Sunday, 16 January 2011

Moving Swiftly On...

You must forgive my absence from the keyboard; I am 'travelling'. A most enlightening experience it is too. Not in the 'gap yah' sense of the word, but with work. My next few posts will be from abroad as I struggle with the somehow ludicrous expense of wishing to access the World Wide Web from, well, the wide world. You might think that this post will focus on the profiteering telecoms companies who charge eleventy million pounds to call, text or access data abroad. There might well be such a post in the future, because as you know I am not one who likes the general populace to be taken for a ride, but today is not that day. Today, we will discuss (I will speak, no-one will listen), speed cameras and the police.

More specifically, I suppose we are discussing the role of both of them in society. That is, their duties to their employers (us - John and Jane Q. Taxpayer), and the reasoning behind the way they discharge their duties. Yes, after a couple of days of sweating on planes, trains and automobiles (actually no trains, but you see what I did there), I have arrived with a desire to blog about something totally disparate to my current situation, but one that came up in conversation down route.

Now I was spurred on to finally blog about a subject, with which I have bored many of my friends, by a recent news article. Being a generally 3-7 times a week blogger I will generally be a little behind most stories. As it is I am still prioritising the venting of my ire at some New Year idiocy, but I figured this one should jump the queue a little. I speak today of the conviction of 64 year old Michael Thompson for obstructing a police officer. How? Did he block the path of a bobby chasing a fleeing felon, stolen handbag in tow? Or perhaps lie to send said bobby up the wrong street in pursuit of aforementioned criminal? Nope, flashed his lights at an oncoming car to warn of a police speed trap.

So we have a police service and crown prosecution service petty enough, and a Grimsby Magistrate stupid enough to think a crime has been committed here. Not just a crime, but a crime worth the costs of the prosecution. Taxes paid for the salaries of every fool involved in this. They paid for every expense said fools incurred whilst on this case. They paid for the court room. They paid for the PR officer desperately trying to make it not look as pathetic and wrong as it is. Yup, we paid for all this crap. The way we throw around money that isn't ours (the public sector), you'd think we had a surplus not a deficit.

So let's look into the two main parts of this farce I wish to discuss. Firstly, speed cameras, and secondly the police.

Speed cameras; I am not the first, I shall not be the last. If their job is to prevent speeding (as claimed), one should rejoice if they collected no income. If nobody sped past them, we have won the 'War on Speed', which makes for better reading than the whole 'Terror' one which is on most optimistic reading, a score draw. Point being, pressure has made the police signpost fixed speed cameras and mark them with shiny yellow bits. Yes, people got annoyed at the stealth nature of a policy that if it stuck to the principles on which it was voted for, would have given us 20' high, luminous pink cameras blaring out Roberta Flack's "Fast Car". Her melancholy verse alone would have got us all slowing down and thinking about life and thus saving it. So we are warning people to slow down, so why prosecute a man for doing the same? I could go on about the nature of speed cameras, and given a dry news month, I probably will, but the argument is very simple.

Further arguments on why else this conviction was utter hoop shouldn't be required, but apparently are. First off, Thompson's defence of flashing because he wished to alert motorists to a potential threat holds much water. He stated he had previously been involved in a crash where an unseen speed trap caused the motorist in front of him to brake very sharply. He braked and stopped in time, but the chap behind did not and hit him. We've all seen it. People driving at 45 in a 50 instinctively braking on seeing a speed camera despite driving legally. They get quite close to you. I will wager if all the cars in the UK were placed on all the roads, spaced out at the correct stopping distances from each other at the relevant speeds for those roads, some of us would have to leave our cars at home. Speed traps do cause braking, which can cause accidents, and in this case Mr Thompson did what he though right. The fact is he should never have had to resort to this defence.

The second obvious flaw in the conviction is that there is no way anyone can prove he prevented the detection of a crime. The oncoming cars were not stopped for speeding. They may not have been speeding. They may have been. Doesn't matter, as previous judgements have dictated, if you don't know someone is going to commit a crime, how can anyone else be prosecuted for obstructing the police from catching someone perpetrating said imaginary future crime? All gets a little Minority Report for my liking.

