The case of Denzel Harvey has been much reported this week, as being the case where the High Court apparently decreed that if a person swears at the police it is okay, because police officers should be able to take it.
Harvey was charged, convicted, and then had the conviction quashed, with an offence contrary to section 5 Public Order Act 1986:
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
(the facts of the case being that he used the F word towards a police officer on several occasions during a stop and search).
Not only has there been the usual knee-jerkery in the red-tops and the tabloids, but it has spread out into the broadsheets and into the police social media footprint, particularly Twitter and blogs.
According to the Telegraph, Simon Reed, vice chairman of the Police Federation, said:
“It’s astounding that you can use every swear word to abuse a police officer and they have got to accept it just because it is common. This gives the green light for everyone to swear and use disorderly behaviour with police.”
Apparently, the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Bernard Hogan-Howe said:
“It is not acceptable to be sworn at for anybody, so why would it be any more acceptable for a police officer? Even if you accepted that argument, then it doesn’t look too good, does it, in terms of respect? A police officer challenges a suspect about something and they stand there being abusive. I just don’t understand how that works. So I am deeply disappointed by the decision, but I respect the fact that apparently it is a statement of the law.”
And indeed it is reported that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, also waded in with:
“Public servants are not there to be abused – they are there to serve society and society must respect them. How can a copper cope with the job if the public are allowed to insult them with impunity?”
All fair comments really. Based on what they had been told, anyway.
You see, sadly the media – and especially those reporters who put this case to those quoted above – got their facts wrong.
The report of the decision went up today on the Judiciary website, and it tells a very different tale to the one that has been in the media. You can find the full judgment here, but I have snagged the relevant part:
To prove an offence under section 5, you have to prove harassment, alarm or distress. Unfortunately, the prosecutor seems to have forgotten the ABC of prosecution; that is, proving the elements of the offence – which is rather crucial. According to the appeal judgment (page 4) ‘neither officer gave evidence of being harassed, alarmed or distressed’, because, as above, they were not asked. Whoops.
Highlighted area two makes very clear – with emphasis added by the judge, that in granting the appeal, he is laying the blame on the fact the questions had not been asked, and he is absolutely not saying that officers have to take abuse.
So there we have it. Bad questioning yes, bad law no, f***ing awful reporting.