Sunday, 18 October 2009

Abuse of police powers – s 5 POA 1986

There is always much controversy about the police, and abuse of their powers. As a general rule, this focuses around stop and search powers, and expansion under various pieces of terrorism legislation.

Today however, I am not focusing on this. I am instead looking at, in brief, S 5 Public Order Act 1986. In my opinion one of the most abused pieces of legislation under the expanding belt of police powers. I have always thought this is legislation which can be both defended and attacked depending on how it is used.
Of course, reading the act gives us the impression that it is intended to stop severely reprehensible behaviour in public that occurs “within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress”. In other words, it should be used to stop the public being unduly concerned in their day by actions that go against that which is publically acceptable. A bit draconian, one might argue, but at least defensible in some respects.

However, my quibble is that it is used in such as a way as to be inconsistent with this. My annoyance has always been sparked whenever I have seen those appalling excuses for popular television that pass for cop shows. Police are frequently shown portraying a role of dealing (badly) with ASB in the public by going round and arresting drunkards on a Friday night in town centers.
I had the misfortune to catch one of these shows, and it neatly demonstrated why my anger at this is justified. I will recount what I saw:

A provocatively dressed young man (his jacket emblazoned with the intelligent slogan “fuck off”) broke up with his girlfriend in public, and, in an ill considered move played a quick round of fisticuffs with a wall. Marquis of Queensbury rules, naturally. No member of the public displayed any concern whatsoever.

An office then walked up to him, from behind, and grabbed his elbow. In response, the gent spun around and said “don’t fucking touch me”. The second officer restrained him forcibly, and they removed him from the train station. After a brief discussion where by the clearly dangerous youth (cough cough) asked politely what was going on, and was clear that he was just uptight due to his split from his now erstwhile girlfriend. His outburst he put as the result of being grabbed by surprise.

Frankly, the young man, despite his provocative dress, was intelligent and eloquent. He declined the penalty and was hauled off to the station. On route the police were forced to ignore a more serious call of a fight with one man being knocked out.

However, the crowning turd in the water pipe was this: he asked why he had been arrested, and the answer was (and I quote) “backchatting” as they drove to the station.

Now, I am pretty sure, “backchatting” doesn’t appear in the statue. Nope, it doesn’t. This is what infuriates me; it’s not an offence to annoy an officer by questioning what they are doing, provided it doesn’t stretch into the realms of obstruction. To be honest, using the power for this is clear abuse. The officer involved here ought to be disciplined, and very harshly. The statute has a legitimate public order aim, but arresting any individual you do not like is appalling. I was genuinely angered by this demonstration of police action, and continue to be infuriated by this statute’s public exercise. This needs a strong guideline on use, and police need to be forced away from doing this. I would go so far as to say current police practices are undermining the legitimacy of the police, as well as the legislation. Worse still, it wastes time and public money dealing with trivial issues that would have deflated had they been left well alone.

Not only this, but given that the words “fuck off” on his jacket were not sufficient to cause the offence, then surely him merely saying it an a manner audible only to his friends isn’t sufficient. Unless, of course, the officers were “person(s) likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress” by the expletive? Seems unlikely. In fact, I would say they can fuck off. Swearing does not really offend the public in most cases. Where a circle of people who regularly swear as a matter of course, to the extent that it is ingrained language, and no one else can hear, it must not be an offence. Therefore swearing in front of the officer is not an offence either, unless they fall under said category. Given that most policemen I have met swear like sailors, I find it unlikely.

If I was grabbed from behind on a Friday night, my response would have been along the same lines. In all honesty I would have responded more viciously as a matter of instinct, and suffered the consequences as a result. That aside, I seriously question the use of this legislation for behavior such as this.

What is worse is the fact this can lead to an on the spot fixed penalty notice. The police get to act as the judiciary as well, even where they may very well be in the wrong as to the application of the power. Given that this event is on film, including the abhorrent “backchat” moment, I am sure a competent barrister would have made a meal out of this. Yet most people will no doubt take the fine rather than be required to waste a day at the Mags court. But that is a whole other kettle of fish, for another day.

My point here is that this statute is misused. It has become, in my opinion, a farce. Being arrested for a section 5 offence has become synonymous with not really having done anything, and probably just annoyed an officer at the end of a long day.


  1. I'd hope that it wouldn't even get to the stage where the barrister was needed. It should be dropped at the stage where the decision is made to prosecute, on grounds of no public interest even if it could be argued that very technically it was an offence.

  2. I completely agree that s5 is overused, and sometimes it _appears_ that the police are out there to arrest people (get the targets in!)

    However, I've seen it used to good effect when a mouthy/drunk/probably high on drugs yoof kicked off when he came from being unconcious (hence why I was involved).
    He was nicked for s5, and upon getting to the station it proved to be another one onto a long list. He pleaded guilty at court.
    So, one is the exception to prove the rule - and I can only hope that there'll always be dodgy coppers.

    As regards street fines, don't get me started on how crap they are...

  3. @AP: I would hope that it would never get that far! I think there are also some technical arguments that can be put forward about the restraint that was used being unlawful as well, but again I think that's for another day.

    @ ASP: I agree that s.5 certainly has the possiblity to be put to good use, and certainly seems like it was in your experience. I have no problem if someone kicks off for no good reason being removed t prevent futher rucus! As for street fines....*disgusted noise*

  4. Hey,
    I'm writing an essay on s.5, could you link me the YouTube video/episode where you watched this arrest?


  5. Hi Pokeyraych

    Sorry, I have no idea which episode it was. It was on the TV, and I didn't think to take note at the time! Hope the essay goes well.