tell me that they too have been victims. But a very small number have actually reported it. One woman, Judith, who is a very successful businesswoman, told me how traumatising the incident had been for her. “I’ve always thought of myself as a strong and confident woman but this completely floored me” she said. “Initially I felt very angry and insulted but afterwards it made me feel very vulnerable. For ages I felt afraid – even in my own home – finding myself irrationally double-checking whether I’d locked my doors”.  When I asked if she’d reported it to the police she told me “No.  For some reason I felt very stupid and hated the idea of being seen to as victim.”

We all need to change our attitude towards indecent exposure. This is not a cheeky chappie having a bit of fun. We need to lose this ‘harmless seaside postcard’ image of a flasher that sadly all too often still seems to prevail. We’re talking about people that may go on to commit serious sexual offences.

Remember – from little acorns can grow mighty Yewtrees……

Article first published in The Independent 25th July 2014