Dear Ms Bourne
Sussex Police is broken.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know there are huge numbers of dedicated officers, who joined the Police to do something good for their communities. Over the last 15 months I’ve got to know many of them quite well.
I’ve seen them at work at the Bexhill – Hastings Link Road. I’ve seen them at work at Balcombe. I’ve seen them at work in Brighton at the EDL marches. I’ve been to village Parish Council meetings with them. I’ve even driven them to the airport. One senior officer is a family friend of some friends of mine. She’s lovely. But as a force, Sussex Police is not fit for purpose.
Over the last few years I have had a number of dealings with Sussex Police. In the early days of The Big Lemon we had a spate of incidences of vandalism, theft and even one episode of sabotage. To start with, I reported these crimes, but it soon became clear to me that I was wasting my time. The Police rarely came out to see me, and never made any real attempt to investigate the crime. It seemed that their procedure was to take a statement, give me a crime reference number, and tell me to give it to my insurance company.
The only problem was that the excess on our company insurance was £1000. So when we had £800 of fuel stolen, it made no sense to claim because we’d get nothing. When our bus had its air-lines cut, oil drained and dashboard wires snipped the bill came to over £1000 but it still made no sense to claim, because we’d only get a small amount and the claim would increase future premiums. However, even though these things almost bankrupted what was a very young business, I didn’t hold it against the Police because I understood that rape and murder were much more important things to investigate and if they had to prioritise those, that was fair enough. I just stopped phoning them.
However, one evening I had to phone them. I was driving the 42 bus from Brighton city centre to the universities when a man started being abusive and threatening to the students on the bus. It was clear that he was out of control, and that someone was about to get hurt. I stopped the bus, and called the Police. With the help of a couple of other passengers I tried to keep the situation under control while we waited for the Police to arrive. In the next twenty minutes I saw three Police cars whiz past on other calls, but no one came to us. I called again. Again I was promised they would come, but I was told it was a very busy evening. Fair enough, I thought… if they’re all busy on other calls we’ll have to deal with this ourselves.
So we did. Three of us overpowered him, and threw him off the bus. Literally. But before we could get the bus going again, he’d managed to run back, force the doors open and push his way back on. We threw him off again; but this time we pushed him to the ground some distance away from the bus, and then ran back and drove the bus away before he had a chance to get back to it. It was pretty traumatic for everyone involved, but I just thought “Oh well, the Police must be really busy tonight”.
I carried on driving, and soon I was back in the city centre. As I turned the bus into West Street I saw three riot vans and about two dozen police officers, hanging around, chatting, giving Friday night revellers directions to Wetherspoons… that kind of thing. So this is why they couldn’t come to us.
To be fair, the Police did respond appropriately once. There was another fight on the bus a couple of years later, and they were there in minutes. Brilliant. So it is possible. But rare.
Last autumn we had a taxi stolen from our depot after someone came to ‘buy’ it. We called the Police, and they came – so far so good – and they spent a couple of hours with us, but then told us it was a civil disagreement, not a crime. So a chap comes into our depot to ‘buy’ a vehicle, puts it on the back of his trailor and drives away without paying, and that’s not a crime? We also told them that the chap drove his vehicle straight at one of our staff, but they didn’t seem to think that was a crime either.
So, why bore you with all these stories? Simply to illustrate the point that for most victims of crime, calling Sussex Police is just not worth the effort. You might as well call your nan – at least she’d show you some sympathy.
Until recently I thought this was all because the Police were too busy and under-resourced. However, at Combe Haven in January 2013 there were plenty of officers available to arrest people (myself included) for sitting in trees, and at Balcombe… well I’ve never seen anything like it. A permanent presence of dozens of officers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, acting as a private army for a private company. And you know better than anyone how much that’s cost – a cool £4m.
