Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Devon and Cornwall Police - Episode 2

Back in March 2015 I posted an open letter to the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, asking some rather pointed questions about the lack of support cyclists receive from the force. Before reading the rest of this post, I really suggest you read that post first, as this is a follow-up.

In that post I asked 6 specific questions:
1) Why does D & C Police not issue Section 59 warnings, yet other forces do?
2) Why does D & C Police dismiss helmet cam footage, yet other forces don't?
3) Why does D & C Police view enforcing the very road laws designed to help make cyclists safe as not doing "real" police work?
4) Why does D & C Police seem to be utterly disinterested in cyclists' safety? And yes the force pays lip service to it, but as the old saying goes, you talk the talk, but you certainly don't walk the walk.
5) What will it take for D & C Police to start taking this seriously? One dead cyclist? Ten? More?
6) What do you suggest I tell my children about the police? Bear in mind, they know of several of these incidents (I haven't told them all the details though) and my 11 year old daughter asked me "But Dad, why won't the police do anything?" I had no answer for her then, and I still have no answer for her now.
7) What will YOU do about this?

After having posted that, I notified D&C Police via their Twitter account. I also notified the Assistant Chief Constable directly, again via Twitter. In the wake of that, I received responses from other D&C Police officers. One of those officers, a Superintendent, suggested we meet up and an email exchange ensued, which I copied in below in full, only removing names. In case you wondered, I removed names because this issue is NOT about individual officers, but rather about the force as a whole. As a result, highlighting any individual officer would serve no purpose at all and instead I want to keep the focus on the issues, rather than the personalities.

The first message I had was via my web site:

"I have tried to respond to your open blog to the Chief Constable. I am the Supt with responsibility for East Cornwall and have, amongst other things, road safety in Cornwall as part of my role. I have worked in Plymouth so have an understanding. I have been asked if I will work with you nto address some of your concerns but our "webmarshall" will not let me respond direct to your blog!!
I have just started a small 'interest' group in Cornwall as cyclists have been recognised as a priority group for the county. It may be we could do similar in Plymouth. I can also answer your questions.
Perhaps you could drop me an e mail and we could arrange to meet to see what can be done.
By the way, I am a cyclist too. 
Thank you."

This I followed up with a direct email:
"Thank you for your reply to my blog post - innovative thinking to get the message through to me the way you did.
I would really like to meet with you and find out what, if anything, D&C Police can or will do. 
Perhaps I should clarify a few things first: I am not and have never been one of those people who only say negative things about the police, and I have on several occasions publicly defended the police. To me it is important that D&C Police grasp that I am not some anti-authority anarchist, but equally, I won't ignore what is wrong.
I accept and understand that police are squeezed from all sides, with fewer resources and lower budgets added to falling morale creating a volatile and difficult environment to operate in.
Despite this, I believe there is major room for improvement.
It is important to realise that, like most cyclists I expect, I'm not out for revenge. A driver that is heavily fined or prosecuted for having endangered, injured or even killed a cyclist is most likely going to continue to blame the cyclist, and the last thing we want is to share the road with angry, aggressive driver who hold a grudge against cyclists. That would be very counter-productive.
More often than not, some words of advice, or a firm warning could be far more beneficial, while not adding to your workload.
In more extreme cases, steps like Section 59 warnings may be more appropriate, although for some unfathomable reason D&C Police don't seem to want to use those.
I expect my schedule would be far more flexible than yours, and as such I'll do my best to fit in with you. With this in mind, please will you let me have some dates and times you have available for a meeting?
Also, would you be happy for me to bring along another cyclist to the meeting?"

Now a Superintendent will always be busy, and several emails were exchanged trying to find an opening in his diary. Eventually I received this:
"I am so sorry,  I have been involved in a load of protected visits by politicians and the diary has been rammed.
How are you fixed on any of the following.
·         29.4.15 3pm
·         30.4.15 4pm
·         5.5.15 1pm
Venue/location to suit you.

