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Opinion: off duty calls

A warrant card is not Excalibur says Chris Hobbs who uses his own experiences of off duty incidents to defend an officer involved in more recent negative headlines

At the end of a demanding 15-week training course at Hendon, this was the moment we had all been working towards. There was no ceremony as we received proof of the fruits of our labours; namely a Metropolitan Police warrant card.

As the experienced sergeant began handing those warrant cards out, his statement reinforced the warnings we had already been given but in rather more basic terms; ‘It’s not fc*king Excalibur.’

We, as a class had already discussed our responsibilities. We knew we were police officers 24-hours-a-day and would even be judged on our actions if on holiday abroad. We had also been told that production of our warrant cards when off-duty had to be carefully judged depending on the situation. It would not magically resolve a situation, especially a violent one, indeed it could exacerbate it. In those days, of course, there were no mobile phones.

Today there is a police decision making model, the details of which are shown on a diagram compiled by the College of Policing. A rather more practical approach in a fast moving, potentially dangerous situation is covered by the term; ‘dynamic risk assessment.’

Recently, the Met garnered more unwelcome headlines when an off-duty Met detective travelling on the underground was accused by an activist of failing to act as she was being racially abused and then assaulted by a female. The activist stated that she and her two female friends who travelled with her, only realised that the off-duty detective was a police officer when all parties and members of the public left the Northern line train at Kings Cross.

The BTP were called and the suspect, who the BTP stated had already been detained by the Met officer, was arrested. She has since been bailed pending further enquiries. The alleged victim however, complained that the officer did not intervene quicky enough. The Met, with what seemed undue haste, has referred the incident and the officer to the IOPC. This is being regarded by many as yet another example of the Met hierarchy ‘throwing an officer under the bus.’

Thus, the question as to why the officer didn’t produce ‘Excalibur’ and immediately intervene prompted me to recall incidents when I intervened (or did not) when off duty.

No off-duty intervention here

One example of my opting for inaction occurred when I sat in a near deserted carriage on the underground opposite a young couple. Suddenly, through the door came half a dozen football ‘fans’ in their twenties. They were loud and the worse for drink. They both sat and stood and soon began making comments about the attractive girl. Their remarks turned to lewd comments which became vile. Their whole demeanour was threatening and they seemed to be goading the luckless boyfriend into responding which, so ugly had the atmosphere become, could only have led to him being violently attacked.

I weighed up the possible consequences of intervening. Had I used ‘Excalibur,’ there was every chance this situation would have become violent; myself and quite probably the boyfriend would have stood little chance in a physical confrontation and the luckless girl may also have been injured.

I opted to wait and only intervene if either of the couple were physically assaulted. I stayed on beyond my destination and got off when the couple reached their intended stop. Happily, and to my relief, the thugs stayed on the train.

‘Excalibur’ produced

The other incident concerned an intervention between two factions of again so-called football fans. It was Saturday; I’d been working at Gatwick and had reached Paddington on my way home walking towards the underground ticket barriers. Suddenly shouting attracted me to a confrontation. It was between half a dozen youths on one side and two on the other; again, they were football fans and this time I opted to identify myself. I told one group to go in one direction and became aware that both ‘sides’ were becoming aggressive towards me. I realised all were Chelsea fans.

Luckily, I had my ASP (extendable baton) with me as I had been working at Gatwick, which I drew and ‘racked.’ With my other hand I grabbed my mobile phone even though I guessed there was no signal. I pretended to be talking to the police and both groups decided to vanish. I went to the ticket barrier, showedmy warranrt card’ to the staff member at the barrier and asked him to contact the BTP. He said he couldn’t do that without consulting his supervisor. I gave up and went home.

This taught me that intervening between two rival groups can result in them realising there is a ‘common enemy:’You.

The ‘honest broker’ approach

On occasions, the decision may be one of intervening but not showing out. I used to run a football team, a number of whom were police. On a Saturday afternoon, my team had gone home and I was packing away the kit when all hell broke loose outside.

Two teams, who had kicked off later, were indulging in a running battle. It would seem there’d been bad blood between them earlier in the season. On this occasion, some black males entered a changing room occupied by the rival team and who had a number of players of Arab origins. Much latter I discovered one of the Arab males had been stabbed several times.

The fighting continued outside and it was quite savage. I decided not to produce my warrant card but act as an ‘honest broker,’ and inserted myself between fighting individuals. As soon as one ‘fire’ was extinguished, another began. Every time I dialled 999, another fight broke out and only at the fourth attempt did I get through to the police operator. I quickly blurted out my identity and I required urgent assistance at Warren Farm. Alas I wasn’t aware that there was a Warren farm in South London and half the Met went there to find nothing.

Meanwhile I was becoming tired, but then I saw one male chasing another, I joined the chase; the chasing male turned to me and he was clutching a knife. This was not good; suddenly the manager of the team who the male was with, approached and thankfully took the knife off him. Four of the main protagonists, including the male who had the knife jumped into a car and drove off.

I managed to dial 999 again and within minutes the cavalry arrived followed by an ambulance. The young girl in the tea van waxed lyrical in her statement when talking about the ‘tall man.’ I’d like to report a successful prosecution but that’s another story. Let’s say it involved a disastrous ID parade and the CPS.

