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Bikes and the Old Bill


© John Stuart Clark






I once was the victim of a road rage attack witnessed by a Traffic Warden. It was nothing serious, all in a day's urban cycling, but he armed me with his number and the licence plate of the offending driver, recommending I report the incident to the local cop shop. There a charming WPC listened sympathetically but stopped short of filling in a report form, offering to "have a word with the Duty Sergeant" instead.

Maybe the Sergeant did buzz a patrol constable to call in on my assailant and deliver a few cautionary words, but I suspect the driver spent an uninterrupted evening honing his hatred of cyclists and impressing the wife with his valour. I didn't pursue the matter. I had read somewhere that the police are supposed to react to complaints such as mine but, without chapter and verse, I was on shaky ground. In my role as cycle security officer for our local campaign group, I have sufficient contact with the force to know cycling issues are one down from dog fouling in their list of priorities.

The culture of the police - their values, norms, perspectives and the craft rules informing their conduct - is neither universal, monolithic nor fixed. Inevitably it is a reflection of power structures in the society they police. If cyclists are perceived as plankton in the Gulf Stream of the road then, regardless of the Law, they will be treated as such by enforcement agents. The letter of the Law might state that opening a car door on a passing cyclist is illegal, regardless of whether the action causes the rider actual bodily harm. Securing a prosecution, however, is a whole other ball game.

According to Simon Holt of Cycle Aid, who specialise in claims arising from accidents, it is the duty of my local constabulary to confront the likes of Mr Road Rage. In practice, I would have either had to take out a private prosecution or secure a mandatory injunction that would have taken my case to the Crown Prosecution Service. There it would have been binned, less for the minor nature of the incident, more as a result of prioritisation. Three years ago the CPS openly admitted they hadn't the time for cases brought by cyclists.

Mr Holt is exasperated with both the police and the Law. In the first three months of this year, Cycle Aid processed 108 cases involving aggrieved riders. When I spoke to him, he had a handful of car door incidents on his books, one involving a youth who lost a testicle in the crash. Despite his best efforts, he had been unable to secure a prosecution on any of them. "To listen to the police," he said, "Cyclists just shouldn't be on the road. "Where have you heard that before?

I went for a drive with a couple of 'TraffPols' in their customised Volvo T-5. Their girths were a tad smaller than their egos and their language would have made Mohamed Fayed stammer. They broke the mould of machismo cop when they made these two I thought but, according to law sociologist, Robert Reiner, they are a common type in Traffic Divisions - lager lapping, dope puffing, sexually predatory mean mothers who can't run for toffees. Knows as 'rats' in the trade, their machismo is "rooted in the constant problems which (they) face in carrying out the role they are mandated to perform, at any rate in industrial capitalist societies with a liberal-democratic political ethos."

In plain English, these men are in the front line of preemptive policing for the state. Behind the next door they knock on might be a sawn-off shotgun. They specialise in conflict situations and glory in the thrill of the chase, combat and capture. If their morality is on the dark side of the moon from Dixon of Dock Green's, it is politically correct by comparison with the evil they frequently confront on behalf of decent society. In black and white, they are corrupt but, in the face of the baddest of the bad, machismo hypocrisy counts for a lot of grey in the survival spectrum.

As police drivers, they are trained to patrol in low gears, ready to accelerate away at the crackle of an intercom. Without a doubt, they are highly skilled technicians, gleaned from the ranks of plods in Pandas, and a class way above patrol constables. They've made good, damn good, for they are also the glory boys, the TV stars of traffic video shows, the raw material for police soaps and the flickering screen's insatiable appetite for cop dross on wheels. Some work for Cops on the Box, a casting agency for authentic police extras. Every one of them is taking notes for the crime thrillers they will write when they retire and become famous.

Do they like cyclists? Is Jeremy Clarkson a namby-pamby?

It wasn't always like that. When it came to policing, Chief Constable Athelstan Popkess was a visionary. At 37 years, he was the youngest Chief Constable ever in the UK. Under his leadership, Nottingham City Police were the first to introduce Police Cadets, Police Dogs, and an advanced driving school. He conceived the idea of Traffic Wardens and was the first to exploit wirelesses in the 'Uniform Cruisers' of the Mechanised Division.

