Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Judge, the Cyclist and the Cab Driver

This story, is about a cyclist, Jared Kelly. He was allegedly assaulted by a cab driver, but in an unbelievable turnaround, found himself standing trial for assault on the cabdriver, The case caught my attention a while ago, and I was eagerly awaiting the result. It was tempting to empathise with the cyclist, but there are always two sides to any story. However, the outcome of the trial was revealing. Mr Kelly was cleared of assault after the cabbie's evidence was found to be not "credible". While Mr Kelly is relieved not to be doing porridge, it's hardly a happy ending to this particular fairy story.

What is most worrying about this case is the behaviour of the police. I am normally a supporter of the police. I have found them to be fair, reasonable and diligent in my few dealings with them. I believe that the vast majority of them do a good job under difficult circumstances. A policeman's lot is not a happy one: they are required to deal with some of the most dangerous and unpleasant people in society, and must make snap judgements under considerable pressure. We should not be surprised if they make mistakes. However, it's also essential that they are open and transparent when they do make mistakes, and it is imperative that they are seen to be even-handed. In this case, it appears the police and the legal system failed Mr Kelly. Vital witnesses were dismissed. The case should never have been prosecuted.

There is a real danger that the police and the legal system are seen by cyclists as unsupportive of them. While some cyclists break the law, in terms of actual casualties sustained cyclists are overwhelmingly the victims rather than the perpetrators. Amongst cyclists, certain perceptions are becoming widespread:
1. that the police turn a blind eye to the daily intimidation of cyclists by motor vehicles that are speeding or driving dangerously, whilst prosecuting minor offences by cyclists;
2. that the judicial system allows the killers of cyclists to walk free from court;
3. that cyclists are the victims of poor policing, as appears to be the case here.

The authorities need to remember what happens if a group considers the police to be institutionally prejudiced against them: it is not good news for law and order generally.

I suggest the police need to take remedial action as follows:

  1. Investigate this case in a transparent way and ensure nothing of the sort happens again.
  2. More cycling police. This needs to happen anyway, for economic reasons, as noted by the Earth Policy Institute: "Officers on bikes are more productive in cities partly because they are more mobile and can reach the scene of an accident or crime more quickly and more quietly than officers in cars. They typically make 50 percent more arrests per day than officers in squad cars. Fiscally, the cost of  operating a bicycle is trivial compared with that of a police car." Cyclists will be reassured to see that police get to witness the same road-user behaviour that they do.
  3. The police should resist attempts to force them to target cyclists as opposed to generally targeting antisocial road use. Enforcement needs to be seen to be even-handed and proportionate.
  4. Ensure that cyclists have input into police priorities.

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