Tactical Contact & Moped Crime

Can we justify the police practice of knocking moped thieves off their bikes?

Photo by Oliver Hale on Unsplash

A couple of days ago I wrote about members of the public resorting to vigilante tactics to deal with crimes that the police are unable to devote resources to, due to public funding cuts by central government. There’s something the police are doing differently that’s not strictly related to this, but it’s still got the public baying for blood.

The Metropolitan Police have been ramming suspects on scooters off of their bikes in order to apprehend them. It sounds extreme, and I’m conflicted over whether it’s the right approach. But the public seem to love the idea. I’ve not seen a single complaint about it anywhere, other than from one opposition MP.

The comments on that thread; wow. But that’s where the public mood is – most people are fed up with yobs on bikes terrorising neighbourhoods, whether or not it’s actually a serious problem for them. The attitude towards criminals in the press and from the average man on the street is well to the right of centre, and it’s been snatched up by politicians looking to win favour with voters.

The nature of these crimes, however, makes it more difficult to catch suspects, easier to know who the correct suspect is, and even to witness criminals in the act – reducing the chance of a false identification and associated consequences.

While mopeds and small motorcycles are slower than police vehicles, they are a lot more agile, and can quickly foil the police by going off-road, down alleyways and into unsafe conditions for a police car. The police want to stop them before they vanish off into the night, and giving them a bit of a nudge is the quickest and most effective way to do it.

Moped crimes tend to involve theft, mugging and physical violence, not to mention the intimidation posed by mopeds tearing up and down the streets looking for someone vulnerable to attack. These are serious crimes committed by gangs, and a new manifestation of this type of crime. We need to do something about it, and something different to do so effectively. Ramming them off their bikes seems to be the best we’ve got at the moment.

The police call it “tactical contact”, and the idea’s not to send the riders flying through the air; just to get them off of the bike. But motorcyclists are more vulnerable than other road users, and even a little knock can put them in serious danger.

Two people so far have suffered a broken arm as a result of this tactic, but the police say it’s necessary to prevent a greater danger to the public. The method was approved following a sharp rise in these crimes, and a fear of punishment by officers who injure suspects during a pursuit or arrest. Driven by the rising crime rate, emboldened criminals and a desire to be seen to be acting, the police are hoping “to put the fear back into criminals”.

While it’s easy to determine who the criminals are (usually they’ll already be committing a driving offence as well as whatever else they’ve gotten up to), there are always going to be concerns over the police getting the wrong person. And given police history of profiling and institutional racism, those concerns are justified. Not only that, but the police in the UK have a more hands-off model based on policing by consent – an understanding between the police and public that they are uniformed citizens there to uphold the law and protect us, not to rule over us. Even criminals deserve the same protection under the law, and bouncing them off of their mopeds could be seen as contravening that principle.

Another aspect of policing that the public is divided on is the justification for the use of force. Most UK police are not armed, and so we do not see as many deaths from involvement with the police. The problem is split into two camps; with those of the opinion that if you commit a crime you must expect harsh consequences up to and including death, and those who think suspects should be allowed due process and not be gunned down or run over during a pursuit.

The former group will say “but they shouldn’t have done it in the first place” or “but they had a criminal record”, as if that negates their right to life. The latter will be concerned about treating suspects humanely and focussing on the incident in hand rather than aspects of the suspect’s background.

What do I think? I’m struggling with this. I come from an area where violent crime is common, and it’s frightening. But I’m also concerned about human rights, even for the worst people in society. This measure has received widespread praise as something that pushes back against “PC Culture” and the “Nanny State”, which is also something that worries me. The public’s reaction is one of seeking retribution against undesirables, similar to how they vilify the unemployed and disabled.

It’s a symptom of a society that’s broken, not just by crime and poverty, but our attitudes to those who are different and less fortunate. Our perception that criminals are getting away with it is true in some ways, but not in others. Crime on average is falling, but this type of crime is on the increase.

When somebody wrongs us, we want payback. It’s a natural human instinct. But the justice system is meant to detach the desire for revenge from punishment for a crime. Alas, the public’s lack of faith in the law, and their disdain for official justice, has given way to calls for harsher punishments and tougher police powers.

It seems that tactical contact is a genuinely useful measure for the police to implement, but the cheering on from members of the public is about a desire to connect crime with consequences. Those of this mindset don’t care if the suspect is hurt, or even hope that they are. We need to focus on what actually works, not just what gets the public on side.

And we have to remember that while anyone committing a crime knows they are taking a risk, we still need to apply minimum standards for how we treat them. As for this specific tactic, I’m struggling to find a problem with it. It’s painful and dangerous to come off a bike (I can confirm) but moped criminals threaten individual people and the peace and safety of whole areas.

If this is the only way of catching them, what are the police supposed to do? Criminals and the police have been outsmarting and one-upping each other for centuries. This is the latest step. As for policing by consent, well, the verdict’s pretty sound – virtually everyone approves and the papers have been desperately scratching around to find dissenters.

There isn’t really a backlash, and I can’t say yet whether I think it’s a problem. Disappointingly I’m not particularly outraged by this, and it’s challenged my beliefs on police powers and justice. I’d love it if we could solve this problem by sitting down and having an nice chat, but reality says otherwise. Sometimes a peaceful society comes at a price.