In the 1930s, Popkess wrote, "Although the patrolman is, and will long remain, the backbone of our police system, his methods must be brought up to date to cope with rapidly changing conditions." Foot and Cycle Patrol officers were the grunts of preventative police work, the bedrock of Sir Robert Peel's original conception of the policeman as scarecrow. As crime became more mobile and less localised, the Mechanised Division of motorbikes, combinations, cars and vans was reorganised and upgraded with radio communications to act, principally, as intelligence gatherers.

Two-way radios in mobile units communicating with a centralised control room revolutionised the force and, as Popkess observed, "placed tactical power in the hands of the police which, up to the present, they have not possessed." With no depletion of the foot and cycle division, the Mechanised Division grew to a force of 39 vehicles and 70 officers. To police the Law relating to vehicles, a new unit was later created, the Traffic Department, travelling in white Standard Ensigns and astride white Triumph Thunderbirds.

Even now, Chief Constables pay homage to Peel's original tenet. In the Sixties, however, Foot and Cycle Patrols took a hammering from which they never recovered. Police recruitment was at an all time low and morale amongst the beat boys was at rock bottom, as was their status within the force. In an effort to increase police visibility and detection rates, resurrect public confidence in the force, and invigorate recruitment by making police work sexy, the Home Office issued a circular in August 1967 encouraging constabularies to adopt a new system of patrolling called 'unit beat policing'.

This was the great Panda initiative. The shoe-horning of beat bobbies into what are now called Response Vehicles effectively shifted the emphasis of police work from preventative to preemptive, and marked the beginning of the fire-brigade policing that remains an unshakable plank of their current operational approach. Good community relations and policing in the round were replaced by reaction policing and containment. Though recorded crime initially plummeted (by 73% in the case of malicious damage), within a decade the gulf between the public and the police was becoming embarrassing.

In the 1980s the inner cities erupted, Lord Scarman produced his damming report and Margaret Thatcher set out to destroy the power base of the NUM using the police as state storm troopers. Dove-tailing into that, the Edmund Davies Committee recommended a substantial increase in police pay that triggered a 10% surge in recruitment. But the gulf had widened to a chasm, and community policing was not a suture destined to close the credibility gap between the police and public.

Unit beat policing was originally an experimental scheme. It was never formally evaluated but its impact on police morale was so marked that all forces blindly adopted the car-dependent approach. It mirrored the times. In the real world, the 1960s to 1980s saw the exponential growth of private car ownership in the UK.

In the Nineties, the public demanded the physical and moral reinstatement of beat bobbies. Not only were Foot and Cycle Patrols more community friendly, they were invested with the almost romantic qualities of, to quote Mollie Weatheritt of the Police Foundation, "self-reliance, self-control, sound judgment, sensitivity, fairness, courage and an overall caring instinct" - the antithesis of the qualities exhibited by the 'rats'.

Shaking off their car dependency, however, has been as difficult for the police as it has been for the general public. In 1997, the current Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire noted that "(the public) quite naturally want to see Police Officers in uniform patrolling the streets, whilst expecting quick response to your calls for help. This often presents a difficult balance to acheive." It is becoming easier, now that somebody in accounts has notice that a bike cop costs a quarter of car cop to equip, and is thirty times cheaper in annual maintenance.

As constabulary budgets become more stringent, there are encouraging signs of an increase in Foot and Cycle Patrols around the country. In Bristol, on the troublesome Whitchurch estate, police are using mountain bikes to deal with gangs of youths, capitalising on the machine's stealth, strength and speed. In Weymouth they carry Cresswell Fold-Its in the trunks of patrol cars, deploying them on the beach and through the town's narrow streets to combat under-age drinking and vandalism. Newcastle's bike cops volunteer for the duty, are existing cyclists and ride fully kitted in bike cop gear, complete with radio phones in their checker-board cycle helmets.

In Nottingham, the Special Constabulary took delivery of 18 Giant MTBs last year and immediately put them to work patrolling hospital sites, estates and the city centre. They are proving particularly useful for policing parades and football crowds when there is a shortage of policepower. In outlying villages and selected suburbs, patrol constables ride Hybrids, more for transportation than as a response vehicle. Some riders are experienced cyclists, but most are not. They receive no special training, no special equipment or clothing and, to Chief Commandant Rob Hurst's knowledge, there is no association in the UK for cycling constables.