Just to let you know, we are setting up an electronic inbox for reporting issues to the police and our road safety partners in Cornwall.  Issues such as possible inconsiderate driving, bad road lay out/surface/signage, poor cycling etc etc.  The stuff that probably wouldn’t see a prosecution but which is still an issue for us as cyclists.  We will then try to categorise the issues into education, engineering or enforcement matters.  What we might find for example is several cyclists reporting a similar issue or location or car which would normally not get resolved but if we get a few people sending in messages to the inbox on the same matter then we may get “critical mass” on the issue and be able to act.

It’s only a thought and an idea but I am optimistic.  We could do the same for Plymouth if it works."

The setting up of a mailbox to report issues is a great start, let down by the fact that it is limited only to Cornwall. I followed up with this message:
"Can we arrange to meet on the 30th of April, at 4pm? Provisionally, I'd suggest the community cafe on George Street, Devonport, right next to The Bike Space's new shop. I say provisionally, as I'd need to check whether or not they'd be open (I expect they will be).

The electronic inbox sounds like a good idea - much like the RoadSafe system the Met has. 

To me there are a few fundamental issues though:
- Reporting has never really been the issue. People don't report issues to the police anymore  because they've learned through past experience that nothing will be done. That is downright frightening, that people should have such little faith in the police, don't you think?
- There is a denial of the problem, or at very least the scale of the problem by the police. Until that is acknowledged, I really cannot see anything really changing. It really is a bit like being an alcoholic: the road to recovery MUST start with accepting that reality.
- Devon and Cornwall Police refuse to issue Section 59 warnings for antisocial driving, based on evidence-supported reports from cyclists. Worse still, D&C Police claims the offence MUST be witnessed by a uniformed officer, which is patently false.

I look forward to receiving your reply."

I have not received any replies since.

Seperately, I was contacted via Twitter, asking me to contact a Plymouth-based police officer, who also wanted to meet up. That exchange is posted below:
"I've had a message via Twitter from the Stonehouse Police team that you would like to discuss cycling-related matters with me?"

I soon received a reply:

"I was told of your passionate views on cycling and have had a quick look at your twitter and blog.

I would like to meet up and discuss how you feel you have been treated and try to work through some ways we can make your contact with the police a little more positive.

Could you let me know who the head of traffic was as I’m a little concerned about their opinion on your ‘go pro’ type footage.

I’m also a little concerned about the attitude of some of the officers.
I take your view on what the police should do and we all have an opinion on that, let’s talk it through.

We all want the city to be a safer place and if we work together, we may be able to make a difference.  You will be surprised at the number of officers that are also keen cyclists.

I am unfortunately on leave for most of the Easter break and when working, my diary is full.  I have some space free on the mornings of 7 or 8 of April. Would that be suitable? I also have some time tomorrow.

I am finishing for the day now, so either let me know, or if you have a phone number I can call tomorrow during the day."

I followed up with this email:

"I am a simple man, and I live quite a simple life. I go to work, I try to provide for my family, I don't harm others and I expect them not to harm me. My views on cycling are also simple, really: cyclists, like all road users, deserve to be safe, but are regularly and needlessly endangered by drivers, often inadvertently but deliberately from time to time.

I'm not unrealistic - policing must be a very challenging job already. In an age of shrinking budgets and resources disappearing almost as you're planning anything, it simply means a tough job can rapidly become near-impossible. I fully understand a cyclist receiving a "punishment pass" is nowhere near as high a priority as catching a rapist and I certainly don't expect that protecting cyclists should be the police's top priority. (Does D & C Police even understand what a Punishment Pass is?)

However, I am one of many cyclists who quite justifiably feel that we receive NO backup or support from police at all. We feel police forces throughout the UK, including D & C Police, are inherently institutionally anti-cycling.

I accept that many police officers are cyclists and I know many individual officers do look out for cyclists. The problem is that overall the force quite obviously doesn't care much about cyclists. The only time police seem to show an interest is when a cyclist was run over, and even then the "investigation" tends to start from a victim-blaming point of view, asking if the cyclist was wearing a helmet or hi-vis. Usually when I raise this point, police officers respond that those are perfectly valid questions to ask, which simply highlights how a) uninformed and b) institutionally anti-cycling they are. 