On a side note, the fine Mr Thompson paid included a £15 victim surcharge. Did they just use it to buy doughnuts for the poor policemen who didn't get to catch a speeding motorist?

So we have discussed briefly that speed cameras are supposed to be there to stop speeding not to catch it. We have discussed that the police and judicial system involved in this could be better employed unemployed because they're morons. So now I move onto why the police were there in the first place.

I shall start with a case study, and a confession. I have 3 points on my licence. If you feel the need to stop reading because you feel reading and agreeing with this would be like reading Mein Kampf and nodding sagely, I understand. I am an enemy of the state. Probably not Public Enemy Number 1, but I like to think I'd make the UK Top 40, downloads and all.

I did 35 in a 30. Luckily I was stopped. By 5 policemen.

Yup, pulled over by a mobile speed trap operated by (I thought) a sole policeman, I was ushered into a side road by a second. There I saw three more, and three vehicles between them. I explained I had no particular reason for my immense speed but asked seeing as though I had no points and was only doing 35, if a warning might suffice. I was informed by the sergeant that he had no discretion available to him. After realising I was screwed anyway, I decided I may as well get my £60 worth. I asked him if he felt this was a worthwhile use of his time? No. If this was a worthwhile use of his many colleagues' time? No. If this was what he signed up to do? No. If they could all be better use to society elsewhere? Yes. I thanked the officer for his honesty, took my stupid ticket, explained why I was right to be "so embarrassing" to my better half, and drove home thinking of how to apologise to her later.

The police are trained at the UK taxpayers' expense because they are there to stop baddies doing things, or catch them once they have; an idea for a new £500,000 slogan perhaps (the subject of a post soon I feel). We are constantly bombarded with crime statistics - apparently more baddies, and fewer goodies to do the preventing/catching job. The police are up in arms and I imagine will probably march (the longest many of them will have ever spent on the streets) on Downing Street to complain at budget cuts soon enough. Yes, budget cuts = cuts to front line services. Now tell me if I'm wrong, but when asked (as a UK taxpayer) to prioritise which bad things I would like to see UK Police PLC stop, I would put traffic crime pretty low down. Certainly below murder, rape, violent crime, robbery, and pretty must the majority of crime that I can think of off the top of my head. So why are they so keen on traffic crime then?

Simple: It's simple (I have resisted saying 'and so are they', but only just). Yes, traffic crime is the slam dunk of all crimes, as open-shut as it gets. As soon as it is detected, it is prosecuted. You have the culprit, you don't need a motive, no investigation, no Colombo-esque "one last question" (why not ask that one first - the episodes could have been so much cheaper to make?), no wriggle room. Forgive the pun, but as quick as a flash you have the case solved. And £60.

In my mind, they are hot on this because a) it is the only crime which pays (who ever said it didn't), and b) it's the easiest stat to log. In a police world mired in red tape and prosecution or detection targets (thanks mostly but not exclusively to Labour) where stats are king, when you have a crime that takes the shutter speed to detect and an envelope and a stamp to process, it makes sense to put your men on a bridge over the A40 rather than work out who killed the person lying under it. The latter might take a while, and it's still just one conviction at the end of the day.

So, where for the police? The Tories have suggested they are planning on removing much of this red tape and get bobbies back out on the beat. Good luck to them; they will have their work cut out. I would go further though. I would not pay for someone to be taught how an entire bank worked and then get them to open the door for customers. So why would I pay for full police training for them to sit at the side of a road with a camera?

After someone finally mans up and tells us exactly why we have speed cameras and exactly their impact (not anecdotal evidence that could be attributed to a myriad of reasons), we need a new strategy. If cameras are to stay, but are deemed not enough, the British Transport Police can be expanded. They can have a traffic division. No need to teach them how to document a breaking and entering case, no need to teach them to deal with the victims of assault, just sit them at the side of a road with a fancy hairdryer. The envelope and stamp can do the rest, and then maybe the police can get on with their real jobs. If cuts to police funding means cuts to front line services, bring on the cuts because this service can happily go. The only thing front line about it is the cost to all of us.

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