Nottinghhamshire Constabulary is not unusual in failing to appreciate the full potential of bike cops. In America, where many urban forces have had cycling units for almost a decade, smart, fit, alert, and multi-skilled bike cops have become the new centurians, replacing images of dumpy car cops in police publicity and achieving an average 40% drop in street crime. Most of the 1,200 bicycle units are members of the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA), a subsection of the League of American Cyclists (the equivalent to the CTC).

Aside from the benefits of networking and reference publications, the IPMBA stages a three day annual conference and product exhibition, preceded by several Effective Cycling courses lasting four days. Pitched at different levels of cycling competence, these courses cover tactical training, street sense, social awareness, maintenance and riding skills, which include safe landing from a bicycle fall, riding over obstacles and "live-fire exercises." In the UK, the CTC readily admit they're at first base with the Association of Chief Police Officers (AESOP). AESOP readily admit they don't even know which forces have bicycle units.

If they're a little vague on the cutting edge of patrol work, all police authorities are aware of the transport debate and conversant with the issues. In some instances, it is only the nightmare of moving officers around clogged cities that has made them return to the saddle. The Home Office is a major contributor to the ongoing work of the National Cycling Strategy, however, and specific cycling concerns are filtering through.

I was invited to the presentation of a bicycle theft reduction initiative by the Nottinghamshire force. Over fifty representatives of interested user groups were present, ranging from the Boots Company, to the County Council, to universities and colleges. Essentially a sales pitch for Data tag, it was none-the-less edifying to see that cycle security had become an important issue at an organisational level. In 1997, 7,000 bikes were reported stolen in the nine divisions of the county, 33% from homes, sheds and outbuildings. Only 5% of those were recovered, 3% returned to their owners, and the remainder sold or scrapped.

Data tag is one of seven national bicycle registration schemes currently available to the cyclist (see box out). A frame sticker and code etched on various parts of the machine act as a deterrent (but do not replace a lock). Embedded inside the down tube, a transponder is wedged. In the event of the police discovering a suspicious machine with its markings obliterated, a hand scanner activates the transponder, identifying the bike's code and informing the constable if it has been reported stolen.

Scan tag is a similar system, but Datatag is the one being promoted by the police. There are already 4,000 Datatagged bicycles in the county but, more importantly, behind Datatag is Yamaha Motor (UK), a multinational with the resources to create the nationwide infrastructure necessary to enable the scheme to hit the ground running. Yamaha have invested £3M in providing all police forces with free scanners, training and Data Access Terminals, and the cost is rising. Within forces, different departments are notorious for their reluctance to share equipment.

Meanwhile the old postcoding stamp is still the most popular and least productive system of registration. I visited the hub of operations for bicycle recovery and stepped back in time to a nicotine stained office lined with rows of card indexes, everything painted brown. The clerking system was archaic, beginning with a Pedal Cycle Description Form (PCDF) that lost track of modern componentry somewhere around the 1950s. Under 'Pedals', for example, it asked owners to specify if their lost love was fitted with 'black rubber, grey rubber, white rubber, metal, plastic or other'.

That the police manage to reunite as many as 3% of stolen bicycles with their owners is amazing, considering the lack of detail supplied by the robbed on crime report sheets. Adrian Jones, the civilian in charge, would like to upgrade the system by redesigning the PCDF, suitable for inputting into crime desk terminals, and providing all dealers with a pad of forms that they complete on behalf of customers who don't know an SPD from a cage pedal. Compared to many forces, however, Nottinghamshire is advanced and Adrian frequently gets requests from around the country for permission to copy his current PCDF.

The security sub-committee of the National Cycling Strategy (chaired by newscaster and bike nut Jon Snow) recommend only that the registration scheme consumers opt for should employ a warning sticker and an etched code. Beyond that, it is an open market for companies, the more the merry hell it will play with police recovery procedures. They would prefer just one national registration scheme and see themselves taking a lead with Data tag that is beneficial to cyclists. "Can you imagine, if car registration was an open market and there were 20 DVLAs?"

As to other deterrents, in 1992 the Nottingham campaign group, Pedals, suggested Central Division set up a police 'sting' involving a bugged bicycle. The city was in the midst of a rash of thefts attributed to a Birmingham-based snatch gang. The publicity would have made opportunists think twice, but Pedals mainly hoped to net the pros. The idea was rejected on the grounds of entrapment, an issue that continued to haunt the police when, last year, the ruse was finally trialled in Northallerton, Yorkshire. At present there are 20 forces testing the practicality of tracker bikes.