Research clearly shows that hi-vis make virtually no difference at all to driver behaviour. Within the past three weeks I have had a few instances where drivers pulled out on me, despite me wearing hi-vis, and despite me riding (during daylight hours) with a strobing light of 3 500 lumen. A driver that can legitimately claim they couldn't see me is a danger on the road and shouldn't be allowed to drive. 

Additionally, cycle helmets are designed to protect against low-speed falls, involving no other vehicle. In a 25 mph crash with a car doing a similar speed in the opposite way they will do nothing but disintegrate. Research also shows that, contrary to the popular belief of how a broken helmet saved a life, a broken helmet is a helmet that failed. They don't have designed-in crumple zones like cars - the simple polystyrene was exposed to forces far greater than it could withstand, and therefore broke. It really is as simple as that. And yet, if you have a discussion about helmets with your officers, I expect most, if not all, will say how many crashes they've seen where the cyclist's life was "undoubtedly" saved by a bit of polystyrene. The scary part is they will parrot such statements without having any idea about the limitations of cycle helmets, and without in any way being experts, and those views are held as the gospel truth. Please, please have that conversation with your officers, and see how closely their responses match my words?

That, in essence, is a simple demonstration of just how institutionally anti-cycling D & C Police are. Police aren't alone in this - most drivers feel the same. Indeed, many cyclists themselves have bought into these false claims.

Like most, I do wear a helmet, but I don't expect it to save my life during a high-speed impact. Instead, I wear it to avoid road-rash all over my head, should I crash and scrape along the ground.

I average around 160 miles per week on my bike, and on most days I will experience aggression from drivers. In fact, a day without aggression from drivers is unusual - so much so that I'd usually brag about it. 

On Sherford Road, between Station Road and Vinery Lane, the road narrows, with outbound traffic having priority. That is part of my commute and at a guess I'd say 20% of the times I ride through there drivers refuse to yield and drive right at me. This isn't an exceptional thing - it's normal and there isn't a thing I can do about that. I have lost count of the number of times I almost got knocked off along there.
With all due respect, what do you think would happen if I reported that to police? Other than me simply wasting yet more of my time? Do you really think there is even a tiny chance any police officer would take it seriously and act on it? I think we both know that nothing will come off it.

Experience has taught me to expect police to at best go through the motions, only to follow it up (after much unanswered requests for updates from me) with a reply saying there's nothing they can do. Very much a "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Last year, 2 female cyclists - both experienced, fast road cyclists - were pulled over by a marked police car for cycling on the road along Embankment Road, during the day. Apparently, the patronising and condascending officer wanted to "offer them words of advice" that was "for their own benefit" and he was simply "trying to keep them safe". By telling them to go ride on a bumpy shared pavement, when DfT advice clearly says cyclists going faster than 15mph should ride on the road. This is the unhelpful attitude we as cyclists get from police, instead of ensuring drivers give them safe overtakes and sufficient following distances.

You will forgive me when I say that I expect the sudden interest from police to be due to my open letter to the Chief Constable, who wouldn't like any hint of public embarrassment of the force, and who therefore wants the cracks smoothed over. You may think me cynical for having said that, but that is exactly what my previous interactions with the police have taught me to expect. For things to change, to really change, D & C Police will require a bit of a culture shift, and I can't see that happening at all. Can you?

 I don't know if you're familiar with the Broken Windows approach, as used by New York city? The short version is that everything was reported as a way to counter the sliding goalposts that naturally follow as people (and officers) became more jaded, and even accepting of wrong-doing. That principle is partly credited with massively reducing New York's crime rate during the 1980's - the other reason I believe has to do with lead-based paint having been phased out, which led globally to reduced crime levels roughly within the same amount of time after the phasing out of lead-based paint.

In Plymouth, drivers push their luck. They amber-gamble, they speed, they take stupid chances. And as there are usually no consequences at all, they learn that they can get away with it. The result is that the borders have shifted. Once they have shifted, drivers will again push their luck. Only this time, they start skipping red lights. 

