Tactical contact: should police use force to stop stolen mopeds?

There have been mixed responses to a recent video showing police cars in London knocking riders off mopeds.

Many have praised the Metropolitan Police for finally taking robust action against violent criminals.

The Prime Minister gave her support too: “these people are acting unlawfully and I think it’s absolutely right that we see a robust police response”. Others are shocked at tactics which sooner or later will leave an innocent rider with serious injuries, or worse.

Views within the police service have also been mixed. Frustrated at taunts from riders of stolen mopeds, many officers welcomed the new robustness.

Many are also vary wary of using ‘tactical contact’, as it is officially termed. Stopping a criminal on the move is never easy.

There are some tactics for cars, but there is always a risk of serious injury – and criminal and discipline investigation putting their job at stake.

While the vast majority of pursuits are concluded safely, there are tragedies. Stopping someone on a moped is more risky again.

Riders often drive more recklessly, putting other road users at risk, while ‘tactical contact’ brings a higher risk of injury.

Two officers are currently being investigated for possible criminal offences after separate tactical stops which left the moped riders with broken bones.

The head of the Metropolitan Police Federation has warned, “I have seen nothing yet about how our colleagues will be protected when the worst happens… Will they be backed?”

Greater Manchester has suffered antisocial and dangerous use of motor bikes for many years.

The problem persists, despite operations using helicopters and teams of specialist police motor cyclists.

In London, moped crime has become a new threat, having increased 30-fold in the past six years to over 23,000 offences in 2017/18.

There are more mopeds on the road, and they are easy to steal.

Part of that increase may also be due to restrictions on the police response. Many forces decided the risks were just too high, and stopped officers from chasing and using tactical contact with mopeds and motor cycles.

Sometimes, though, doing nothing can be even more risky. Riders of stolen mopeds often drive dangerously, without helmets, putting their own and others’ lives at risk.

After realising police were not stopping them, mopeds became a favoured means for committing crime.

Stolen mopeds have been used to carry out violent robberies, deal in drugs, or help gangs intimidate a community and attack rivals.

The Metropolitan Police has strict policies to govern this new approach: pursuits and tactical contact have to be authorised by a senior officer; drivers must be trained to a higher level; the vehicles, weather, road and traffic conditions all have to be considered.

It’s not just a matter of policy. Carrying out tactical contact on a vehicle is a use of force, similar in many ways to when police use a baton, taser or firearm.

Officers may be prosecuted for assault if the force is held to be unlawful or excessive.

The officer must have a legal power to use force; it must necessary; and it must be reasonable. ‘Reasonable’ involves considerations such as an ‘honestly held belief’, or what a jury considers to be the reasonable actions of a person of reasonable mind.

In essence, there has to be good justification for a tactical stop.

The level of force must also be ‘proportionate’.

This covers a range of factors such as the seriousness of the crime and the strength of the intelligence; the risk posed now, and in the future; the risks inherent in the police action, and of inaction.

Much of this will not be known when a stolen moped is spotted and refuses to stop for police.

Is this a violent criminal looking to commit a robbery, or just a youngster having some ‘fun’ – or panicking?

Even if the bike is stolen linked to robberies, how do police actually know what the rider’s intent is at this particular time?

Police officers must make a split second decision whether it is safer to back off or safer to try and stop the moped.

Both options are risky, either could put the officer’s job, or someone’s life, on the line.

Words of support from the Prime Minister carry no weight in court, where the focus is on the specifics of the case.

Police officers should be accountable for their actions, of course, and using force in higher risk situations should be subject to stricter controls and oversight.

The public also look to the courts to protect them from criminals.

At present, the way investigators and courts look at reasonableness, proportionality and risk gives too little weight to the wider public interest.

Someone who gets on a stolen moped and fails to stop for police is already accepting a risk to their own safety and putting others in danger.

If police are prevented from tackling them, the danger to the public only increases.

A ‘tactical stop’ arguably presents no significant additional risk for someone who is already riding recklessly, at speed in built-up areas, maybe without a helmet.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner accepted there had been a “very small number of injuries”, but said: “these are people who have been repeatedly left in no doubt whatsoever that there’s a police car right behind them.

If you look over your shoulder and drive on as fast as possible putting the public in danger, you should expect we will come after you”.

The safest option for the public is not to let dangerous criminals ride around with impunity.

Since introducing ‘tactical contact’, moped crime has fallen by a third in London.

“Risk-assessed tactical contact is exactly what we need”, said the Home Secretary.

However, police officers will need more assurance that the law will support them. In 2017, a private member’s bill sought to provide extra protection for drivers in the emergency services.

The Government has indicated its support, but the bill was objected to and is not due a second reading until March 2019.

It remains to be seen whether it will become law. If police drivers are not supported by the legal system, the criminals will keep taking advantage – and the public will suffer.

Read more at Policing Insight