Off duty but taking control

There are a number of other occasions when I intervened off duty showing my warrant card or intervening as an ‘honest broker,’ or opting to observe as a potential professional witness. Occasionally my warrant card was produced at a medical emergency or at a road traffic accident. I remember a multi-vehicle/casualty accident in Dorset where I was the first officer on scene albeit off-duty and, back in Ealing, watching, when driving past, as a small girl was hit by a car and tossed in the air. Later that afternoon, in my local pub, a police officer walked in with my blood-soaked jacket. Happily, the little girl survived.

The non-intervention, professional witness approach

There is also the option of being a professional witness; I was walking along the Uxbridge Road with two female friends having been for a meal. Suddenly, we became aware of a male in the middle of the road with a handgun taking aim at the passing traffic. There was no discharge but it must have been unnerving for the motorists. I opted not to tackle him and dialled 999. I then followed him up the road giving a commentary as I went. I was working out angles of approach should there be a discharge but I felt he was more likely to be a mental health case, however armed response vehicles were on the way.

Eventually he returned to the pavement as two police vehicles approached. Suddenly they veered across the road and officers ‘bomb-burst,’ out of the doors and brought the individual crashing to the floor. He was searched and a bibi-gun together with a realistic metal toy pistol were produced. It subsequently turned out that he was a cannabis addict prone to mental health episodes.

One of my female friends is South African and carries a handgun when in her own country. Interestingly she later told me that if she was confronted with that situation in South Africa, she would have shot the male without any hesitation.

Dynamic risk assessments 

These are isolated examples of numerous off-duty interventions (or non-interventions) over 32 years; each occasion demanded a ‘dynamic risk assessment’ as to what action needed to be taken and of course, I’m not alone. Many thousands of ‘off-duty,’ dynamic risk assessments will have taken place by off-duty officers during my 32-year career and many more thousands since my retirement. It now remains to be seen what effect this incident will have on officer’s willingness to put themselves at risk off duty.

Amongst those thousands will be occasions when the officer having to make that dynamic risk assessment will get it wrong or could have chosen another path.

In the current atmosphere of the media actively seeking incidents that reflect negatively on police, that this incident attracted significant publicity was unsurprising. The primary victim of the alleged racist abuse and assault is a leading figure in the Southall Black Sisters organisation. Despite being virulently anti-police since its inception, its activists would probably be surprised to learn that it has been and is respected by local police during its 43- year history due its support for female and child victims of domestic violence and abuse.

Pertinent considerations

The officer in question is, as I understand it, a ‘newbie,’ in that whilst a direct entry detective, he has only six months service. It’s also worth reinforcing the view held by many that since the cutbacks, recruitment, vetting and training have suffered with much of it now outsourced. I understand, however, that this officer is well thought of.

The officer would be aware that being on an underground train he would be unable to summons assistance; he would also be aware that the victim was with two friends while the suspect allegedly indulging in racist abuse and then an assault, was acting alone. Perhaps, given the above facts, he was content to allow the scenario to ‘play out,’ knowing that an intervention might require him to take the suspect to the floor if she reacted violently. The other possible scenario, as illustrated above at Paddington, is that both sides turn on the officer.

The detective may well have considered that intervention could result in the unedifying spectacle of him on the floor attempting to restrain a violent female by overpowering her with his efforts being recording on CCTV and quite probably mobile phones. We will never know how the victim in all this would have reacted to the scenario of a male officer struggling to overpower and restrain a female.

Officers off-duty are not permitted to carry batons or spray even when travelling to and from work unless they are performing duty at ‘another place.’ I was part of a campaign to change that after one of my officers intervened with a male causing a disturbance on a train. The male was subsequently found in possession of a large knife. The ‘no’ decision was taken by the then head of Met HR, using dismissive, derogatory language.

Officers intervening on the tube will be aware that on most stations they will be unable to obtain a phone signal and will have to make adjustments to their phone if wi-fi happens to be available. They will therefore be reliant on members of the public to raise the alarm with the driver or station staff. Given the constant negativity towards police officers across the media spectrum, there is no guarantee that support from members of the public would be forthcoming.

It should be noted that the officer did apparently intervene and did identify himself, hence the criticism he would not have received had he simply have ‘kept his head down.’ What is surprising is that instead of dealing with the matter internally via the Met’s Department of Professional Standards, there was an immediate referral to the IOPC due perhaps to the suggestions that the officer’s actions or alleged lack of them, were ‘racist.’

The officer was also criticised for not calling an ambulance for the victim despite the obvious practical difficulties. It was also pointed out that a bite and hair being pulled out does not, given the current pressure on the ambulance service, justify a 999 call for transportation.

As has also been mentioned, off-duty officers who have been socialising and have consumed alcohol may also consider this a factor in deciding whether to intervene. I should stress that there is no suggestion that this was or wasn’t the case here.

The upshot to all this was that the suspect was arrested and later bailed pending further investigation by the BTP which will doubtless include relevant CCTV footage. Meanwhile, the well thought of, young-in-service officer faces a stressful IOPC investigation which could take months or longer and could, ultimately, result in his dismissal.

Whatever the outcome, this incident has only served to increase, still further, the current discontent that exists within the hard-pressed rank and file of the Met.

Chris Hobbs is a former Special Branch officer 

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