You may choose not to believe me, but I'd like you to go stand at the traffic lights by Staples on Charles Cross roundabout, within clear sight of Charles Cross police station, and count the number of drivers skipping red lights. Obviously you'd need to be in plain clothes. I cycle that way to work every day, and I usually see drivers skipping red lights there. When filtering through rows of stationary traffic, I usually count many drivers on their phones, and daily I'd expect to see one or two texting, or openly talking on their handheld phone while they're driving. In town, along Royal Parade or Union Street. They do that because they know from experience they can get away with it.

Reading all the above, you may think I'm an angry, bitter, negative man. I'm not. I am just a man who has lost complete faith in the police to keep vulnerable road users safe, and in that, I'm not alone. I am angry at times, following specific incidents: I've lost a (full) water bottle when I lobbed it after the car of a driver who nearly knocked me over. Despite the dent in his car, he wouldn't accept my invitation to pull over and discuss him nearly having killed me.

As a police officer, I'd expect you to say I cannot take the law into my own hands, and that I was in the wrong. Statistically, if the same driver gives me a very close overtake again and again, it is simply a matter of time before they finally run me over. My question to you is this: after how many such dangerous overtakes does it become acceptable for me to pull him out of his car and punch him? At which point would my actions become self-defence, especially given that we both know no police officer will do anything at all if I reported such close overtakes?

Can you see my predicament? I'm damned if I do, and damned if I don't.

The officer who told me that D & C Police won't issue Section 59 warnings unless the poor driving was witnessed by a uniformed officer is . This was during a meeting with the Plymouth Cycling Campaign, of which I'm a member. It was at that meeting that he also said what he did about helmet cam footage. Additionally, he said that close pass reports cannot be acted on by police as it is a very subjective thing. Now to be fair to the man, he came across as very likeable and a really nice guy, but those comments don't exactly fill me with confidence in the police.

So if you could offer a sensible, realistic, resourced and believable way forward, then yes, I'd love to meet with you and hear your plans. Hear your strategy for making our roads less lawless and safer for especially vulnerable road users.

I look forward to hearing your reply."

In response, I received this:

"My apologies for the delay in contacting you.

I have spoken with and about the previous meeting you had with the police regarding cycling in the city.

I can confirm that is still acting as a point of contact for any footage or information that may constitute an offence, which we can then deal with. He can view the footage and ascertain if there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a court hearing or any other appropriate action. He is what we call a gate keeper and is aware of the evidence standards required by the court for a prosecution. Our personal opinion of what is right or wrong is often a lower level.

I have now found out what ‘punishment pass’ is and if there is evidence of such a thing, that may be sufficient to take the matter further. Please report matters at the time or soon after.

I’m sorry that you feel your sweeping statement of how you believe the police treat cyclists, as there are many cyclists here who commute, compete and enjoy a family ride out.

I look forward to hearing from you in the near future and if there is anything you think we could work together on to improve the safety and enjoyment of riding in our city please let me know."

So in summary, I've received absolutely no straight answers from police, and I've not had any meeting with any police officer. Quite obviously, those who may have felt at first that I wasn't giving police sufficient time to respond cannot still feel that way. In the open letter, I stated that "We're tired of all the PR answers we're given - about how so many police officers cycle, too, and suffer the same as we do on the roads." And yet much of what I received via email is exactly that.

To summarise:
- D&C Police refused to answer a single one of my original six questions
- They failed to put forward any suggestions how these issues may be addressed
- They clearly refuse to accept that there are any failings on their part
- All this simply means NOTHING will change

There's an old saying: Nobody is as blind as he who chooses not to see.

When it comes to cyclists' safety, D&C Police chooses to bury it's head in the sand and refuses to even consider the possibility that there are force-wide major failings, with huge room for improvement. Until the police wake up and start doing some mature, open and honest self-analysis, cyclists in Devon and Cornwall will remain unprotected, unsupported and drivers will continue to put us at risk with total impunity.

Thanks, Chief Constable Sawyer. By not engaging directly with this issue, you have spoken very loud and clear about how you and your police force REALLY feel about cyclists.