I’ve chosen those words carefully: private army. Even ‘private security’ would not describe them adequately. Cuadrilla had security (who, by the way, were absolutely lovely, being mainly retired Gurkhas simply standing at the gate smiling at everyone), but the Police’s role was different. They were not passively observing, arresting people if they broke the law; they were actively working to help Cuadrilla get the supplies they wanted into the compound. Why is their job to do that? What other work (dealing with aggressive bus passengers, thefts of taxis, sabotage or vandalism, for example) did they not do because they were assisting Cuadrilla get their lorries in? Why does it matter to Sussex Police whether Cuadrilla can get their lorries in or not? What makes Cuadrilla special? The Big Lemon doesn’t have a team of Police officers on standby to help with anything we need at the drop of a hat; why should Cuadrilla? Why can’t they just phone the Police if they have a problem – same as everyone else – and wait their turn? And if the Police are too busy dealing with more important things like bus passengers being threatened, they’ll just have to wait.
So, it’s not a question of resource. But what is it then? (That’s not a rhetorical question – I really would like to know the answer.) I could hazard a guess: priorities. But let me say this: prioritising rape and murder cases over things like theft and vandalism is absolutely fine. Prioritising the enforcement of government policy in the face of protest, or the money-making activities of a private corporation, is not.
But what’s worse than the Police not doing their job when you need them? Or wasting our money helping private corporations trash the countryside? What’s worse is when, having done both of the above they then make up lies to turn you into a criminal.
Two days ago, despite the best efforts of Sussex Police, I was found ‘not guilty’ of aggravated trespass at the site of the Bexhill – Hastings Link Road. I say ‘despite the best efforts of Sussex Police’ because, again, it really seemed to matter to them that we were convicted. Why? I have no idea. If I’d been arrested, charged and convicted on the basis of the true evidence of Police officers, honestly given, I wouldn’t mind at all. To be honest I had no idea at the time whether I was breaking the law or not. It didn’t seem a relevant question to consider. There was a mauling of the countryside going on and people needed to know about it – that was the only thing that mattered at the time.
But now, having seen Police officers lie to the court about the facts in order to turn me into a criminal, I’m more angry than if they had told the truth and I was convicted. At least then you’d know that you can trust them. That they’ve no ulterior motive. That it doesn’t matter to them whether you’re convicted or not. Then you’d know that the trial had been fair. I wouldn’t even mind being convicted as long as the trial was fair.
So, how did the Police lie? There were a number of occasions when Police accounts were slightly confused, although I’m not including those here as I believe they were errors due to incompetence, lapse of time, unfamiliarity with the area, or some other pretty understandable reason. What really made me angry was two blatant lies, both made to make me look guilty. The first was written evidence from Inspector Bartlett, the officer in charge of the case. As I wrote on a blog post the other day, Inspector Bartlett gave written evidence that I had parked a Big Lemon bus across the entrance to the site in order to obstruct it. Here’s the photo:
It’s not the best photo in the world, but it’s clearly not a bus, and there’s clearly a large van easily passing by next to it. Why did she write that? Did she not realise that photo and video evidence would show her to be wrong? Video evidence was indeed shown in court, and it was obvious to all, Judge Crabtree included, that it was not a bus and it was not obstructing anything. Although Judge Crabtree never referred to the taxi in his verdict, he did accept Inspector Bartlett’s evidence, and not once was her claim (that a bus was blocking the site) challenged, or any questions asked why she fabricated such a story.
The second outright lie that was told in court was by Sergeant Russell. There was a lot of weird stuff going on here. Sgt Russell and I had actually become quite friendly during my time at Combe Haven and I found him to be a ‘good egg’. We had a bit of banter, shared a cup of tea occasionally and talked about the price of fish. He watched us bring supplies to the camp and did nothing. He watched us build tree houses and did nothing. He watched me climb a tree that was about to be felled, and even when the tree felling team had to stop work, he did nothing – except bring me soup.
The day before my arrest I had a conversation with a Police liaison officer, the gist of which was that their approach had changed, and they were no longer arresting people who’d locked on in treehouses. I thought this was a very sensible decision, and as a result I was very surprised when I was arrested the next day. I had expected that we would be removed from the tree and asked to leave – and would then be arrested if we refused. But we were arrested as soon as our feet touched the ground.
I emailed Sgt Russell four months later with some feedback, saying that although I found his team very pleasant I felt let down by the fact that they’d told me there had been a change of approach, and that people locked on in trees were not being arrested, and then found myself arrested anyway.
