“The call was passed out over the radio that the security at Morrisons had detained a shop lifter and were asking for assistance from the Police. A call like this is graded as an emergency so we flicked on the blues and flew straight across to the shop. That annoyed me when I arrived because obviously every time you respond with lights and sirens you are putting people at risk. We got there and some bloke in jeans and a t-shirt came running up to us excitedly saying “nice one lads, she’s in here, come on” and scurried off. We had no idea who he was, no badge, ID or anything to suggest he was a part of the security team. I stopped him and asked who he was and he told us he was an ‘Undercover Store Detective’ and it was him that had caught the ‘shoppy’ and that his colleague was sitting with her now. He opened the door to what looked like a broom cupboard with a table and chair crammed into it. There was a a lanky security guard stood with his arms crossed across his chest with a stupid grin on his face. He told us later ‘this is my first catch’, hence the excitement I think.
Sitting in the chair was a woman who looked to be in her late 30’s. She was wearing a trouser suit and had black leather satchel like bag with her. She wouldn’t have looked out of place as the store manager. She was sobbing uncontrollably as soon as she saw me enter the broom cupboard. Before I could even speak she was begging forgiveness. My partner took the security guards out of the office whilst I sat with the suspect. A few minutes later he came back in with 4 items in his hand. He placed them on the table. Two of Morrisons finest microwave meals currently on a 2 for £6 offer and two £3 DVDs. Pepper Pig and Ben 10. The woman howled and began crying even louder.
My colleague told me that the ‘Undercover Store Detective’ had been patrolling the store and had seen the suspect put the items into her satchel. He thought she was using it to carry her shopping to the till at first because he said she didn’t look like a ‘shoppy’ but she walked straight passed to tills and to the exit. There was some discrepancy as to whether she had actually left the store and completed the offence but he was certain she had and would check CCTV for us. I asked the woman her name, date of birth, address and I ran her through the PNC. Nothing at all came back on her. I asked for a check to be done on her address and surely enough it was recorded but under her husband’s name and they were only recorded as being victims of a burglary the previous year.
So this wasn’t your usual shoplifter. I passed her a tissue from the pack I carry in my stab vest and asked her what had happened. Her story was that 8 months previously she had been made redundant from her admin role at a local hospital where she had worked for 15 years. The had 2 kids, a 5 and a 7 year old. They had struggled on for the first couple of months on just her husbands wage as she tried her hardest to get a new job. Then disaster struck when her husband’s firm went into administration and her husband lost his job too. They had lost all income, had fallen behind on bills and mortgage payments, they had not been able to celebrate Christmas properly and although her husband had found a new job which didn’t pay enough, she had been to one failed interview after another and was still out of work. They were still behind on bills and all money was going on feeding her kids and paying the essential utilities.
That day she had been to an interview, hence her dress and appearance, and was very confident when she left. She was on her way home when they called her so she pulled into Morrisons car park to take the call. Sadly, another failed interview. She told us that she couldn’t face going home to her kids and husband again and giving them bad news and so she decided what she needed was to feel like she had provided for her kids and to see a smile on their faces.
She had taken the meals for their tea and the DVDs were to see them smile and so they could sit and watch them in their bedroom whilst her and her husband talked. I don’t mind admitting, her story and her emotions made me choke up a couple of times. Ultimately what we had here was a mother who was desperate that she was willing to cross a line she had never even considered before and break the law to provide a meal and a smile for her kids. She fully understood what she had done and was more than apologetic. She was petrified that now she was going to be arrested for theft she would never find a job….that’s when I made my decision.
I used my discretion. I knew my partner would agree cause we were so much alike. I told the woman not to worry and to try and compose herself and I left the room. The two guards were right outside the door like two puppies awaiting praise and a treat. The uniformed one asked “Have you locked her up?”. I told them that I hadn’t locked her up and that I wasn’t going to either. They froze on the spot, their tales no longer wagging. They told me that I MUST lock her up cause that is their company policy. I told them that their company can’t have a policy that dictates what Police Officers do and that I have ultimate discretion in this situation and I don’t believe that criminalising this woman is the best way forward nor is it in the public interest. I explained her situation.
