F*** you, bad reporting!

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:

Highlighted area one, is why his appeal succeeded.

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.


33 thoughts on “F*** you, bad reporting!

  1. Well that’s just too bad. It shouldn’t be an offence to use swear words in the earshot of police officers, simply because swear words are not in themselves offensive, threatening or harassing. Being pulled up for pissing in the street, for example, and responding with ‘Oh for fuck sake’, isn’t going to get you maced in the face, just maybe a charge under this act. I’ll tell you what is pretty threatening though. Walking down the street, only to hear ‘GET AGAINST THE FUCKING WALL. GET-AGAINST’-THE-FUCKING-WALL’ from these apparently very sensitive police officers.

    Why, oh why, is it one law for us and another for the police?

    Good article, by the way.

    • They do have to prove they were alarmed, harassed or threatened by it, to a higher degree than a non police officer, but I do get your point. We had a discussion with some officers about this earlier in the week, where lawyers pointed out they frequently get sworn at, but don’t attempt to prosecute for it.

      • Can a copper “prove” they were “alarmed, harassed or threatened” by swear words. Admittedly, they could *say* they were, but where’s the proof in that? Couldn’t a defence barrister argue “where you *really* upset, or are you just saying that now? Did you really feel threatened, with your pava spray, extendable baton and back-up?”
        Just a thought. Good post btw.

  2. “It is not acceptable to be sworn at for anybody, so why would it be any more acceptable for a police officer?”

    The better question is: ‘Why should policemen get privileged treatment?’ If someone swears at me in the street, merited or not, I don’t have the ability to arrest them and if I complained to the police that someone told me to ‘fuck off’ and it distressed me it is highly improbable that they would hunt the miscreant down and arrest them.

    “Even if you accepted that argument, then it doesn’t look too good, does it, in terms of respect? ” So is failing to be respectful an arrestable offence? In reality it is /this/ that is the real problem. The police feel their dignity is impinged and use their coercive powers to take revenge. Those who deal with the police, and in private the police themselves, know this is what is really happening. Why should anyone be due deference & respect: it’s earnt not demanded.

    • A very good point, and one that I take pains to point out to officers as often as I can. It is not hard to form the view that a charge for section 5 is often in response to someone being ‘difficult’ and not quite playing the game when approached by officers.

      • In both cases, though, it’s a matter of on-the-spot arrests rather than a complaint at the station. I doubt the police would spend any resources investigating an allegation like this one if it were just reported by a PC at the station.

        All that said and done, it is par for the course. I got sworn at enough when teaching in prisons, and that was by the inmates who liked me (not like that, you sniggering at the back).

  3. I wonder how many people have come a cropper in the last week, having decided to exercise their (supposed) new-found freedom to run out and tell a fine upstanding officer where to stick their Section 5…?

  4. I wonder how many people have come a cropper in the last week, having decided to exercise their (supposed) new-found freedom to run out and tell a fine upstanding officer where to stick their Section 5…?

  5. Geeklawyer raises an excellent question: if one member of the public complains to a police officer that they have been distressed by the language used towards them by another member of the public, how common is it for the swearer to get arrested under Section 5?

    • We would have to try to delve into the stats, but I am not sure they distinguish between cases where the public is the complainant, and those where the police are. I am more than happy to be corrected if those figures do exist.

  6. Great post!

    How about a deal with the Police? They desist from killing innocent Londoners, and the public desists from swearing at them.

    • I sit as a magistrate, and last time I sat got called a stupid fucking cunt by an unhappy crim. Fortunately my phlegm is not just extraordinary but out of this world, so we didn’t bother to call him back for contempt.

      I think the legal advisers tend to get more of the sweary abuse than the bench do, though.