According to the press, within 24 hours of planting the trackers in London, the Metropolitan Police recovered 18 stolen bikes and seized £30,000 worth of drugs, though they wouldnÕt confirm that. What they and other forces do confirm is that the matchbox-sized electronic bug is leading them to drug dealers, burglars, receivers and major league TWOCers. Their astonishment that any professional villain would be seen dead riding a bicycle, let alone be fully conversant with the machine's criminal advantages, is perhaps a measure of how removed the constable in his or her Response Vehicle remains from the street.

Understandably the police are reluctant to reveal much about tracker bikes. It is an expensive system, one that many forces will have to rely on corporate sponsorship to buy into. The battery has a limited life span (six, eight or 12 hours depending on who you talk to) and is not rechargeable. The signal's range is also limited but, at this stage, that is all anybody would tell me, and then only after checking my sperm count.

The flip side of the constabulary's growing interest in cycles and cycling is the 'crackdown' on pavement cycling, though on a national scale it is more a ticking-off than the purge the press would have us believe. I was pulled up riding through a pedestrianised area by a Special Constable. Either side of me delivery vans and rep's cars were temporarily parked. Like them, I explained, I was going about my lawful business, making a delivery to a printing firm on the block. If motor vehicles were allowed to drive through and pull up opposite their destination, why couldn't I cycle? On the basis that the vehicles drove through in first gear, the Special told me to get off and scoot!

Behind this apparent clampdown are the very real concerns and complaints of pedestrians hassled by dangerous cycling. Every week the letters page of the Nottingham Evening Post is guaranteed to run a "Disgusted of Arnold", soliciting a stock reply spewed out by the Pedals PC undertaking "to decline to renew membership of any member successfully prosecuted for an offence while cycling." Added is the corollary that "Pedals anticipates that the County Council urgently designate and implement safe and convenient cycle routes into, across and out of the city centre in order to attract cyclists from those areas where they should not ride."

Under Section 72 of the 1835 Highways Act, cycling on a pavement is illegal, unless you are under 16. At present reckless cyclists in England and Wales can be brought to book under a Traffic Regulation Order or some other bylaw but, in the immediate future, they will be liable to a Fixed Penalty Notice (somewhere between a verbal warning and a full prosecution) attached to the Highways Act. (Scotland is locked in the consultation process that precedes an FPN. Northern Ireland has more pressing problems.) This empowers Police Officers to slap an offender with a £20 fine, payable by post within a specified period. If you challenge the penalty, you will be summoned to the Magistrate's Court and liable for costs, even if you win.

The CTC's position on this initiative is that the Fixed Penalty represents, in Stuart Reid's words, "the demonisation of a minority group." He is justifiably concerned that we will be caught in a pincer action between the Law on the pavement and the health hazard on the road, particularly if the former doesn't recognise the difference between responsible and dangerous pavement riding. According to the DETR, 72% of motorists get away with flaunting speed restrictions and cars killed 34 pedestrians last year on footways and verges. It is a rare year when a pedestrian is fatally injured by a cyclist.

The belief that duress can be presented as a mitigating circumstance is misplaced. As solicitor Simon Holt explains, if you are suddenly forced onto a pavement by some manic motorist or appalling road surface and then nicked, maybe the magistrate would be sympathetic. In all other circumstances, cyclists are expect to dismount on footpaths, verges and pedestrianised areas regardless of the threat from drivers out there on the blacktop.

In upgrading the 1835 Act, a number of other cycling offences will also become liable to a Fixed Penalty fine. While agreeing with an editorial in The Scotsman that "there is more than enough petty legislation on the statute book without this piece of nonsense," almost all cycling campaign groups publicly support the initiative, if only to legitimise the law-abiding cyclist's right to be on the road and always with the proviso that the law needs to get tough with the Law on the road.

Only time will tell if the increase in British bike cops and the Home Office's involvement in the National Cycling Strategy will change the constabulary's current antipathy towards cyclists. For certain the UK is light years away from the kind of positive discrimination that French and Dutch cyclists enjoy. In the event of an accident involving a motorist and cyclist, the assumption of the Law is that the driver is guilty unless s/he can prove otherwise. Wouldn't that do wonders for our status in the eyes of our law enforcers?






John Stuart Clark

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