Do our Cops know what we expect of them off duty?
I’ll confess to having a small bee in my bonnet about this one.
I’d describe myself as a pretty keen cop. I am of the ‘I am a sworn constable – on and off duty’ type. Some people aren’t and that’s okay with me too. Each cop will interpret their oath of office differently.
Over the course of my time I’ve intervened / assisted at incidents when off duty when I felt it was appropriate. Nothing particularly special or exciting: For example I’ve stopped a bus driver punching out an aggressive passenger, been first on scene at a motorway accident in active carriageways which happened in front of me and detained (arrested on suspicion for my England and Wales colleagues) a bloke attempting to break into sheds. To me these are pretty tame things and to be frank, I’d kind of expect most cops to do that stuff. I’ve had colleagues chase robbery suspects for miles and make arrests off duty after some serious resistance – that’s some genuine recall to duty stuff.
What gets me about this is that incidents like it are sometimes met with a sucking of teeth and comments like ‘Ooh you want to be careful doing stuff like that, you’ll end up getting stuck on.’ Though in the same breath the same folk will often comment along the lines of ‘Though if you didn’t stop it and you were on CCTV doing nothing you could get stuck on for neglect…’.
I looked up my force guidance and to be honest there isn’t anything specifically dealing with what we expect of cops off duty. I strikes me that we really should provide specific guidance as to what we want from our officers who come across incidents. We owe it to cops to make our expectations clear and to also give them something to fall back on when incidents like it occur and they need to make decisions to intervene or not.
But they’ve been drinking?
Often the type of incidents where cops need to make decisions about how and when to intervene involve times when they themselves have had alcohol. Our immediate reaction is ‘oh they shouldn’t get involved!’ but it’s not really as simple as that is it? What if they are watching someone suffer a serious assault? Is that acceptable? Is it acceptable for them to watch a mother and child get racially abused and intimidated on a train by a couple of guys? Just because the issue is a difficult one doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide officers with guidance. If anything it means we have an an absolute obligation to.
So what do we tell them?
Well firstly we have to establish a clear principle that either tells officers we expect them to act on their oath or not. Personally I think we need to affirm that they do but hey other folk / forces may have other ideas.
Secondly having established that we expect them to intervene we need to tell them what we expect them to do. Certainly we expect them to protect life, I think that’s a given. We of course expect them to observe and report if they can’t intervene effectively (or indeed if they feel too affected by alcohol to safely intervene). We likely need to tell them to identify themselves clearly as police officers where it is safe to do so, with them preferably showing their warrant card.
We also must differentiate what our expectations are of their actions as an organisation, as opposed to what we see as any obligations the officer has. These are clearly not the same thing.
We all know there are real risks to officers intervening and we need to provide guidance on our expectations of officers in circumstances where there is a risk to themselves. We need to steer them on assessing the risk and support their reasoned decisions whatever they decide.
This is critical. Firstly any officer that acts in good faith and acts off duty in accordance with the force policy needs to feel supported and that they have done what we expect of them. If your force has a recall to duty payment then they get it, no question. No sucking of teeth, no being cheap. Crucially any complaint arising from the incident needs to be treated as any other on-duty incident, not as a potential off duty criminal matter. To not do this sends completely the wrong message. The officer has recalled themselves to duty & this needs to be clearly recognised.
Finally, where the officer has consumed alcohol yet acted within force policy their risk based decisions need to be viewed reasonably given their intent versus their level of intoxication. This last one is the most difficult and I appreciate that writing guidance may not be easy. However the key here is intent and good faith. If officers act with correct intent and in good faith then they should be supported.
An Obligation to Our Cops
We owe it to our cops to make it clear what we expect of them. Are we a service that ends when the shift ends or are we sworn constables 24 hours a day 7 days a week? If the answer is the latter then we need codified policy that is clear, unambiguous and provides a handrail to support officer decisions off duty.
I’d be keen to hear if your force has a written policy and what happens to cops that act off duty around the country.