Opinion

The Problems With Running Over Criminals

British police employing questionable tactic in attempt to curb rampant scooter- and motorcycle-based crime

In recent weeks, police in the United Kingdom have demonstrated a (perhaps too enthusiastic) willingness to be aggressive in confronting so-called ‘moped crime,’ using patrol cars to ram suspects. The tactics have won the applause of many who felt authorities were hitherto failing to address the issue, but I think we may be ignoring some very serious problems as a result.

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For those of you playing along in regions beyond Britain’s gilded shores, London’s scooter crime ‘epidemic’ may be the element of UK motorcycling culture with which you are most familiar. It’s a topic I’ve noticed has gained particular traction among US-based websites. Probably because it’s something that feeds Americans’ strange paranoia toward each other and the world*.

Perhaps that’s also because American moto commenters give too much credence to the great purveyors of paranoia that are British tabloids, which have seized upon the rise in scooter crime as an opportunity to capitalize on Britons’ strange paranoia toward each other, the world, young people, and black people*. Descend into any internet comments on the issue and you will find a very deep and disturbing current of racism and xenophobia driving people’s interest in the story.

By some readings the capital is in chaos, ruled by acid- and hammer-wielding African warlords on weaponized Yamaha TMAX scooters. Certainly it’s true that a number of people have been injured as a result of attacks by individuals on scooters, but the vast majority of the crimes are theft of scooters and use thereof to commit smash-and-grab burglaries and low-level robberies, ie, purse/phone snatching.

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These kinds of crimes are infuriating for victims (I had my pickup truck stolen 15 years ago and I’m still angry about it) and give the rest of the population a feeling of vulnerability. It can be extremely satisfying, then, to watch police video of puffer-jacket-wearing yoofs being flung into the air after meeting the unfriendly end of a Ford Focus Estate. But the punishment does not fit the crime; there are a number of reasons why.

It’s a Potential Violation of Individual Rights

You’ve heard of social contract, right? It’s built on the idea that each of us is born with a host of rights – things we are “allowed” in our natural state, ie, the state of being that would theoretically exist if we were born into a world without society or societal structure. In such a state we would have a right to take whatever goods we were capable of taking, for example, and the right to enact whatever punishment we deemed appropriate on anyone who tried to exercise their right to our goods, and on on and on and on. This is the imagined state Thomas Hobbes was discussing when he gave us that famous quote about life being “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In British and American society we philosophically forfeit some of our rights for the sake of living a happier, less stressful existence. We give up our right to stab people in the eyes for the sake of living in a world where eye stabbing is seriously frowned upon and dutifully prosecuted by the government. For simplification purposes, imagine each of your rights as poker chips. You have thousands of them, but you throw some of them into a big pot with everyone else for the sake of strengthening and enhancing those we keep.

One of the rights we keep is the right to not have the shit kicked out of us, especially by those who are entrusted with the protection of our rights – the police. Indeed, that is a right that should not ever be taken away.

The philosophy of the criminal justice system in Britain is that when a person violates someone else’s rights he or she inherently forfeits some of his or her own. So, if you violate someone’s right to not have their scooter stolen you inherently forfeit your own rights to not be in jail. But it is a step too far to say that running around on a stolen scooter means you’ve forfeited your rights to not be run over by a police car. The exchange of rights is unbalanced and infringes on the person’s inalienable rights (ie, those rights which are not forfeited). In other words, the punishment does not fit the crime.

It Blurs the Responsibilities of Law Enforcement

Getting hit by a police car is arguably a kind of instant punishment. Again, it’s satisfying to see but this is not what police are supposed to do. It is not an officer’s job to determine the punishment an individual should face; that’s the role of the courts.

You could argue that it’s not really ‘punishmment’ as much as an unfortunate and entirely avoidable tactic for apprehending a suspect. If the dude wasn’t running away the police wouldn’t have to resort to such extremes, goes the argument made by people who have never been harassed by police, but, ah, you know the world’s not that squidgy, right?

True, we don’t actually know what these suspects being flung thrown asunder are suspected of having done; maybe these are Russian spies or Daesh operatives who need to be stopped immediately. But it doesn’t really look like that. It looks like low-level criminals “getting what they deserve,” with individual officers being left to make the decision on whether such an action was necessary.

The possibility for things to go awry is high. I can easily imagine a scenario where a perfectly innocent hoodie-wearing scooter rider is listening to music in his helmet and therefore oblivious to the world around him, oblivious to the cop that’s right behind him with lights flashing, and his first indication that he should have been paying attention comes when he’s being flipped over the hood of a patrol car, his pelvis being smashed in the process.

Police have also been known to use bikes to hunt down criminals, which strikes me as more effective.

It Might Bite Us in the Ass

The thing that concerns me most, however, is the possibility that the general public might decide this is an effective means of dealing with nefarious two-wheel types. Maybe criminals… or maybe people they perceive to be committing a crime – like riders who filter.

If police communicate their willingness to use vehicles as tools for apprehension it is not too far down the slippery slope of public perception to decide that vehicles are also viable tools for resolving disputes. And that’s not really something I want to be dealing with: dodging someone’s Volkswagen Polo because they think I’ve done them wrong.

There are already enough goofs in the world willing to use their cars to take out frustration on vulnerable two-wheel commuters (I’ve dealt with grumpy folks both as a motorcyclist and a cyclist). If the police effectively condone such behavior by doing it themselves the situation will only worsen.

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* This is a blanket statement that refers to the prevalent sentiment found in internet comments.