Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Police!

Recently, the Plymouth Cycling Campaign (PCyC) had a meeting with police officers from Devon and Cornwall Police. There's nothing special in that, except for how it happened, and who the police sent along.

Remember, PCyC is a small group, with not a very loud voice, and if I have to be honest, we're not as organised, nor as effective as we might be - though we're learning and improving as we go along. As such, it would have been entirely unsurprising if the police respresentative was a local PSCO.

Devon and Cornwal Police played this very differently. The meeting was discussed by the Assistant Chief Constable, as well as a Superintendent and then we were told that the officer who would attend would be a Chief Inspector - one of the most senior police officers permanently based in Plymouth. We really couldn't have asked for more.

As it happened, the Chief Inspector brought a police constable with him, who he has appointed as liaison officer and who would be attending the PCyC bi-monthly meetings from now on.

This immediately answered one of our concerns - the lack of communication between cyclists and police - and sets the scene for continued communication.

Various other issues were discussed, including poor or dangerous driving. Of course the police are tasked with preparing evidence against a guilty party, and not with deciding their guilt - that is a job for the courts, with evidence put forward by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

What was made clear to us is that the police simply don't have the resources to target all crime equally, including road offences. Instead, they have to pick their battles rather carefully, targeting their limited resources at those offences where they can have most impact. Naturally, they have to prioritise, too, with 999 calls taking priority, and those calls involving violence and/or weapons being at the top of the list.

This may paint a rather bleak picture, given that a close, scary overtake of a cyclist by a driver will not rate very high at all on that scale. Add to this the fact that Devon alone has more miles of roads than the whole of Belgium, it becomes even clearer just how stretched the police are down here.

And yet, what the police officers offered us were not simply excuses why they can't (or won't) take cyclists' complaints seriously. It would have been understandable, to a point, if their approach was simply one of "Sod off, we're very busy dealing with far more serious stuff, like murder", but it wasn't.

Instead, what we found was a refreshingly accomodating approach, backed by what seems a genuine desire to improve things for cyclists. That approach was open and honest, and they freely acknowledged that at times the police get things wrong. Again, this wasn't held up as an excuse, but rather as an opportunity to improve.

One of the better things that came out of the meeting is regarding evidence-gathering. D&C Police are in favour of cyclists using video evidence, as that changes things from a your-word-against-theirs scenario, to one where there may be cold, hard evidence.

We were also told, in no uncertain terms, that most video evidence simply may not be good enough. The example given was a cyclist wearing a helmet-cam suffering a close overtake. Due to idiosyncracies and variations between different camera lenses, the video footage may or may not accurately show how close the overtake was. If, however, the video shows a close overtake of another cyclist up ahead, it becomes far more valuable.

For any action to follow, there should be more than simply a close overtake. Apparently the law requires evidence of "diversion". This may be that the cyclist had to swerve, put a foot down, or even stop altogether.

It was also highlighted that in law, there is NO such offense as "close or dangerous overtaking" and that drivers may face other charges, including dangerous or inconsiderate driving, or driving without due care and attention. Crucially, not only are the police stretched, but so are CPS, and in order to get the best value from taxpayers' money, both organisations would only put forward to the courts strong cases where there is a good possibility of a guilty verdict in court. When you're overstretched, the last thing you want is get tangled up in long, drawn-out court cases that tie up resources and that you ultimately end up losing.

The real diamond was this: D&C Police, via the newly designated cycling liaison officer, offered us a method to submit video evidence for review. This means there would be a consistent approach to such complaints, and they would be reviewed to see if they would meet CPS requirements to take to court.

The police officers acknowleged that this would be a learning process for them, almost as much as for us, and at this stage it is more of an informal agreement, as opposed to official policy and will need to be reviewed from time to time. They would also endeavor to get some legal experts to review some test footage, and feed back to us the findings of those reviews.

Above all else, the meeting was a starting point to better communications between cyclists and the police, which can only be a good thing. It didn't solve any immediate problems and it didn't promise to solve any problems in the future, but then that was never the point. Besides, any such promises could easily become impossible to fulfil, due to uncontrolable external factors, and are therefore best avoided.

What we got instead was a genuine commitment to make things better.

As a bonus, both officers that attended the meeting are really nice guys, which always helps.