Friday 12 September 2008

Ian Johnston: a dangerously prejudiced police officer

Ian Johnston is the President of the Police Superintendents' Association and a senior officer on the Gwent force in Wales. (And not to be confused with his namesake, Chief Constable Ian Johnston, who runs British Transport Police.)

He released a press statement which was widely reproduced in today’s national media. He claims that confidence in the police is declining:

“We can’t get away from the fact that national poll after national poll says that, despite our record on crime levels, confidence is decreasing. So somewhere, we are going wrong.”

Really? Maybe he needs help with his maths, since

Figures from the 2007-08 British Crime Survey show that 53 per cent of people thought that the police in their local area were doing a good or excellent job, up from 47 per cent in 2003-04.

Of course it may be that the official figures do not represent the reality. And Johnston may well be right when he says that

There are too many occasions when police stations are not open, when we do not answer the phone and when having recorded an offence we don’t go back to keep people up to date.

In reality, as the Home Office crime surveys demonstrate, confidence in the police, or lack of it, is determined by a wide range of variables, including gender, age, ethnicity, personal wealth, where you live, and whether or not you have had personal contact with the police, and what that contact was (victim, witness etc).

It's certainly true there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of public dissatisfaction. This, for example:

THE father of a teenager injured by a hit-and-run driver has spoken out after police failed to respond to his calls for action. Jordan Deakin, 14, suffered bruises and grazes when he was knocked from his bicycle in Lincoln Way, Midway, at 7.30pm on Wednesday, by a driver who sped away without stopping.

However, 48 hours later, Jordan's father, Nigel, was still waiting for police to respond to his calls for an investigation. He said: "I rang up Derbyshire Police to report it and they told me that I had to report it to my own station within 24 hours. Obviously, the police station in Swadlincote is closed at that time, but I went down there and used the phone outside, which went through to Derbyshire Police again.

"The man at Derbyshire said he would try to get hold of the duty officer and 10 minutes later, he came back to me to say he couldn't get hold of him, and to ring them in the morning. I have rung them non-stop this morning but it is constantly engaged. "It seems no one is interested in coming out. What if this car had knocked somebody else down and killed them?

However, the aspect of Johnston’s speech which has attracted most attention and the bit that has triggered headlines and garnered masses of drooling approval from the nation’s petrolheads is this:

Mr Johnston, who will make the keynote speech to the association's annual conference in Chester next week, called for a review of the way speed cameras are used. He said widespread public resentment caused by speed cameras has become a barrier between officers and the public. Mr Johnston said: "One of the most negative aspects of how the public view the police is the use of speed cameras. "The public don't think they are fair and they don't think there is a link between cameras and reducing road deaths or injuries. We should review the use of speed cameras."

And that’s where Johnston exposes himself as an ignoramus. And stupidly prejudiced people like Johnston get to the very top of a profession which is not exactly short of petrolheads.

Throughout the era of mass motoring British policing has been in thrall to the idea that enforcing traffic law alienates the public. It is a prejudice for which there is not a scrap of evidence, and it has been repeatedly discredited by sociological studies. It is also the case that speed cameras enjoy overwhelming public support, despite the hostility to them from the road lobby, the gutter press, and many police officers. Support for the use of speed cameras to enforce speed limits on UK roads stands at 69 per cent. When Johnston talks about 'the public' he is actually referring to a tiny but very vocal minority.

What’s more

• 70% of people agreed that “fewer accidents are likely to happen on roads where cameras are installed”.
• 67% of people agreed that "Cameras mean that dangerous drivers are now more likely to get caught"
• 40% of people agreed that "Cameras are an easy way of making money out of motorists"
• 82% of people agreed that "Cameras are meant to encourage drivers to keep to the limits, not punish them"

Individuals like Chief Superintendent Johnston are effectively promoting a road lobby view of speed cameras. He is not challenging prejudice but reinforcing it, which is extraordinarily irresponsible of him. And as one study has noted, the anti-speed-camera brigade show

how a health intervention, even when shown to be effective at reducing deaths and injuries, can be subject to sustained attacks from highly organised antihealth forces. It calls for concerted action among health professionals to respond to the increasingly vocal motorist lobby groups.

Ironically, the evidence that speed cameras work is supplied by Johnston’s own neck of the woods:

Speed is still a key contributory factor to collisions in North Wales. “In 2007, the number of people killed or seriously injured on camera routes in North Wales was reduced by 63% when comparing with our baseline before Partnership enforcement took place. We are among the best performing partnerships in the UK.”

Interestingly Chief Superintendent Johnston’s own force has a shaky record when it comes to speeding:

In Wales, Gwent Police exempted 98 of its 117 speeding on duty cases in 2003-04. In 12 cases the officers and civilian staff were fined or summonsed. Documents were missing in a further seven cases.

This was part of a bigger picture, in which

Only 354 of 90,000 police caught on camera speeding or jumping red lights last year were punished. Forces were accused of double standards after it emerged that only one in 200 officers was fined or given points, compared with 84 per cent of ordinary drivers. In a quarter of the cases the police cars had their blue lights flashing, suggesting officers were attending an emergency. However, nearly all of the rest had the slate wiped clean by senior police, saving them from three points on their licence and a £60 fine.

So there you have it. According to Home Office figures public confidence in the police is not declining. There is overwhelming public support for speed cameras. Speed cameras work. There is not a scrap of evidence that speed cameras alienate the public from the police. And when the public are consulted they actually want more traffic policing:

CUMBRIA Police are cracking down on reckless driving in Wigton after a poll showed residents believe it is the biggest problem facing the town. There will be more mobile speed traps on main routes and stop checks to make sure vehicles are roadworthy. Insp Don Allen said: "We are regularly getting complaints of anti-social use of motor vehicles and speeding.".

Or how about this:

A Weybridge Road resident, who asked not to be named, said: “I heard a massive bang and then a woman screaming in absolute agony, it was horrible.” In the three years the resident has lived in the road she has witnessed many accidents, which she believes have mainly been caused by speed. The road goes from a 50mph dual carriageway to 30mph on Weybridge Road. She said: “If traffic is queued back from the roundabout in Church Street and someone tears over the hill they end up crashing into the queue here. “We’d love to get a speed camera or a speed sign at least. Something needs to be done because it’s bad.”

Finally, here’s a pic of Chief Superintendent Johnston. Somehow I don’t think fatty walks or cycles to work, do you? Too dangerous, I expect.