This is a guest post by my colleague and fellow solicitor, John Hagan.
Those of us who want to live in a civil society, where violence is always the last resort, and not some version of a Judge Dredd comic, in which a ‘hardcore’ police force shoots people for littering, may have been dismayed by the reaction of some sections of public opinion to a video released this week showing a Metropolitan police officer shouting at a motorist and viciously smashing the motor car’s windscreen with his truncheon, before trying to cut his way in through it with a knife.
In the video the police officer can be seen confronting the motorist (identified in press reports of this story as Leon Fontana), who, perhaps not coincidentally, is a young Black man. My colleague Iain Gould has previously blogged about the dangers of “Driving whilst Black” i.e the perception that black men are disproportionately targeted by the police for traffic stops.
The police have powers under S.163 and 164 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to require drivers to stop their vehicles and produce their licence and insurance and confirm their identity. It does not however empower the police to require that a motorist who has been stopped must exit his vehicle, nor to require that he hand over his car keys.
Whilst it is true that Leon states he is not going to get out of the car, he is otherwise co-operating with the officer, and is not refusing to let the officer check his details. When the officer states that he is concerned that Leon might just drive off, Leon removes his keys from the ignition and places them on the dashboard…then within 30 seconds of the conversation beginning the officer is screaming “Get out of the car! You’re not allowed to drive it!” and starts smashing the windscreen viciously.
It appears that the officer has just received some information suggesting that Leon may only have a provisional licence (this subsequently proves to be incorrect, as it is a case of mistaken identity, cleared up within moments, as soon as other officers become involved…). However the officer immediately reacts to this information by shouting “Get out the car – you’re not allowed to drive it!” and within 15 seconds has started to pummel the side of the car with his truncheon before the man inside has even had a chance to respond. The officer is now screaming his command “Get out of the car!” as if he was involved in a life and death situation rather than a routine traffic stop. If a member of the public had been behaving like this – basically attacking the car and shouting at the top of his voice – he would surely have been arrested. The officer appears to have no impulse control in this situation, and there is no sign that he made any attempt at a reasonable and civil discourse with the driver. Surely this is not how we want our police officers to behave, nor why we empower them with special authority to inflict violence or commit damage to property. The officer was, in my opinion, behaving in a totally unprofessional and irresponsible manner.
As the footage continues, the motorist can be heard telling the attacking officer (in an entirely calm tone of voice) that he has a licence and insurance. The officer informs the motorist “You are not qualified, you’re not allowed to drive” apparently having jumped to an unshakeable belief that the motorist is an unqualified individual without going to the trouble of listening to what he is being told, or making any effort to check documents and establish the driver’s actual identity.
Manifestly, the police are here to reduce violence and aggression in society, not actively introduce it into otherwise calm situations (the motorist had clearly responded to police instructions to stop his car and was talking to them through an open window).
If somebody tells an officer that they have been mistaken for somebody else, surely the officer should spend at least a minute or two investigating that possibility in an amicable manner rather than shouting the person down and smashing his windscreen to pieces? And what purpose was being served by the officer smashing the windscreen – surely he didn’t intend to pull Leon out through it? The destruction of someone’s property by a police officer to make them comply with instructions during a low- level traffic stop is in my opinion a crazy and unjustifiable turn of events.
In my opinion, the police officer’s actions can only be characterised as anti- social, thuggish behaviour which clearly flies in the face of the norms of civilised behaviour as well as the specific training which police officers are given as to how to resolve a conflict situation.
Police officers are extensively taught the techniques of ‘conflict management’ which emphasise that violence must be a last resort after non- violent approaches to resolving the situation in the form of ‘officer presence’ and ‘tactical communications’ are first considered. Does anyone really doubt that the officer pictured in this video could have had a productive conversation with the motorist had he so chosen?
Sadly, as I discovered during my appearance on the Jonathan Vernon Smith (JVS) Show on BBC 3 Counties radio last week, some people do condone the officer’s behaviour.
You can listen to my interview here:
One caller to the show stated “the guy in the car should be prosecuted” whilst another called the motorist a “toe rag” and accused him of “winding up” the officer by the act of filming the confrontation.