In my email I had referred to the conversation as one that I’d had with him. In his reply he didn’t dispute that. But in court he said he’d had no such conversation with me at all.
I was confused. I remembered the conversation very clearly. I had reported it to our evening meeting and my decisions, and that of others, were made the next day safe in the ‘knowledge’ that we wouldn’t be arrested as long as we didn’t resist the protester removal team.
But then a funny thing happened. Right at the end of his evidence Sgt Russell said he’d spoken with his colleague PC Barden, and the conversation may have happened after all. But with PC Barden, who, Sgt Russell explained, was the same height and build, and also had short dark hair. And glasses.
So I’d made a mistake. It wasn’t Sgt Russell I’d spoken with, it was PC Barden. But why hadn’t Sgt Russell told me that in his reply to my email? Why hadn’t he said “Tom, I’m not sure what conversation you’re referring to – are you sure it was me?”
So either it WAS actually Sgt Russell who I’d spoken with; or Sgt Russell had replied to my email giving me the false impression that it was him, when it was actually PC Barden. Why would he do that? The only explanation I can think of is that Sgt Russell spoke to his superiors about my email, and they’d decided to allow me to continue believing it was him I’d spoken to, in the knowledge that when it got to court they could discredit me by providing evidence that Sgt Russell was not on duty that day (which they did).
But what Sgt Russell did next was even worse. He told the court that throughout the time I was there (on and off from 21st December 2012 to 16th January 2013) he told me that it was private property, that I was trespassing, that I should leave etc etc… and told me about the offence of aggravated trespass.
Sgt Russell and I had many conversations, but on no occasion at all did he say those things prior to the 16th January. On the contrary, he chatted and joked with us. He drank tea with us. He asked us how we were doing. He told us he respected the stand we were making for what we believed in. He told us, repeatedly, that he and his team were there to facilitate our protest.
Despite the evidence of all the banter, and the fact we were pretty much left to get on with what we were doing for three weeks without any intervention by the Police, Judge Crabtree believed Sgt Russell that he had said those things.
Judge Crabtree had said at the start of the verdict that he would be guided in his assessment of the truth of our evidence by our ‘good character’. The theory goes: if you haven’t got any criminal convictions you’re more likely to be telling the truth. (I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case, but I won’t go into that now). He also said at one point that he found Sgt Russell’s evidence self-contradictory. But then, when there was no evidence at all apart from my word against Sgt Russell’s, why would he choose Sgt Russell’s? I don’t have any convictions, so in theory he should give weight to my evidence. He found Sgt Russell’s evidence self-contradictory, so in theory, he should view his with suspicion. But he didn’t.
It’s notable I think that at every point where protester evidence and Police evidence was incompatible, he chose to accept the Police evidence and reject ours.
So, we see an evidence bias towards the Police, and we see Police lying in court to get protesters convicted. But why?
That, Ms Bourne, is my question to you. Why does it matter to the Police whether a prosecution is successful or not? Is there a cultural bias in the Police against protesters? Is there pressure on officers to ensure convictions are successful? Are there government targets to meet?
Thank you for reading this, and I look forward forward to your reply.
Sussex Police is broken. But it can be fixed. I want it to be fixed, and I’ll do anything I can to help. Just ask.
Here’s what can be done:
1. If there are targets for arrests, prosecutions, convictions etc., get rid of them. They’ll only serve to warp justice. If in one month you have hundreds, and in another month you have only a handful, that’s fine.
2. Stop Police lying. I remember a lesson we had at Sandhurst which was all about integrity. It was inspiring. It made you really want to develop your integrity, and to maintain it. Police need to have no incentives to lie and lots of incentives not to.
3. Stop acting like the Government’s muscle, to be used to force Government policy on people regardless of how popular (or unpopular) it is. People have a right to protest. It doesn’t matter if it’s inconvenient for private businesses. Let them sort it out themselves. Save your resources for real crimes affecting people in your community. If you do that, you’ll give people confidence in the Police again, and next time I’m a victim of crime I might just pick up the phone. It’ll mean you’ll need more telephone operators, and it’ll mean your crime statistics rise, but it’ll also mean real crime will go down, and people will be better off for it, and have more faith in the Police.