You know those weirdos that are often hanging around railway stations? The ones that look like they still live with their Mother and are always scribbling into their little notebooks? Well they’re the British Transport Police (BTP). They’re exactly the same as regular cops. Same powers of arrest, rank structure, pension – everything the same. Actually not everything – they’re not as systematically racist as regular cops because it’s more difficult to stop search a train. (It’s okay some of these are jokes )
On 10th July 2020 the Guardian newspaper printed a story about a potentially offensive T-shirt.
I was going to send this Plod Blog in as a direct response to the article – but I sent in my piece on a police perspective in respect of the death of George Floyd and they wouldn’t print that and so I doubt they’ll consider printing a police perspective on this story either. Quite right too. Who wants to know what those whiny, pointy-headed, flat-foots think?
On June 3rd this year Jessie-Lu Flynn was in Oxford Circus, on her way back from a Black Lives Matter rally in company with a friend, when she was stopped by two British Transport Police officers. Jessie-Lu Flynn is white and so I’ve no idea what they were playing at. (Relax, I’m still joking).
Anyhow, one of the police officers pointed out that the slogan on the T-shirt she was wearing could be considered offensive to some people.
Now the T-shirt had the two-word slogan ‘F*ck Boris’. Which I believe was meant to be an insult rather than one of the goals on her bucket list. I’ve abbreviated the word, because I’m not a sweary type, but have included the picture that appeared in the Guardian for the sake of clarity.
So anyway, one of the police officers pointed out a possible offence under the Public Order Act 1986.
I believe that the officer was referring to Section 5.1(b), which relates to someone who: “displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”
Once this was pointed out to Jessie-Lu Flynn she replied: “I’ve worn it a dozen times before without being challenged by the police”
In my experience that’s quite an unusual defence. When I’ve arrested shoplifters it’s not very often they say “I come in here and steal cheese twice a week every week and no one’s ever complained before.” Neither have I been told “I always drive at excessive speeds when passing primary schools” nor “I’ve murdered loads of people before…” You get the idea!
Incidentally, if Boris Johnson does make wearing of masks in retail premises compulsory I bet all the shoplifters will be shouting a muffled “YIPPEEEEE!”
So anyway, back to Jessie-Lu Flynn and her allegedly ‘offensive’ T-shirt. The cop said “I think you should zip up your top to cover it up” and so she did.
All sorted then? Not quite…
Following the incident Flynn did what any upright citizen would do: Uploaded onto YouTube a video of the incident (shot on her friend’s mobile) to go viral. Followed by features in Unilad, Metro and the Daily Mail. The video shows the officer being very polite and patient. In fact he’s so helpful that he even looks up the specific offence on his mobile device and shows her the exact wording.
Flynn then decided to launch legal process against BTP arguing that the police actions interfered with her right to express her legitimate political opinions.
No one likes protracted political statements, and as a comedian I’m a fan of the editing process to help create incisive satire, but even I reckon that ‘F*CK BORIS’ it’s probably a smidgen lacking in content to be considered legitimate political opinion. In the same way that if the Guardian theatre critic stood up at the end of my performance and gave me the middle finger – I’d get an idea they wasn’t keen but probably wouldn’t class it as a legitimate review.
I’m no prude. I’ve lived through the 80’s which means I’ve seen more risqué Frankie Goes to Hollywood T-shirts than you can shake a stick at. But if my 95-year-old mother-in-law had walked past Jessie-Lu Flynn wearing the T-shirt in question I’m pretty certain that she would’ve found the swear word displayed to be abusive and it would have caused her some alarm and probably even distress. Regardless of the context, political or otherwise.
With that in mind, Flynn’s legal action struck me as a little over-the-top and all a bit daft to be honest. Perhaps like me, many of you were fully expected Paul Crowther the Chief Constable of BTP, to write a reply something on the lines of:
“Dear Ms Flynn,
Thank you for your correspondence. But you must be joking! It’s my job to uphold the law and help maintain some standards of public decency.