      • This is a true story…..
        A Judge called HHJ Callman had just sent s defendant down for a term of imprisonment.
        As he was leaving the dock, that defendant turned back to the Judge and said “You Cunt!”
        The Judge quietly but firmly asked the dock officer to bring him back and sit him down.
        The defendant hung his head, expecting an even longer sentence. What he got was this, from the judge.
        “I will shortly leave this court and travel home in my very comfortable car.
        When I arrive, my wife will greet me with a relaxing drink and a warm fire to sit in front of, in my armchair. There will be a splendid meal waiting for me, which I will savour, until my wife and I retire happily together to our bed.
        I will wake in the morning to a cup of hot tea, a full breakfast and look forward to another day in court.
        “You on the other hand when you leave this court, will be taken in a cramped noisy van to a prison. On arrival you will likely be stripped of your clothes, have to stand in the freezing cold while you are searched, given prison clothes and pushed into a miserable cell with no food because by the time you get there, you will have missed the evening meal. You might have a cellmate who may or may not be “pleased” to see you. You will probably not get any sleep, and will be thoroughly miserable in the morning.
        Now, you tell me. Who is the Cunt?

  7. Not entirely convincing; Boris’s comment that the public should not be allowed to insult public servants with impunity is a perfectly reasonable complaint in view of Glidewell LJ’s magnificently de haut en bas observation in another case that an expletive enriched working environment is part of the job for the flourescent jacket wearing classes.
    I agree that because of the failure to prove the elements of the offence here, this is not a very apt trigger for tabloid outrage, but the wider point stands. Teachers will also wonder why they are also considered fair game for being sworn at. As Jim says, try swearing at a magistrate, or better still, a Lord Justice of Appeal, and see what happens.

    • Boris’ comment was in respect of this story – he was unfairly asked to comment on facts presented to him incorrectly.

      You are referring to the case of Orum, where it was held that the standard for alarm and distress was higher in cases involving officers, because they hear that language more frequently than most.

      As on new criminal solicitor pointed out this week, lawyers too hear it often, and have it directed to them… the difference being, they don’t seek a prosecution for it.

  8. Excellent summary. Much better summary than I managed but we are certainly not at crossed purposes here. It’s just an example of poor officer statements and weak prosecution. As I said to TheCustodysgt it seemed like tolerances were lowered after the unsuccessful S23 MDA search. A poor effort all around. But well done you in forming clarity in the matter. I’m a milly convert.

    • Yes, indeed, it does seem that tolerances were lowered.
      But, it is an important point – there is no excuse for poor witness statements or more importantly, for poor questioning, in any case, ever, regardless of what our personal views of section 5 are (I have no idea what your views are, but most lawyers do have ‘views’).

      And thank you!

  9. I only see British police on the TV, but they do strike me as most awfully badly dressed, with ugly hi-res jackets on top of shiny shell suits. When they do a ‘press conference’ they are in ‘proper’ uniform.

    I don’t think that our exquisitely tailored carabinieri get sworn at going about their everyday duties (and I doubt if the gun is the deterrent) – they just look like special characters, not just like another bullying hoodie.

    (There’s yer Liz Jones fashionista take on it!)

  10. There is a great line in the judgment of, I think, Orum which says police officers may be “wearily familiar” with people swearing at them, rather than be “harrassed, alarmed or distressed”

    I have won many s.5 trials involving police officers by getting officers to confirm in cross-examination that they are “wearily familiar” with swearing

    PS: Mrs Storer has just entered the room, looked over my shoulder, and said “I hope you are not going to say it is OK to swear at police officers?”

    No … I’m not

  11. Yet another great bit of reporting by milly!!
    Love the comments damned informative as always- I very rarely arrest if someone is swearing just at me- I work in a very rough area and swearing is commonplace when I turn up to a job – I do however arrest for the offence usually if it escalates and I’m getting comments such ” I’m gonna fucking deck you you ****$” .. This usually gets a lot worse and sec 5 is no longer appropriate sec 4 or 4a comes up this again is rare and it usually takes a nasty job for it to come up- for me it’s almost always when other members of the public are around and I always grab details and ask what they thought about it- I have seen certain people bastardise a simple breach of the peace into a public order offence and dont agree with that at all.
    I guess I just take getting sworn at as part if the job and given the area I work in normal language- I do warn people to tone it done if its blatantly taking the **$$ and usually it works and they calm down..
    Reading the article it was obvious they hadn’t reported it right at all and it was bloody awful reporting as you have said milly!!
    Thanks for another great piece !

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