Saturday, 19 March 2016

Orgreave Revisited

Thirty years ago, men convened by the National Union of Mineworkers, then engaged in strike action that lasted a year, confronted police at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire. The result was, in essence, a pitched battle.
            Ninety-five men were arrested and subsequently charged with riot. All were acquitted, as lawyers engaged in pre-trial argument saw the indictments off. The legal quagmire was such that nobody got a satisfactory outcome. On the strikers’ side, the police were perceived as having over-reacted, used excessive force, perverted the course of justice, committed perjury etc. On the police side, officers who made arrests did not get to explain their actions in court for a jury to decide the guilt or innocence of the suspects.
            Thirty years on, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has decided against re-opening the matter, primarily because it’s so long ago that, in all probability, the police officers involved have now retired and are thus beyond the reach of any IPCC investigation.
            An officer of our acquaintance who was there said that the ‘iceberg’ in these proceedings was that a senior officer told arresting officers precisely what forms of words to use in their statements. That led, eventually, to lawyers spotting these buzz phrases and seeing in that orchestration, foul play—statements contaminated by conspiracy or collusion.
            When in training, policemen are given the correct form of words to use when compiling their statements in given circumstances. For example, alcohol has no smell, so what you can smell on a drinker’s breath is ‘intoxicating liquor’, which does leave an odour. Using the wrong word could make an apparent liar of the writer.
            Back in the days before the roadside breathalyser, there were specific forms of words used by policemen to describe their reasonable suspicion that a suspect had been drinking to excess. These include ‘his eyes were glazed’ and ‘his speech was slurred’. To this day, American policemen use observation of these traits together with roadside sobriety tests to form their ‘probable cause’ that a suspect has been drinking. They don’t use roadside technology; you get arrested on probable cause and then hooked up to the mainframe at the police station for the actual test, which decides whether you get your car keys back or not.
            So back to Orgreave. It’s a reasonable bet that by 1984 policemen in South Yorkshire had had some training in writing reports and statements about mass public disorder. Riots were nothing new then and neither was the role of the police in containing them. In the nineteenth century, politicians complained about the quasi-military nature of the police, parading as regiments led by colonels (superintendents) to violently quell riots with a mixture of infantry and cavalry tactics. The second half of the twentieth century saw mass public disorder become the trademark of specific groups: Mods and Rockers fought in seaside towns, and football hooligans beat up the trains laid on for them to travel to away matches. An anti-Vietnam war demonstration led to a riot in Grosvenor Square in 1968. From the mid ’70s the last night of the Notting Hill Carnival generally saw a large disturbance, most often happy revellers versus the police, who wanted them to go home.
            Police solutions generally involved a very large presence, the use of the truncheons they came equipped with, and borrowed dustbin lids. The invention of the wheelie bin meant that dustbin lids were harder to come by and were last used by the Metropolitan Police in 1976, but whether that was in Lewisham or Notting Hill, we’re not sure.By the time Liverpool 8 became known as Toxteth in 1981, police riot response was a standard part of police training, particularly for their cavalry.
            Whether that training failed to extend to the buzz phrases to use in statements, or whether handing them down to use in 1984 amounted to over-egging things, we cannot know since the matter is not going to have the public scrutiny that people caught up in it at the time would like it to have. South Yorkshire Police are left with public doubt about their report writing, a doubt that has been compounded since what they wrote, didn’t write or deleted at the time of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 has unravelled.
            Our interest in the truthfulness of police statements and reports—and the use of buzz phrases—is related to their administration of the Firearms Acts. You might remember the Home Office coined the phrase ‘shooting while jumping up and down’ to describe practical pistol, which of course it doesn’t. The best-known and least understood buzz phrase is contained in the Act itself—‘danger to public safety or the peace’.
            This phrase appears twice in the 1968 Act; it’s the sole ground for refusing (or revoking) a shot gun certificate and registration as a firearms dealer. There are other hurdles to jump to get either, as you would expect, but any correctable defect, such as not having sufficient security sorted out would or should result in the application being delayed while you make good. For dealers, the difference is that one can apply to a chief constable with the intention of having a place of business in his area. You don’t have to have the premises ready or prepared beforehand.
            The meaning of the phrase does depend on where you live. Essex Police revoked a re-enactor’s certificate last year and seized his firearms because he did not have a GP and, once he had corrected that omission, the word was that as his card was marked it was unlikely that a new certificate would be granted. And this is a chap who never held live ammunition. His firearms were just the props he uses in living history displays, so ‘danger to public safety or the peace’ in Essex means whatever they say it means. 
            So apart from him being labelled a danger to public safety or the peace, the only other people usually so dubbed are serious sex offenders, described as ‘a danger to the public’ by sentencing judges. In firearms appeals, the phrase has been the subject of quasi-judicial scrutiny from time to time, such that some parameters might be observed. A non-violent crime isn’t, according to the Spencer-Stewart case in 1988, nor is a firearms conviction; so said the High Court in 2002’s case of Shepherd v Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall.
            Two drink drive convictions in a ten year period is, according to an Essex case, but then so is leaving a gun cabinet key with one’s aged mother so that the police can double-check that serial numbers on the guns match what was printed on the previous certificate and written on the application form.
            The ‘problem’ of members of the household who don’t have certificates having access to the guns was visited in the Devon and Cornwall case of Miss Dabek when her co-habitee applied for a shot gun certificate. He was turned down and her certificate was revoked when the police realized that she had the certificate and thus the gun at that address. This was before the ‘security’ condition appeared on shot gun certificates in 1989, although while all certificates now have that, the police can still be sniffy about any dubious member of the household that you live with.
            Recently revised Home Office guidance to police also goes the other way, so as well as the risk of not getting a certificate granted if you live with someone who has history, household members are expected to approve of your application before the chief constable looks for loopholes to enable him to get out of issuing it.
            A recent case in the north of England resulted in a confrontation between a certificate holder’s wife and a representative of the area’s thin blue line, which went exceptionally badly because the police representative used notes relating to another case for the meeting. How that meeting could take place at all without a Data Protection Act violation is a mystery; the scandal is compounded by the assertion that the police rep had also discussed the erroneous notes with neighbours, which if true could be both a crime and defamation.
            In the current ‘anything goes’ climate, what the police use as evidence at firearms appeals seems to support the view that winning the appeal is more important to them than observing the rule of law. Readers of the Shooter’s Journal will be familiar with what happened to Kevin Hunter. A prosecution failed as he had an alibi for the time of the incident; he wasn’t there. At the appeal, police suggested that the incident must have happened on a different date. At the more recent appeal, the police side started off with the view that they agreed with everything their colleagues did six years earlier, only to soften their approach to seeking the court’s permission to consider new applications when they realized what a mess the previous case had actually been.
            At an appeal last year for registration as a firearms dealer, the police opened their case by saying that it was a matter of ‘preventative justice’. Er, isn’t the only ground for refusal danger to public safety or the peace? The appellant has no convictions, so the only thing the refusal prevented was lawful trading, but never mind the fact that restraining lawful trade is an offence at common law. It gets better, or worse; but as it’s an on-going matter and it remains to be seen how much longer the police can drag it on before they are cornered. We’ll know when they are cornered, of course, because they will either issue the documents applied for, or, as so often seems to happen, they’ll turn to crime.

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