I believe that the officer concerned was very reasonably and sensible in his interpretation of the Public Order Act and was very polite and professional to you. Moreover, as a senior leader it is my responsibility to support my staff when they are acting appropriately and in accordance with their duty, especially so when they are currently under attack from a targeted, cynically motivated, negative media campaign and police morale is at an all-time low.
All things considered I’m backing my cops. I will not cave in to police-baiting and pedantic point scoring designed simply to discredit our organisation. I’ll fight this all the way and if needs be we’ll let the High Court decide on the legal ruling,
Have a nice day,
PS Please remember to dress sensibly, especially as it starts to get a bit cooler”.
That’s what we all expected right? Wrong! Instead, one of our fearless leaders reverted to what seems to rapidly becoming their default position and Jessie-Lu Flynn received a letter of apology on behalf of the Chief Constable of British Transport Police. Informing her that the instruction to cover her T-shirt, and the brief detention to give that direction, were unlawful.
His letter also apologised for any distress caused. Because clearly having someone say – “Do us a favour and zip up your top please” is very distressing to a hardened political activist…
I bet when Jessie-Lu got home her Mom asked: “Oh dear why are you so upset? Did those nasty, fascist cops kettle you in Parliament Square for 6 hours? Did the Met’s TSG riot police ram their plastic shields in your face? Did the mounted section carry out long-handled baton charges?”
“No, a BTP copper asked me to zip up my cardie.”
According to the Guardian article the letter from BTP also gives an undertaking that “the wearing of the T-shirt alone will not lead to her arrest or any direction to cover it”.
Looks like I’d better tell my 95-year-old mother-in-law to either man-up and stop being such an oversensitive wimp or stay in her house where she can’t come to any harm?
Now I have no doubt that Paul Crowther gave his written response some careful consideration. I’d expect that he liaised with BTP legal team and lawyers before sending that letter and my response to that is:
I DON’T CARE! Let the courts make the ruling not you.
Back up your staff when a complex rule of law arises in the middle of them trying to do a good job for you – don’t hang them out to dry. Don’t humiliate them. Don’t help set a precedent that’s just made every street cop’s job considerably more difficult. Don’t cave in and take the easy way out – be a Chief Constable and put up a bit of a fight. (This is me not joking now ).
“Yeah but Alfie what about the expenditure and the responsibility to the public purse?” Yeah well, what about the quickly fading motivation and morale of every hard-working police officer in this country?
Jessie-Lu Flynn welcomed the police apology and admission the police had acted unlawfully towards her. “I’m thrilled,” she said. “Now I can be confident that I can wear the T-shirt without fear of arrest.”
Jolly good then. I’d guess you’re going to be wearing it quite a lot now. I’m sure there’s thousands already on order. People can now point them towards every cop they see and don’t forget to film if you get any more ‘bites’.
Why don’t you pop into the local Woman’s Institute Meeting – the old dears might give you a round of applause? What about wearing it for church on Sunday and if the vicar objects you can tell him to “f*ck off” as long as you add the word Tory afterwards then he’s not lawfully allowed to be offended. And if he objects you can show him the letter of proof you have from Chief Constable Paul Crowther.
Flynn’s lawyers, Joanna Khan and Michael Oswald at Bhatt Murphy solicitors released this statement:
“This should serve as a strong reminder to police officers that the freedom to express political opinion, and to criticise politicians, is fundamental to a free and democratic society, and that invoking the criminal law to limit that freedom will be unacceptable and unlawful in all but the most extreme circumstances.”
Any perverts out there with a propensity for indecent exposure must be very excited by this news. Perhaps the next time they find themselves walking down a busy street, gripping their genitalia firmly in hand, as long as they remember to shout “Boris is a wanker” it will probably qualify as a political statement. I certainly know of a good firm of solicitors who may be able to assist if they have a run in with the rozzers.
Hopefully you’ve managed to read this blog quickly before I get a letter instructing me to take it down and apologise for its contents.
In fact I will finish with an apology. To the conscientious, proactive BTP officer who dealt with Jessie-Lu Flynn very courteously and professionally – I would like to say that I’m sorry about the lack of support you’ve received – it’s pretty sad my friend.
