Picture credit: shank_ali/Getty
Artillery Row

Call it kidnap

Do not write this off as a simple case of overzealous policing

Last Friday night, I had the novel experience of being cut off during a live TalkTV interview by the programme’s host, Andre Walker, who had invited me on to comment on the arrest by West Yorkshire Police of a 16 year old autistic girl for the crime of comparing a short haired female police officer to her lesbian granny. The abrupt cancellation was a surprise given that Walker is a click-bait showman, who recently registered his objection to double mastectomies being used to promote sales of flat whites and inedible croissants, by bravely ripping up a Costa Coffee cup live on air. Nevertheless, Walker feared that my commentary was in danger of putting Ofcom’s knickers in a terrible twist. 

The crux of the objection was that I considered the actions of West Yorkshire Police to be akin to an organised crime gang engaged in a kidnap. It’s a strong allegation, which demands some justification, so here goes. Kidnap is a common law offence, made up of four distinct elements. The taking of one person by another… with force….without their consent… and without lawful excuse. The screams of the girl attest to the fulfilment of the first three elements, but what of the fourth? Did the police have a lawful excuse to behave as they did?

Here’s the technical bit: Section 4 and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 cannot be committed where the suspect (in this case, the girl), and the victim (the officer) are both in the same private dwelling. The clue is in the name. It is the Public Order Act, designed to address alarm, harassment and distress carried out in a public place. For the arrest to have been lawful, the police would need to demonstrate a mistake as to fact. In other words, that they genuinely mistook the hallway and cupboard beneath the stairs in which the girl was hiding for, say, the town hall steps or other public place. Ignorance as to law is not a valid defence. Ever. What the police did was the equivalent of pulling over a car on the verge of breaking the speed limit and arresting the driver for burglary.

The homophobic angle is also a red herring. Being compared to an elderly homosexual is only likely to fluster the feathers of those who steadfastly maintain that singing along to Sam Smith is evidence of desires forbidden by the Book of Deuteronomy. Besides which, the High Court has ruled that a police officer should be much less susceptible to alarm, harassment, and distress than the average person, and be capable of withstanding a few choice words during a shift without recourse to the fainting couch.

We don’t call shoplifting overzealous shopping

Thus, it seems entirely risible to write this arrest off as simply a case of overzealous policing. We don’t call shoplifting overzealous shopping, and we don’t refer to rape as overzealous affection. Why such forensic honesty should cause a mini-meltdown in a radio host may be symptomatic of an awe reserved for the police which is entirely absent toward any other professional group behaving similarly. 

By way of illustration, consider the following scenario. Whilst conducting a home delivery, the Tesco delivery man is told by a tipsy customer that he looks like Gandalf. The customer then emphasises the association between the wizard and Sir Ian McKellan by making a limp wristed gesture, the type of which was made popular by the late, great Larry Grayson. The delivery man, who is wearing a rainbow lanyard because it is Pride Month again, perceives this to be a homophobic attack on his sexuality, at which point he seeks back-up from several other Tesco colleagues. Working in unison, the gang of uniformed staff drag the customer from the broom cupboard in which she has sought refuge, slap her wrists in cable ties, and throw her in the back of the works van to take her to the store. “We don’t tolerate homophobia directed at our staff,” says the store manager, who authorises the customer’s confinement in the warehouse.  Would we call that an overzealous delivery? 

The statement issued by West Yorkshire Police, in which the girl is exonerated from all suspicion of criminality, is a classic bait and switch, wherein there are promises of lessons to be learned and an internal investigation by Professional Standards, in the hope that we will forget about the brutality of the abduction. Anyone familiar with policing will know that ice caps move with greater urgency than professional standards. The criminality, which would be levelled in an instant at the vigilante Tesco gang, is simply reframed by the police as something more benign, which might be remedied by quiet reflection and a little more training. 

Do not fall for the sleight of hand. If  the police are the public and the public are the police, then the police must be held to the same standard as the vigilante Tesco gang. Any person who takes another person by force, without their consent, and without lawful excuse because they  objected to being compared to someone’s granny needs more than a professional readjustment. An ancient Chinese proverb states that the beginning of wisdom is to call a thing by its proper name. Let’s call it kidnap. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover