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Acceptable police conduct?

A police officer recently hit the headlines having worked as a prostitute. Policewoman Victoria Thorne had encounters with a number of men, working through the Notorious Girls escort agency. A number of people are awaiting trial on charges relating to prostitution. She pleaded guilty to misconduct in a public office. She was remanded in custody awaiting sentence at the end of trial of various co-accused.

I am aware of the enormous danger of pontificating about likely sentence on cases about which you do not know all the facts. However there does not seem at the moment to be a suggestion that she specifically used police information or her office to facilitate prostitution (as in tipping off about police raids etc). Obviously had she done something like that then I would have thought that a prison sentence was merited. However, particularly at a time when serious offenders are being let out early because there appears to be enormous pressure on prison places, I am not clear what public interest is served by imprisoning someone in relation to offences of prostitution where they are the prostitute, even if they were a serving police officer. I would have thought that save in the most serious cases, quite apart from whether such conduct merits imprisonment in the first place, the public humiliation of having your name plastered across the popular press, allied to loss of career, would be a significant enough punishment.

What is far more of concern recent incidents regarding demonstrations and police conduct. I accept that policing demonstrations can be difficult, it can be dangerous, and it can be taxing. I also accept that filming one incident in isolation can give a misleading impression. Sometimes what has happened just before what you see can indicate why that is happening.

However making all those allowances, it is important to bear in mind that there is all the difference in the world between a violent demonstrations and demonstrations. Similarly there is a huge gulf between violent protesters and protesters. Just because some protesters are violent does not mean that all have to be tarred with the same brush. People attending a demonstration do not know what everyone else attending the demonstration is going to do.

A number of serious concerns arise out of the two recent incidents seen widely on the television because they were filmed, the first regarding the protester who was pushed over and died, the second where a woman protester was apparently slapped across the face and then appears to be hit on the leg with a baton. In neither case on the face of it was the person being violent or threatening. Moreover it is of particular concern that in relation to the first incident the video footage obtained seemed grossly at variance with the official police line that was first issued regarding what is supposedly happened.

I have not attended demonstrations but I am familiar with the problems of being peaceful but caught up between a crowd which contains some hostile elements and the police trying to deal with them (attending football matches in the 1970s). It is all too easy for the police to treat a crowd as though it was all operating with one mind. People who are trying to escape the trouble often cannot do so. Whilst the police have a difficult job in identifying who is trying to cause trouble and who is trying to get away, the risk of confusing the two types of people should be borne in mind when reacting to the crowd. Sometimes it will be necessary to use force, and when it is the police should be given the benefit of the doubt, but force as a response to argument is unacceptable. If someone not a police officer had slapped a woman across the face and then hit her with an implement, right in front of the police, they would have been arrested on the spot.

Even more importantly, any police response should be a genuine one based on ascertaining the facts. The knee-jerk reaction of succumbing to the temptations of the age of spin will only serve to undermine public confidence in the police.

Making sure that officers behave properly when policing demonstrations is a lot more important than punishing what they do in their spare time, however reprehensible.

Michael J. Booth QC