2 February 2007

POLICE ON MY BACK
Notes On Being Arrested In New Britain

The upside of the situation is that I no longer have any practical reason to be bothered about the ID card bill, I suppose. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

THE BACKGROUND

I live in a nice enough flat. It's 10 feet from one of the busiest main roads in Bath, buses and lorries thunder up and down outside for about 21 hours a day, and it costs a lot of money for an unfurnished apartment in not the prettiest part of town. But it does come with one of the greatest luxuries it's possible to have in Bath - a garage. In my old flat, I could spend half an hour going shopping, and then 50 minutes trying to find somewhere in my permit area to park when I got back, as all my frozen food slowly melted in the boot. I also had my car vandalised by pissed students half a dozen times while parked in the street (wing mirror kicked off: 120. Aerial snapped: 35. Soft top slashed open: 1,500. Etc), and broken into and robbed three times. The sheer joy of knowing I can pop out somewhere without having to budget an extra hour onto the journey for return parking, and of knowing that I won't get up in the morning to find the carpet and seats soaking wet from the rain pouring through the hole in the roof someone's made in order to steal my tax disc, can't possibly be overstated.

(And by the by, don't expect the police to even bother coming round when you report these crimes, even the ones that cause over 2,000 in total damage and theft loss. If you're lucky you'll get a "Dear Victim" form letter and a crime number for the insurance company.)

So when some inconsiderate tossbucket bought the ramshackle house next door for complete renovation and started cluttering up the garage/parking area (shared with a nearby block of flats) with a variety of illegally-parked builder's vans, I was a bit miffed. And when one day in September, after months of this inconvenience, an entire fleet of large Transits rendered the manoeuvring space so tiny that I tore a 9-inch gouge in my paintwork trying to twist and contort my way into my beloved car-sanctuary (which only has two inches of clearance either side at the best of times, so doesn't have much room for being approached at an awkward angle), I was moved to write my new neighbour a rather annoyed letter.

(But not before I'd stormed through their garage and into their back garden, where I'd found the builders and rather belligerently requested that they move some of their fucking vans so I could get my now-damaged car, at that point still wedged against the corner of the wall, into the garage without further mishap. A burly 30-something builder growlingly demanded to be asked more nicely first, at which point I unleashed a bit of a tirade and he decided to comply without further objection rather than piss off the shouty little angry guy any more.)

The letter brought no response, and the problems carried on in varying degrees for another couple of months, until the 12th of December last year. On that evening I was due to drive to Bristol to take part in the final of a poker tournament, which I'd had to go through 10 rounds of qualifying for and very much didn't want to miss. So when I went into my kitchen (which overlooks the parking area) to make some lunch, I was alarmed to see that there appeared to be several vans not just making access difficult but actually directly parked across the front of three garages (including mine), and also blocking three of the parking spaces opposite used by the other flats. I went out for an unobstructed look, and found that the vans were indeed mere inches from the outward-opening garage doors, making it totally impossible to even get a person into the garages, far less get a car out. The builders were nowhere to be seen, so I stomped off furiously to call the towing company.

The parking management firm appeared to be operated largely by a single bloke on a mobile, and it took a while for him to call me back. When he did, he said that he was only contracted to tow cars away from the entrance alley to the parking area, not the area itself, so I'd have to ring the council if I wanted anything done. When I called them they said I'd have to ring the police before they could act, so after going back out to take down the numbers of the vans (and see if there was a contact number for the builders on any of them), I did that too - giving them my full name and address, obviously - and after another wait I got a call back explaining that since the ground was private property and not a public street, they had absolutely no authority over it, regardless of the obstruction being caused.

(In other words, viewers, the next time someone pisses you off and you really want to annoy them, just go and buy a 50 old wreck from a car auction and leave it parked across the front of their garage forever, because there won't be a damn thing they can do about it.)

Anyhoo, I sat and fumed uselessly for a bit, but as events transpired it happened that by teatime the vans were all gone and I managed to get to the poker tournament, where my cards sucked all night and I finished a creditable but prizeless 17th. And from that day on, despite the building work next door continuing unabated (as it does as I write this), I noticed that for some reason there were no vans parked outside the garages any more. Score!


 

THE EVENTS OF FEBRUARY 1

I got up on a bright Thursday morning in order to go and pick up my friend John and take him and his new kitten to the vet, since he lived too far away to walk. I'd just dropped them off at the surgery a couple of minutes' walk from my flat, parked the car and gone into the house to wait, when the doorbell went. Assuming they were back already I answered the door cheerily, only to find a couple of officers of the law requesting entry, without stating any purpose. I let them in and went down to the hallway to find out what was going on. 

