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
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
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
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?