That’s all from me. I’m off to order my Mother-in-law a bespoke T-shirt. Let me know if you’ve any suggestions for the slogan?
On Monday 25th May 2020, Derek Chauvin took the life of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was a shocking thing to see and, like many others, I’ve spent the last few weeks doing a lot of reflecting on what happened – trying to make sense of it…
Did Derek Chauvin intend to take the life of George Floyd? With a street full of witnesses looking on, not to mention audio video recordings and no reasonable defence to be had, there would be no logic whatsoever in him doing so.
So if he didn’t intend for George Floyd to die then why would he casually, hands-in-pockets, ignore a man pleading for his life? The answer couldn’t be any simpler – because when George Floyd repeatedly gasped the words “I can’t breathe”, Derek Chauvin did not believe him.
A police officer not believing someone’s plea for life isn’t a great defence. It means that they are culpable. Very culpable. Maybe not for premeditated murder but there’s little doubt that Derek Chauvin will be convicted of unlawful killing and be sent to prison for a very long time.
For me the big question is why did Derek Chauvin disbelieve George Floyd?
Many people think the answer is that Chauvin is a racist and/or the organisation he worked for is systemically racist. I too feel that those could well be contributory factors to the actions and inaction of the police officers present that day – but I also think there may be other factors at play within the policing world that highlight a deep-rooted culture of institutionalised cynicism.
I was an impressionable 24 year old young man when I joined the police. Prior to that I’d been hidden away as an apprentice in the Sheffield steelworks and had led a pretty sheltered life. After my initial training I can remember turning up at Skegness Police Station all keen, bright and shiny. On my very first day an old-timer frontline veteran took me on one side and offered to give me his sage advice. Of course I accepted – in fact I lapped it up. He leaned forward, lowered his voice to a whisper and said: “If you want to be a good cop always remember the ABC of policing. Assume nothing. Believe no one. Confirm everything.”
This was an early indication that police officers are encouraged to have a suspicious mind-set. All coppers are bastards? Definitely not. All coppers are cynical? Definitely maybe.
Don’t get me wrong, this deep-rooted cynicism is not as bad as it used to be. When I first joined if a woman walked into the police station to report being raped it would not be uncommon for the on-duty Detective Sergeant to put the ABC of good policing into practice by shouting at the victim in order to test the robustness of her evidence. Sounds shocking doesn’t it? But that stuff used to happen.
We have tried to be more trusting. In fact some years ago police policy makers introduced a total turnaround – an investigative policy where our starting point was from a position of believing the victim. That’s another dangerous game to play as Carl Beech highlighted when we rather embarrassingly fell for his fairy stories about the perverted exploits of high level Members of Parliament.
I believe that the police as an organisation needs to seriously think about how we can encourage a culture of non-judgmental open-mindedness. However, to achieve this utopia of cynical-free policing there is another major issue that needs addressing and I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s a massive problem – a street copper’s sceptical distrusting model of the world is reinforced constantly by the public at large because the public at large lie to them all day and every day.
Within a few years of joining the police I had become totally desensitised to hearing lies. Dishonesty and distortion of the truth became my workaday ‘normal’. The constant flow of lies endorse, encourage and validate a copper’s suspicious mind-set.
They usually came from the mouth of defendants but also sometimes, witnesses and ‘victims’ giving their personalised version of the truth – ask Carl Beech.
And don’t look for racial discrimination here. When it comes to lying to the police there is no bigotry, bias or prejudice – it’s a very level playing field – almost everybody does it. Black, white, male, female, working class, middle-class and well-off Government personal advisors – everybody.
Replies on arrest of “It’s a fair cop guv you got me bang to rights” went out of fashion with Dixon of Dock Green. I’ve shown shoplifters clear and undeniable CCTV evidence of them stealing items and even then they’ve responded “Nah I didn’t do it”. Sometimes it was a nice change to have a ‘no comment’ interview so I could have a break from listening to their lies.