It turned out they were there to see me. The youngish policeman and policelady were making an inquiry into a letter that had been delivered to next door in relation to some criminal damage, and asked me if I knew anything about it. Five months having passed since my snippy missive about the paintwork incident, I'd forgotten all about it, but after some vague and cagey questioning the officers reluctantly gave me a brief glimpse of the letter in question, whereupon I recognised it and I admitted that I had indeed written it. They asked a couple more questions, thanked me for my time and left.

A few minutes later, John arrived with a very pissed-off Dexter (who'd just had his little furry ears comprehensively syringed, his gooey eye mopped and several injections), and we played around for a while to cheer the traumatised kitty up a bit as I related my exciting anecdote, before heading off to take them home. On the way back I nipped down to the local Morrison's for some shopping, and noticed on my return that there was a white Transit van parked across the front of my neighbour's double garage. As I got out of the car to open my garage door, my new police pals jumped out of the van and arrested me.

Having cautioned me that I was being detained on suspicion of causing criminal damage, the officers kindly let me go back into the house to drop off my shopping. The male officer came with me to make sure that I didn't scarper through my secret emergency escape chute, and as we made to leave he stopped in the hallway and informed me that he was seizing my three-quarter-length leather coat, which was hanging on a hook there, as evidence. He advised me to empty the pockets before we went to the station, as I might not get it back for some time. I dumped the contents beside the PC and put the coat on for the journey. As I did, somewhat to my surprise the policeman asked me if I possessed any superglue. Not having an instant fingertip command of my stationery inventory at any given moment, I said "Um, maybe?", and we left without further discussion of the matter.

On the five-minute drive to the police station on the opposite side of town, the officers explained what was going to happen. First, it seemed, we'd go into a room with the slightly worrying name of "the airlock". There we'd wait for an uncertain amount of time before being admitted to the main part of the station. "I wish I'd brought my Game Boy now", I quipped, only to be firmly told that nothing of that nature would be permitted. (It's worth noting that at this point the demeanour of the arresting officers was still friendly and quite casual, as if all of this was a simple misunderstanding that'd be sorted out in a few minutes. Presumably this is a deliberate policy to get people into the station with the minimum of fuss.) As it happened we went straight through the "airlock" (actually a short corridor) without delay, and I arrived at the high, imposing counter (complete with marked positions to place your hands) of the Custody Sergeant - a thin and reassuringly relaxed man with very hairy arms who supervised as I was relieved of the contents of my pockets and thoroughly frisked and scanned. At this point I was read the formal grounds for my arrest, which was the first time anyone had actually identified the specific date of the alleged crime. This turned out to be the 12th of December 2006. A flicker of comprehension began to dawn.

I was read my rights, and signed on an electronic touchpad for my possessions. The arresting officers then took me to a small, rather shabby room with a sink, a plastic chair and some expensive-looking equipment, which was to be used to take my biometric data. If you're arrested for a "recordable" crime (which the Custody Sergeant explained was pretty much any crime) the police have the right to take your fingerprints and a DNA sample - forcibly if necessary - and to keep them on record forever, regardless of whether you're ever actually charged with the crime (far less convicted). Making small talk as the officers calibrated the equipment and did some paperwork, I mentioned my unease with this fact, at which point they trotted out the old "if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear" line (actually using those very words), and adding that the presence of my data on the records could also be used to help clear me of a crime. (Seemingly neglecting to consider the fact that if I came under suspicion for another crime I could voluntarily supply DNA samples to that end, which would then have to be destroyed and NOT kept permanently on record.)

After about 10 minutes of waiting, I was photographed, extensively fingerprinted (fingertips, palms, then a wide roll of each individual finger and the edges of the whole hand) by a new policeman on a very pernickety machine which refused to accept about one in three prints, leading to much repetition. Then the male arresting officer took two separate swabs from the inside of my mouth with a tiny plastic stick like a miniature toothbrush. The intimidating atmosphere of the dingy bowels of the station had made my mouth dry, but he had no apparent difficulty getting the sample, and I was then led by the pretty policewoman through an iron-barred gateway into a long corridor. Nobody had yet mentioned my being locked up, but this was the cell block, and without ceremony I was directed into a cell halfway along the line. The heavy steel door slammed shut behind me, and I was alone in the gloom.

