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Plod, plebs and institutional incompetence

6 November 2013

Wooster helmetRecently I was involved in a minor road rage incident. I shan’t bore you with the mundane details (although I would put the allegations somewhat higher than Plebgate in terms of justifying the involvement of police and court). But my experiences during the process of reporting the matter were unsettling.

I did so of course as soon as I could. My local station told me they would send round an officer to take a statement at 9pm. A few minutes before this time I was called and told the officers were delayed until at least 10pm, and suggested instead I made an appointment for them to come at 2pm the following day, to which of course I readily agreed. But minutes later the officers arrived anyway.

To avoid misunderstanding I should say at once that all the police officers I spoke to were courteous, and as helpful as they could be – within the constraints imposed upon them. The two women who arrived were concerned and supportive. I handed them a reasonably lengthy statement I had already typed (foolishly in civil procedure format) and they took me through it. They explained however that it would ultimately have to be retyped on their paper, but I could e-mail the text which I immediately did.  (The Metropolitan Police e-mail system however refused to allow the images through its firewall. What kind of horrors are witnesses sending them?) But I would still need to sign my statement (done) – and have it put in an evidence bag. I offered an envelope but this would not do. As they had run out of bags they had to phone for a colleague to drive one over. As you may imagine this took some time. When the constables finally left, one forgot her helmet, and as I returned it to her in the street I somewhat unwisely said that I hoped I wouldn’t be fined £5 like Bertie Wooster. My attempts to explain the remark fizzled out in embarrassment some minutes later.

Needless to say another pair of officers duly turned up at 2pm the next day, on a wasted journey.

By now of course any hope of apprehending the culprit and testing him for substances was dwindling, and had of course completely vanished when, nearly a week later, I was contacted by the police force deemed to have jurisdiction in the matter. I was asked to come into the station within the next seven days so that my statement could be taken. I told them that they already had my statement, and pointed out that when the matter went to trial there would be plenty of opportunities for me to add my signature to the same statement printed out on their stationery, but this discussion took longer than my explanation of the plot of The Code of the Woosters, and achieved a similar result.

An hour later I found myself in Charing Cross nick having promised myself not to behave like the driver. This resolution was tested. The officer (who again I should point out was perfectly pleasant and polite and who understood completely how silly the process was) had my e-mailed text but his system wouldn’t allow him to cut and paste the text into his form, so he needed to retypye it. My patience ran out quite soon, and a superior officer decided to use his authority to transfer the text on his computer; this is above the pay-grade of lower ranking officers. Then the statement had to be printed: to a printer on a different floor, a five minute walk away. As we then noticed a minor typo in the introduction, the statement had to be changed…&c. I did however find out that the purpose of asking me to attend for this blatantly unnecessary stage in the process was that many witnesses don’t bother to turn up, which allows the Met to drop the case. This officer’s role, having now taken my statement, was to gather evidence (including CCTV coverage) to present to a colleague who would in due course decide how to proceed.

After another week I was telephoned and told that the evidence was now complete and would be presented as previously explained. I asked about the CCTV coverage, and was told that none had been found. You may well imagine how readily I accepted this, particularly since CPS guidance makes it quite clear that prosecutions won’t be brought unless CCTV evidence is available (a conclusion inevitably reached by an officer in yet another station after another week). The incident had taken place in central London and involved a car stopped in the middle of a major junction for some time. And it won’t surprise you that I made some enquiries myself.

There are well over 1 million CCTV cameras installed in London (at a cost estimated at well over £500m), by various bodies in addtion to the police: the Highways Agency, TfL, the boroughs themselves etc. If you have ever watched television crime dramas you will be familiar with the ease with which clever people hack into these networks and follow the heros or villains from camera to camera in real time. But I was unprepared for quite how remote this fantasy is. Several years ago it was calculated that the million cameras had resulted in only 1000 crime detections, and it appears that budgets have been greatly cut back. My own foray into sleuthing (simple – you just Ask Jeeves) established rapidly that Westminster had an active CCTV covering one of the junctions concerned, but after several communications invoking the Data Protection Act I was informed that the camera was no longer in service. As for TfL their coverage appears to be limited to checking number plates for congestion charging, and footage is not retained for the purposes of which I assumed these CCTVs had been installed. At my expense.

What is this surveillance society we fear we live in? Was any one actually listening to Frau Merkel’s calls? I suspect Sir Watkyn Bassett would not have been amused.

From → Justice

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