JVS himself, perhaps adding fuel to the fire of his listener’s fury, speculated aloud that the police may have believed Leon to be a dangerous criminal with a history of using weapons, and that he might even have had “a gun in the glove box”. However, there was no basis for this assertion. All the evidence available to us is to the effect that the worse the police suspected of Leon was that he was driving without a full licence or insurance, which is a non- imprisonable offence.
The police are entrusted with special powers to use force against other citizens, but it is only right that the officers respect the safeguards that the law has put in place to prevent the abuse of those powers and to ensure that we have a functioning civil society in which people can have trust in the police – without which, they obviously cannot do their jobs and the risk of harm to both officers and citizens generally increases.
Police powers of arrest without a warrant are enshrined in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 S.110. In order to exercise his power of arrest, the officer must have a reasonable belief in its necessity on the basis of one or more of the following criteria –
- the name of the relevant person is unknown to, and cannot be readily ascertained by, the constable,
- the constable has reasonable grounds for doubting whether a name furnished by the relevant person as his name is his real name,
- the relevant person has failed to furnish a satisfactory address for service, or
- the constable has reasonable grounds for doubting whether an address furnished by the relevant person is a satisfactory address for service,
3. that the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that arrest is necessary to prevent the relevant person:
- causing physical injury to himself or any other person,
- suffering physical injury,
- causing loss of or damage to property,
- committing an offence against public decency, or
- causing an unlawful obstruction of the highway,
- that the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that arrest is necessary to protect a child or other vulnerable person from the relevant person.
- that the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that arrest is necessary to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence or of the conduct of the person in question, or
- that the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that arrest is necessary to prevent any prosecution for the offence from being hindered by the disappearance of the person in question.
It is highly questionable whether the officer in this case could have possibly had a reasonable belief that any of the above conditions applied to Leon Fontana. In which case, he had no power to arrest Leon, and no power to use force against his motor car to effect an ‘arrest’ – which renders his smashing of the windscreen not only a civil but possibly a criminal offence.
Contrary to what some of the listeners of the JVS show apparently believe, there is no seventh criteria of “having reasonable grounds for believing the person to be a toerag” nor any power for the police to arrest someone who is filming their encounter, or refusing to exit a vehicle, if there are no other circumstances such as a refusal to identify themselves or an attempt to abscond or obstruct the investigation of a suspected offence on the part of that person.
Here, as we can all hear, Leon was offering to identify himself – or at least was trying to go through that process in a respectful manner with the officer, but was being obstructed by the officer’s unreasonable anger towards him.
This case reminds me of another I have recently been involved with, also a video taped encounter, in which police officers stopped a car on suspicion of ‘no insurance’ and in which the driver – a middle- aged white man as it happens – resolutely refused to identify himself to the officers involved and repeatedly made it clear that not only would he not exit the car, he would simply not identify himself or produce any documentation. The officers attempted to reason with him for approximately 8 minutes, before deciding to discharge a CS gas spray into the car.
Whilst I do not agree that the CS gas should have been used, it is perhaps telling that in a confrontation with an older, white motorist the police gave considerably longer to conversation with an individual who was a lot more obstructive, than did the officer in this video towards a young black man.
I am sure that in the present case, all the unpleasantness could have been avoided, if the officer had just engaged in the civil conversation which Leon was offering him.
But you may think I am biased in that assertion, being a lawyer primarily working on behalf of people who believe they have been the victims of police misconduct.
In which case I will call as my next witness, the other contributor to the JVS show that morning, Peter Kirkham, who was formerly a Detective Chief Inspector with the Met.
Mr Kirkham acknowledged that the officer’s behaviour was “not a good example of conflict management skills” and made the point “when you’re dealing with a conflict situation the idea is you’re not making it more aggressive”.
Acknowledging that it was plain from the video that the officer has lost his temper, Mr Kirkham concluded by saying that if he was the supervising officer he would certainly be investigating the conduct of the officer concerned, whose actions could amount to criminal damage if there was no justification for his use of force.
The officer appears to have suffered a moment of madness; sadly for him he must now face the consequences of this. The uniform he wears is a symbol of the special authority vested in him but it does not, and should not, give him immunity from accountability for actions which if perpetrated by a member of the public may well have resulted in a night in the cells.