The picture above is just about the closest approximation I've been able to find on the internet of the one I inhabited, but it's rather more extensively furnished than the ones in Bath police station. The cube-shaped room, perhaps seven feet in each direction, was painted a grim pale green, with several dark stains that I hoped were only blood, and lots of graffiti scratched into the walls. (Goodness knows how, as anything I could possibly have used for scratching a mark into stone had been confiscated at the desk.) There was no table, stool or basin, just a raised platform with a thin rubber mattress on it for a bed, and a metal toilet with a box of tissues on top of it. High up in the wall opposite the door was an opaque glass window, by the viewing hatch was a button which would presumably summon the duty officer in an emergency, and that was about it for amenities. I'd guess that the lack of proper toilet roll was for the same reason that prisoners have their belts confiscated at the desk (I hadn't been wearing one), but there was absolutely nothing in the cell that a suicidal inmate could possibly have attached a makeshift rope to in order to hang themselves. The policewoman had told me I'd probably be in the cell for about half an hour, but in fact it was a little over twice that before they were ready to conduct the interview.

 

THE CASE FOR THE PROSECUTION

As the fingerprint policeman escorted me from the cell to the interview room, I remarked that there hadn't been much to do in there. "Think", was his one-word reply, and I'd certainly been doing that for the preceding hour. Calmer than I'd expected to be (I'm not keen on confined spaces at the best of times, far less being locked up helplessly in one), I'd gone over and over the events of December 12 in my head, and was pretty sure I had them down pat. The interview was conducted by the female constable, and I'd declined the opportunity for a solicitor so there were only the two of us in the simple office-type room. We sat at either end of a table against a side wall, and she outlined the case.

Allegedly, they had a statement from "an independent witness" who'd been sat in his car eating his lunch in the parking area at around 1.30pm on December 12, who claimed to have seen me approach one of the Transit vans in front of the garages and pour superglue into all of its locks. This witness had been waiting in the van when I came back from Morrison's on the morning of my arrest with the arresting officers, and had identified me as being "definitely" the man he'd seen. From here on, the story would get weirder.

Despite apparently having a clear view of my perpetrating this criminal damage, the witness had chosen not to challenge me at the time, nor to tell anyone afterwards. This glue attack went undiscovered until the builders went to leave the site at around 3.30pm that afternoon, when the glue - supposedly still wet - was found in the locks. By some means which were never specified at my interview, the witness' observations were somehow communicated to either the victim or the police, leading to the investigation and my subsequent arrest. Now, keen-eyed viewers may already have spotted several suspicious things about this testimony.

(1) It seems very odd that having seen the alleged incident take place, the witness wouldn't attempt to either intervene or to locate the victim straight away. And it also seems unlikely that if they were sitting in their car in order to eat their lunch, they'd still be there at 3.30 when the builders emerged and discovered the crime. I've known business lunches in nice restaurants to go on well into the afternoon, but that's a heck of a slap-up feed to be eating alone in your car. So at what point did this supposed independent witness actually present themselves to the police, during an investigation more than seven weeks after the event?

(2) Anyone who's ever used any superglue at any time in their lives will be rather puzzled by the notion of it still being wet after two hours. Spill any of that stuff on your fingers and you'll be stuck fast to whatever it was you were trying to glue in seconds flat, not minutes and certainly not hours. (That is, after all, kinda the whole point of superglue.)

(3) Criminals aren't necessarily very bright, but it would surely take some kind of special advanced-level moron to: conduct an act of vandalism against someone to whom you'd previously sent a semi-threatening letter on the subject, clearly identifying yourself; conduct said act on the same day as raising the same matter with the police, giving your full name and address; react to someone blocking your garage on a day you really needed to get out of it by immobilising their vehicle in the offending place (and in a manner that might well not be discovered until the end of the working day, when you needed the scene to be cleared by 6pm); and finally, to perpetrate the crime without having at least a quick glance around the immediate area to see if there was anyone sitting less than ten feet away watching you.

I presented some of these observations to the policewoman - who by this time had adopted a much more aggressive and adversarial tone, as you might quite properly expect an inquisitor to do - to which her only real counter-argument was "But why would this person say he'd clearly seen you glueing the locks up if you didn't?"

