A meeting with the police, June 2014

Last autumn I met with the Chief Inspector Mark Bownass and Sgt Tom Butler of West Yorkshire’s Road Policing Unit to discuss the reporting of cycle incidents and how the police handle them. You can read all about it here but the upshot was that Mark agreed to try to improve the response of the police 101 call centre and also confirmed that video footage, if of good enough quality, was perfectly acceptably as evidence.

The meeting with the police was arranged by Mark Burns Williamson, the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for West Yorkshire, as a result of a previous meeting with him at one of his local surgeries in Otley.

Campaign members have reported some anecdotal evidence of improvements in the reporting of cycle incidents to the 101 call centre. Several campaign members seems to have had better experiences; one was even asked if she had video footage. Hopefully this has been a step forward.

What has continued to concern however is the response of the police towards actual collisions and their aftermath. A couple of recent cases of cyclists hit by cars and injured, in one case very seriously, had highlighted that the idea that the police would be there to help and support was not always a reality. So, another email to the police and PCC secured a second meeting.

A couple of days before the meeting a couple of other concerning issues occurred. Firstly the tweet from the road policing unit showing the aftermath of a car and cycle collision and noting the fact that “...the minor injury sustained by the cyclist banging his head on the road was preventable if he had been wearing a helmet.” (even more preventable if he hadn’t been hit by a car perhaps?) and then reports that PCSOs had been stopping cyclists on the canal towpath and talking to them about helmet use. Whilst both of these incidents might have been well-intentioned, they are suggestive of a certain view of cyclists, and in the case of the latter seem to demonstrate a strange direction of resource - the PCSOs could perhaps have been used more effectively advising motorists about driving using mobile phones, red light jumping, dangerous parking etc.

The meeting was held at the new police HQ on Elland Road. Lizzie, Martin and I were joined by Kat and Richard, two cyclists involved in recent collisions. CI Bownass has moved on from road policing to firearms and in his stead we met Inspector Joanne Field together, the PCC and Sgts Ben and Tom.

I started by talking about our previous meeting and suggesting the initial 101 call centre response might have improved. Inspector Field said that specific action had been taken in this area. Sampling of some of the 1.25 million calls taken every year had been used to improve quality of responses with respect to cycling incidents. Further the West Yorkshire police website had been updated to include the facility to chat to an operative in real-time and log incidents - including video evidence - online.

We also raised one common ‘fob off’ where 101 callers have been told they cannot log incidents without visiting a police station. Inspector Field thought this information was incorrect - the point of the call centre is to log incidents. With a view to taking these issues direct to those involved, Inspector Field offered to arrange a visit to the call centre and meet the manager Tom Donohoe, something we felt was a great idea.

When reporting incidents to the 101 service Inspector Field said that lack of specific detail often hindered police response. The location is important and call centre staff might not be familiar with streets in Leeds: they need road names, junctions etc to pinpoint the location. And don’t forget the wonder of lamp posts: each one has a number which the police can use to locate it. Details of vehicles involved are critical – registration and colour, plus basic details of the car like whether it’s a hatchback or saloon, or the make and model if you recognise them. Registration number and colour are usually enough for the police to identify the vehicle, and it’s important to get a description of the driver if you can. Partial registrations can be used but you stand a far better chance of getting a positive ID from a complete one.

Inspector Field also pointed out that it is *very* difficult for the police to make a judgment on fault without evidence - a cyclist might claim a driver almost hit them; the driver might say the cyclist pulled out into their way etc - so video footage or witnesses are crucial to the case.

Thinking about our recent problems getting an acceptable response from First, I asked if the police would consider dealing with incidents involving buses, and taxis. Inspector Field was clear: any vehicle could be reported and the police would investigate - something to consider the next time a bus forces you into the gutter.

Next we moved on to discuss our two case studies, starting with Kat who had been knocked off her bike on the Otley Road near the Eldon pub close to the University. Kat was cycling in the cycle lane towards the city centre, passing queuing traffic. As she crossed a junction she was hit by a right-turning car passing through a gap in the queue. She was knocked unconscious and suffered facial injury. Kat’s first memory is of being in the back of an ambulance and asked by a police officer, ‘is this your black coat?’. Further questioning followed about her lack of high visibility clothing. Kat felt this was rather unfair. She had been hit by a car that made a manoeuvre with poor visibility - clothing was irrelevant. These comment from the police seemed to suggest Kat was being blamed. Subsequently the investigation showed Kat was not at fault and the driver was given a choice of points and a fine, or taking a course. They chose the latter which Kat was pleased with - after all, the ideal outcome is that those at fault change their behaviour.

We did ask if the driver awareness course included any component that covered cycling issues. Inspector Field wasn’t sure but agreed to find out. Everyone agreed this would be a useful addition to the general key points on speeding etc.

Our second test case related to a nasty incident in Yeadon. Richard was cycling southbound along the A65 and was hit by a right turning car coming from the other direction as he crossed a side road. It was dark but Richard was well lit and wearing bright, reflective clothing. In the seconds before the collision as he tried to make eye contact, he can clearly remember that the driver was looking elsewhere as he turned. Richard suffered major injuries including broken ribs, punctured lung and ruptured Achilles tendon. The police attended and a witness called an ambulance. Richard was questioned in the ambulance at which point he could barely speak. The police officer made no further contact and had left Richard with just a single card, containing his badge number and no email address. When he and his wife chased them up the police claimed they were unable to get the witness’s details statement from the ambulance service, and couldn’t identify the officer from his badge number. They were repeatedly fobbed off and calls went unreturned.

Inspector Field was at a loss to explain these events and said she would be very unhappy if one of her own team had behaved in this way: police officers should give their name and contact details as well as a badge number, and it is possible for the police to access the 999 records to contact witnesses. She did confirm that police officers will try to get information from those involved in collisions as soon as possible, even if this means in an ambulance. This can be crucial for an investigation, however brutal it might seem. The PCC questioned the lack of communication following the incident. Inspector Field said she would follow up the incident and report back. This was welcomed by all.

We then moved on to talk about communication generally starting with the infamous Tweet from the Road Policing Unit. Many people had responded making the obvious point that the collision with the car caused the injury and that focussing on the helmet issue was missing the point, and perhaps suggestive of ‘victim blaming’. One responder was then blocked by the police, something normally reserved only for abusive or offensive use of Twitter. Inspector Field said she was aware of the incident and thought it most likely that this was not the way the Tweet was intended to be read, but acknowledged it might have come across badly. Again she said she would investigate further.

I then raised the recent reports of PCSOs cautioning towpath cyclists on helmet use. Inspector Field confirmed this was not a specific targeted campaign by the police but probably a local issue.

Mark Burns Williamson noted that road safety is now a priority for the police and the public could expect to see an increased focus on speeding, parking and dangerous driving, although he acknowledged this had to be seen in the light of major cuts in the policing budget (157 million over 6 years). Inspector Field added that local policing priorities were decided by Neighbourhood Policing Teams (NPTs) and that the public was welcome to get in contact with them directly.

Inspector Field said she would be happy to attend more regular meetings with Leeds Cycling Campaign and also agreed to set up a visit to the 101 call centre and get us involved with the West Yorkshire Safer Roads group.

The meeting ended positively with mutual appreciation and thanks all round. It felt to us as a campaign to be another step forward in terms of building relationships, finding out how the police work and what we should expect from them. Specific follow-up of Richard’s highly unsatisfactory case was very welcome. We intend to capitalise on Inspector Field’s offer for more frequent involvement.