The Legal Justification for Police Saying “Hello”

The London Policing Ethics Panel in a new report has suggested that every police-initiated encounter must have a specific justification in law. As a neighbourhood officer, dedicated to and passionate about his 13,600 residents and the public at large, I read the report. Keen to support the goal of a balanced discourse, I outline my personal observations below.

In simple terms the report looks at “routine everyday encounters”. In my mind, this ranges from saying hello to Mrs Miggins while out on patrol, popping into the local coffee shop to buy a coffee and speak to staff, checking in with the local shopkeepers to keep on top of any shoplifting problems, greeting strangers in the street, carrying out reassurance visits to recent victims of crime, stopping to speak to other members of the public and, continuing along the spectrum, “stopping and accounting” individuals and “stopping and searching” individuals. These are all, in my role, “routine” everyday encounters and most of the time I’m in uniform (so I’m non-covert!).

The report seemed to overlook the majority of “routine, non-covert encounters” I’ve described above. It seemed to quickly canter towards those more contentious “encounters” that the report loosely describes as “stops” (a term the report appears to be use somewhat interchangeably with “stop and searches” – more on that later). For the uninitiated, stopping and speaking to someone is a quite different proposition to stopping and detaining someone for the purpose of a search.

Early on, the report sets out the following (bold added for emphasis), which is the cause of my primary concern:

In a free society, the first question to be asked about any police-initiated encounter with the public is why it is taking place at all. The police must remain aware that all police-initiated encounters can be seen as intrusive and in some circumstances coercive. So each encounter must have a specific justification in law and a clear purpose in view. It should have legitimate policing goals; it should be proportionate to these goals; and it should be procedurally correct. Officers must recognise these values and act in accordance with them at all times.

So for any routine police-initiated non-covert encounter I need to have a specific justification in law?

Can that be right?

Can they mean that I need to have a specific justification in law for saying hello to Mrs Miggins, for saying “good afternoon” to a stranger I pass in the street?

The paragraph seems very clear. It appears to me to suggest that just as police need to have a specific justification in law to enter private premises (e.g. Section 17 of PACE), I need to have something similar for initiating any routine “encounters” with the public (Section 1 of the Police-Initiated Encounters Act 2018 perhaps? Or can I just put everything under Common Law?).

Given I do speak to residents, visitors and other individuals while out on patrol – and that I speak to them for a whole range of reasons, ranging from (1) being polite, (2) natural human curiosity and all the way to (3) criminal suspicion – I had rather taken it as a given that police officers can and should feel able and empowered to speak to anyone they like, just as anybody else can.  In fact, I’d go so far to say it is one of the best things about the job and a basic requirement for doing it well!

Of course, in a “free society” individuals don’t have to speak to me – and a fair few do tell me to **** off, but a far greater share of people I encounter greet me with a smile and seem pleased to chat with a “bobby on the beat”. This increases both our visibility and our approachability. We build better, stronger relations with the public that we serve and is simply being a good neighbour.

These routine encounters also greatly assist in crime prevention and detection. Some individuals I speak to are known to me for being prolific offenders. Individuals with 50, 75, 100 or more arrests, and often almost as many convictions. Many of these prolific offenders, particularly some of the parcel and cycle thieves and shoplifters, are more than happy to have a chat. I see this as beneficial – I like to be able to let them know I’m about (an “oblique policing goal” in the Panel’s words – also known as good coppering) and also to get an idea of how they are doing and whether there are any issues that might cause their offending to increase or opportunities for me to help with something that might contribute to them desisting from further offences.

By speaking to my prolific offenders, I get a good sense of their movements, their routines, their clothing and all of this adds up to a valuable local intelligence picture (more good coppering). If they are wanted for an offence, I know where I can find them – or if I’m looking at CCTV footage of a crime, or reviewing recent crime reports on my patch, I am better equipped to identify them or rule them out.

A third important benefit is that by speaking to these individuals there is often – though by no means something to be taken for granted or relied upon – a ‘grudging respect’ for the fact that, as a fellow human being, “I have a job to do”. The result: fewer fights/roll-arounds, injuries and less need for me to use force.

And for those who might be described as the law-abiding public, the benefits are that they too have an opportunity to report any crimes or issues, provide any information they think might be of benefit and realise that their local bobby is just that, local and interested in the community.

Yet with all these benefits arising from casual, consensual police-initiated encounters with the public, the question the Panel members presumably would like to ask me is:

“What specific justification in law do you have for speaking to these people?”

I consider this need for a “specific justification in law” to be wholly at odds with the underlying foundations of British policing and the best community policing styles worldwide. Perhaps my favourite of the Peelian Principles can also be of assistance:

To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

It seems clear to me that if the “public are the police” and the “police are the public”, then just as the public can initiate an encounter with a police officer in the street, it seems that the police should be able to initiate an encounter with a member of the public.

The other issue I had with the report was the apparent conflation of “stops” with “stop and searches”. The Panel would have done well to set out a spectrum of police-initiated encounters and make clear their views and observations in relation to each. For example, when I say hello to Mrs Miggins, do I “stop” her? If I say “hello, how are you?”, do I “stop” her? And, even in the case of prolific offenders, if I pass one in the street and greet them and ask how they are doing and whether they are keeping out of trouble, does that constitute a “stop” in the eyes of the Panel?

“Routine, non-covert encounters” are predominantly about speaking to people. I don’t want to see neighbourhood policing drift towards an emotionally-unintelligent style in which rather than being part of the community we serve, we are required to behave like robots or drones and prior to initiating each encounter we must rattle off some legalese script explaining the specific justification in law for initiating an encounter with someone.

With the roll-out of body-worn video (something I personally welcome), perhaps an expectation might emerge that we must get consent up-front on audio or video before we can even speak to people? Or perhaps record on camera our specific justification in law and policing purpose prior to each police-initiated encounter?

To go down that path will only further widen the gap between the police and the entire public.

I would hope, and have little doubt, that the Panel (and my local residents) would be similarly appalled at such a dystopian vision coming to pass. Afterall, Lord Carlile, the Panel’s Chair, is keen to emphasise that “the public should understand and respect the functions of the police, and help rather than obstruct”. However, just as perhaps I have misinterpreted one paragraph, so might others, who perhaps assume all police-initiated encounters are inherently conflict-based, that police are only and always “out to get people” and that a legal justification for police saying “hello” is not just a good idea but a necessary one.

Unless we want to risk ending up where none of us should want to be (and offending Mrs Miggins by blanking her), perhaps there might be some benefit to a more open debate, involving officers and public alike?

About the Author

PC Rory Geoghegan
I was the Dedicated Ward Officer for Clapham Common Ward in the London Borough of Lambeth until May 2016. I’m a former strategy consultant and criminal justice researcher. As a Dedicated Ward Officer I was something of a foot and cycle patrol fanatic! All views expressed are/were personal opinions and the usual disclaimers apply.

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