‘Proportionality’ and ‘in the public interest’ are two of the buzz words and phrases often deployed amongst policing professionals and commentators these days, and this is a tale that brings both into play in a quite noteworthy, and in many ways, disturbing manner.
Apart from fixed penalty offences for such as shoplifting; drunk and disorderly; possessing cannabis; an offence under Section 89 of the Police Act 1996 is at the very bottom of the criminal scale: Obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty. The most common disposal is a caution or, even, words of advice for a person of good standing and clean record.
It should come as a surprise, therefore, to many – if not all interested in policing matters – that such an offence has been recently pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service and West Yorkshire Police, aided by an evidence bundle extending to over 50 pages and which includes Criminal Justice Act statements from an inspector (who is also staff officer to the Deputy Chief Constable), two sergeants, five constables and three civilian officers, one of whom is of high managerial rank. This follows a total of thirteen hours detention of the suspect at Normanton police station and over four and a half hours of largely ineffective interviews by two constables led by PC Rebecca-Leigh Thompson.
Stephen Bradbury, a successful and well known Huddersfield businessman, was arrested (with the routine breaches of PACE that feature in so many complaint cases against WYP officers), and originally charged, with assaulting a police officer and wilful obstruction of the highway. He was not, at any time, cautioned or interviewed about the S89 obstruction offence with which he was ultimately charged. He was bailed, and re-bailed by the police, three times in total.
The charge of obstructing a police officer arises from an incident at the barrier entrance to the force car park, prior to an arranged two hour meeting at West Yorkshire Police headquarters on 12th December 2014. Two of the officers Mr Bradbury was due to meet, A/Sgt Anthony Lee and Helen Crosland, a senior civilian officer in the Force Disclosure Unit, turned turtle to give evidence against him.
Wakefield Magistrates Court heard, at a plea hearing in April 2015, that the incident in question followed several previous meetings between Assistant Chief Constable Andy Battle and Mr Bradbury, which were arranged in an attempt to resolve issues between the defendant and the force. The court also heard that a substantial without prejudice offer was made to the defendant by the Force Solicitor, Mike Percival, (in December 2013). The meetings having been called by ACC Battle to discuss the counter-offer from Mr Bradbury that followed.
Mr Bradbury pleaded not guilty at the April hearing and the trial was listed for two days, starting 26th October 2015, and directed to be heard by a District Judge, rather than a panel of lay magistrates.
The trial was duly heard before District Judge Day, on the arranged date, with Leeds barrister Martin Sleight prosecuting for the Crown and well known Huddersfield solicitor advocate Michael Sisson-Pell defending Mr Bradbury.
As a result of Mr Sisson-Pell’s intervention the witness list had been reduced from eleven potential police witnesses to five. In the event, Ms Alex Kirkham, who is personal assistant to ACC Battle, failed to appear at court (without explanation) and PC Daniel Stoppard, who assisted in the arrest of Mr Bradbury, had his evidence read to the court by the District Judge. That left three live police witnesses: A/Sgt Lee (by now demoted back to constable rank), Police HQ receptionist Emma Littlewood and Miss Crosland.
It serves no useful purpose to re-heat the detail of the evidence of what was, in its totality, an unattractive mish-mash of lies, don’t-knows, don’t-recalls and reluctant admissions of fact. The principal offender was DC Lee, who struggled, at any stage in his oral evidence, to match up with the testimony of Misses Littlewood and Crosland, or the CCTV film that was viewed several times in court or, in fact, his own written evidence and that of PC Stoppard. On top of this, DC Lee displayed a demeanour towards both defence counsel and the Court that reflected little credit on him, or the police force of which he has been part for twenty-two years.
The fate of the case was effectively sealed by the testimony of the police’s own witnesses: An offence of obstruction did not appear to have been made out by the Crown and this proposition was put to the judge in ‘half-time’ submissions by Mr Sisson-Pell. The lack of credibility of the Crown’s principal witness, DC Lee, formed the second part of Mr Sisson-Pell’s offering: During evidence it was put to DC Lee that his account of the events before, during and after arrest was ‘a complete fabrication’.
Following a detailed, incisive, and in parts scathing, summing up of the part-heard case, District Judge Day dismissed the allegation against Mr Bradbury. He also ordered that Mr Bradbury’s costs be assessed and met from central funds.
What was plain throughout the trial, and referred to by the judge in his closing remarks, is that a number of officers within West Yorkshire Police lack objectivity in their dealings with Mr Bradbury. A needless dispute that centred on whether or not Mr Bradbury was allocated a visitor’s car parking space, whilst attending a meeting at police HQ at the invitation of senior officers, had led to the fiasco in court.
Quite apart from the merits of this case, upon which readers can form their own conclusions, this prosecution throws up serious questions for, firstly, the police, who in times of austerity have not only abused bail yet again (the West Yorkshire force are, per capita, by some distance the worst abusers in the country) they have approached this matter in a grotesquely disproportionate manner – and committed themselves to an investigation and trial for a very minor offence that is likely to cost in excess of £30,000 and have taken up an enormous number of policing hours. Secondly, the CPS has decided to run this case against a background of huge criticism, nationally, of their decision making. Allegedly, at the insistence of at least one senior officer in West Yorkshire Police.
Both the police press office and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire were approached for comment on the proportionality and public interest aspects of the case. None has been offered.
Recordable Conduct complaints arising from the aborted trial have now been filed with West Yorkshire Police. They concern four officers involved in the case: C/Supt Clive Wain, Inspector Richard Close, A/Sgt Anthony Lee and Civilian Officer, Helen Crosland. The complaints allege breaches of Standards of Professional Behaviour and Code of Ethics. If proven, the most serious allegations of abuse of authority and/or honesty and integrity, against all four, would amount to gross misconduct.
Additionally, there are criminal allegations of assault and criminal damage made against Lee, and taking a motor vehicle without consent and driving without insurance against Close.
Complaints were recorded on 11th November, 2015 by the Professional Standards Department of West Yorkshire Police and the force has referred itself to the Independent Police Complaints Commission concerning the incidents.
Other matters have now come to light regarding breaches of Data Protection and the Regulatory and Investigative Powers Acts and complaints will also be submitted to the police and the IPCC in due course concerning those.