Why do they do that? That’s easy – because they can. There is no penalty, no price to pay. We, the police, instantly forgive and forget all the lies and timewasting we’ve just endured. It’s extremely rare they will be charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice. But isn’t that exactly what lying to a police officer is?
And if I sound cynical it’s because I am. That’s my point really. I wasn’t at all cynical when I first joined the police. I was full of positivity and wanted to right all the wrongs in the world. So what happened? People lied to me. A lot.
It’s very common for a detainee to feign discomfort, perhaps complaining that the officer is assaulting them. “You’re hurting me” “I’ve got a bad arm/leg/back/wrist/shoulder…” The scale of this behaviour is often directly proportionate to the number of bystanders and number of iPhones recording the event.
Once in a police vehicle it’s common for a prisoner to complain “These handcuffs are too tight”. I would always check by slipping my little finger between the handcuff and the detainee’s wrist. They would usually be properly applied and double-locked, meaning they cannot self-tighten, and if not I’d quickly adjust. I’ve then watched dozens of times as the detainee bends their wrists deliberately against the metal cuff to cause red markings on their wrists. They can then show these marks to the Custody Sergeant to ‘prove’ the cuffs were on too tight. The Sergeant will record the ‘injury’ whilst unconcernedly rolling their eyes because it’s a trick they see every single day and three times every Friday and Saturday late shift. It’s just another form of lie.
But that’s a million miles away from Minneapolis, Minnesota, isn’t it?
No, not really because there have also been occasions when prisoners have collapsed in front of cops here in the UK and the police officers present have nonchalantly watched them die. Because they were cold-blooded psychopaths? No, because these cynical coppers had seen the scenario played out many times before. They didn’t believe them. They’d all had prisoners scream “You’re hurting me” when they hadn’t been hurt. They’d all had detainees say “I can’t breathe” when they could breathe perfectly well. I myself have heard that said many times.
But don’t think for one minute that I’m trying to defend Derek Chauvin. Let me assure you I have absolutely NO sympathy for him. He had had a duty of care to his detainee. A responsibility to carry out a dynamic risk assessment, which means checking he was using the minimum force necessary. Checking the detainee was safe, not in a dangerous position and not showing signs deteriorating health.
I’ve seen plenty of people on social media claiming “If you really can’t breathe then you can’t speak”. I’ve no idea if that’s true but in any case it’s a complete red herring inasmuch as there’s very little difference between someone saying “I can’t breathe” and saying “I’m having difficulty breathing” – both require an immediate risk assessment rather than a grammar check…
Derek Chauvin failed in his duty of care and in doing so made the job of police officers all over the world much more difficult and dangerous for many years to come.
Do I hold George Floyd in anyway culpable for the events that followed? Absolutely not. Once he became a compliant prisoner he had every right to expect his safety was guaranteed.
However, I do point an accusing finger at every prisoner before George Floyd that lied to Chauvin. Every one that feigned injury, every one that said “You’re hurting me” when they were unharmed and every single one that said “I can’t breathe” when actually they could breathe fine. I hold them all personally responsible for helping create and reinforce the cynicism that Derek Chauvin harboured.
I believe the UK police are the finest in the world. But we do need to address our institutionalised cynicism and the system needs to support us in that culture change. There’s no difference between lying to a police officer and lying to a judge. We’re both servants of the crown trying to uphold the laws of the land. Let’s make lying to a police officer an offence of perjury and let’s use it.
Maybe that’s setting the bar a little high. Busy cops having to prove additional offences to charging standard – that’s a big ask. Could we instead put the onus on our courts? I know that we already have credits given to defendants for early guilty pleas – but what about sentencing guidance to incorporate benefits for being honest with cops from the outset and serious consequences for not doing so?
We need to find a way to change behaviours. We need to stop normalising dishonesty – it’s helping to perpetuate the institutionalised cynicism within frontline policing.
And many will say that cynicism is justified because it’s the most effective way of policing criminality. That could well be true. Maybe that’s exactly what the public want – and we police by consent in the UK . The police are public servants and the community are entitled to have any policing style they choose. But who knows? The choice may be out with the cynical old ABC and instead let’s All Be the Change.