I offered a few possible explanations, including enquiring how the police could possibly know for sure that this person was really an independent witness as opposed to, say, a friend of the builders who just wanted to get their own back at me for shouting at them? The interviewing officer had no answer to this, and largely just kept repeating that this witness had identified me with complete certainty (although in their first description I'd been 5'10" rather than my somewhat more diminutive actual 5'7"), and asking me flat-out if I'd committed the crime. I said that it was perfectly possible for the witness to have seen me there and recognised me, since I'd gone out twice to investigate the situation and take down the numbers of the vans, but that it still didn't make any sense for me to be superglueing anyone's locks up while I was there. (And that the explanation for my not having noticed the presence of this person was that someone going out there with legitimate and innocent intent would have no reason to be looking around for witnesses in the first place.)

And then, after about 40 minutes of questioning, the interview was over. (There'd been an interruption when, immediately after I finished giving my initial statement, the tape machine suddenly stopped with a clunk and a piercing, continuous "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" noise which filled the room. I had to fight so hard not to instinctively joke "Hey, is that the lie-detector attachment?" at this point that I actually broke into a sweat - I once tried making a joke to a customs officer and only narrowly escaped the rubber-glove treatment, and I reckoned that the police would probably react in a similarly humourless manner. I couldn't totally keep the inner comedian at bay, though, so when the thin sergeant came in with a replacement machine and was having trouble screwing it down to the desk, I jocularly remarked "I'm not going to steal it, you know". Smiling, he replied "I'm sure, but we need to secure it - it can get a little boisterous in here", and proceeded, with a mischievous twinkle, to point out a few of the larger dents in the wall. Ulp.)
 

THE VERDICT

At this point I was expecting to be let go for now whatever happened, so I was alarmed when the female officer led me back to my cell. She explained that there would now have to be a discussion with the Custody Sergeant, and depending on the outcome of that, the Crown Prosecution Service might have to be consulted, a process which could take "a few hours". This was very disturbing news, and as I sat in the bleak, miserable cell, I considered for the first time pressing the buzzer and exercising my right to a solicitor, since I couldn't see any possible reason for keeping me locked up while they decided what to do. Being stuck in the cell a second time was a lot more distressing than the first, especially with such a vague estimate of how long I might be incarcerated, and the dank, clammy surroundings started to really get me down for the first time since my doorbell had rung that morning.

However, apparently my luck was in, because I was the station's only suspected felon at the time and so only 20 minutes had passed before the blonde policelady (in friendly mode again) came back to let me out. Arriving at the high counter before a new, fresh-faced young Custody Sergeant, I rather expected to be charged and sent home to await a court case, given the existence of this apparently unequivocal witness statement. However, the CS told me that I was being released without further action, though it would remain possible for me to be re-arrested if fresh evidence came to light. Dizzy and careless with joy, when they handed me back the bags containing my confiscated possessions I couldn't stop myself from saying "Hey, where's the 50 note I had?", at which point everyone forced a very weak laugh since they probably hadn't heard that one for at least a couple of days.

And that was that. As she showed me out the front door (not the "airlock" I'd come in by), the pretty female officer thanked me for my "help", and I resisted the temptation to either say something sarcastic or ask her for a date - I do like a strong petite woman (especially in black uniform and a bullet-proof vest). Nobody was available to give me a lift back, so I had to hike the mile-and-a-bit back to my flat, in the cold and up the big steep hill, but I didn't really mind that too much. They'd given me my jacket back, and I was at liberty again.

THE EPILOGUE

I've got few complaints about my brush with the wrong side of Great British Justice. Given the presence of a sworn statement claiming to have seen me commit a crime, and the live identification by the witness, I don't think the police had any real option but to take me in for questioning. (Though since I was helping them voluntarily, I'm not sure why I had to be actually arrested.) Everyone was professional and courteous, and while I don't see that there was ever a need for me to be locked in a cell - and certainly not the second time - in connection with a fairly trivial and non-violent crime, I daresay it's possible that with the limited manpower and facilities available there was little practical alternative.

What really does concern me, though, is the retention of my photograph, fingerprints and DNA on the National Crime Database. I'm not a criminal, have never even been charged with a crime, and even when ID cards are brought in they'll nominally be voluntary (at least to begin with). I do NOT give any voluntary consent for biometric/genetic information to be taken from me and used in this way, and the civil liberties issues are still a matter of very serious contention. It's extremely worrying to have the vitally-important public debate on the subject bypassed in this cynical and casually authoritarian way.

Plus, it's really buggered up my plans for a bank-robbing-and-murder spree this weekend. 
 

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