The ‘undercover’ guard was on my side. He agreed that it’s not the best solution. The uniformed guard was more upset at losing his first catch. I tried several times to get him on side but he wasn’t having it and so in the end I simply told him it was tough. It was my choice and the lady would not be getting arrested today. We all crammed back into the room and I explained to the woman that she would not be getting arrested and that we were going to take her out of the store and have a chat in our car. Lanky, obviously upset we had stolen his catch butted in with ‘But you are barred for life from this store’. She burst into tears again. She begged him to reconsider as she lived just around the corner, had shopped their all her life and couldn’t afford to travel to the next nearest supermarket every time they needed something. The guard was unrelenting and insisted it was ‘company policy’.
My colleague questioned whether he has the authority to do that given that he isn’t actually a Morrisons employee and when he confirmed he did have authority my colleague assured her that he would speak with the manager and let her know (he did do and the manager was fantastic and allowed her back into the store). When we got the woman back to her car I provided her with details of local groups and charities such as the Salvation Army which would be able to help her and her family and she couldn’t thank us enough and promised never to do something so stupid again.
When I spoke to my supervisor to get the call finalised I was shouted at. I was told that I should have arrested her and that it will take some ‘clever wording’ in order write off the call to comply with the National Crime Recording Standard. I was told it was my duty and that I will probably now have to go and arrest her from home. I told him that wasn’t going to happen and that if he thinks that is the best way to deal with somebody in her situation then he can go and drag her out of the house in front of her kids. As it happens the call was finalised and the woman wasn’t arrested. Job well done in my eyes.”
The above is a true story told to me by a serving officer. I use it because I think it demonstrates well the human side of policing. Here we had two officers whose “duty” dictated they arrest the shoplifter but whose morals dictated they help the woman and their morals won. I don’t think any good person can argue or criticise the officers for the way they dealt with the situation. Had it been another officer who attended the call the woman could well have been arrested, charged and walked away with a criminal record which could potentially prevent her finding employment. But this is just one example of many where Police Officers have to fight between their morals and their duty and quite often duty wins for reasons I will go into.
Over the last week I have spoken to many Police Constables who have answered several questions for me to help with my blogs and a project/campaign I am working on. One of those questions was;-
Has there ever been a time when you have been instructed to carry out a duty as a Police Officer which clashed with your personal morals and beliefs and if so, how did it make you feel and how did you deal with it?
The following are some of the answers I received.
“I am dead against fox hunting so when I was told I was policing the hunt to stop hunt saboteurs I objected. I explained to my boss that I didn’t feel I could because I don’t agree with fox hunting but I was pretty much told he doesn’t care what I agree or disagree with, I am a Police Officer and will do my duty. Having to “protect” these sick bastards while they scared and killed foxes made me feel ashamed for the first time in 17 years of being a Police Officer”.
“It drives me mental when people call the Police to say “there are kids playing in the street and being noisy” and then we get sent along to move them on even though they have done nothing wrong. They are just playing in the street and having fun for god sake. It’s not late at night or early in the morning, they are not committing crime, they are not even being anti-social or breaching the peace! The are PLAYING. Yet we get ordered by supervision to ‘move them on’ because we have a ‘duty to the public’ and must ‘maintain public confidence’… Well it might make the person complaining happy when we move harmless kids away but it doesn’t do much for maintaining the confidence of the youths, of their friends and family when they tell them they were chased off by the Police. Obviously if they are being rude, committing any offences, targeting somebody… we would have no issue dealing with them but all this does is make us look like bullies driving around scaring kids and spoiling their fun.”
“I got deployed with a team to prevent a breach of the peace whilst bailiffs evicted a man who had not been paying his mortgage. When we got there there was a removal van, about half a dozen bailiffs and removal men and they were waiting for us before they went up to the address. There was already a crowd gathered outside defending the man and who were angry and shouting at the bailiffs. My Sergeant spoke to the fella in charge and made sure the paperwork was above board and legal. We had to move the crowd back which obviously resulted in pushing and shoving and arguing with insults being thrown our way. We stood for about 2 hours separating the crowd from the property. The evictee was crying. Officially we were there to prevent any crime taking place but to the public we were HELPING the bailiffs evict a man. I felt guilty. I felt like stepping aside and letting the crowd through and helping this man get his house and possessions back. I couldn’t because I had a legal duty to prevent breaches of the peace and protect and preserve life and property.”
“Fracking is something I am 100% dead against and so when I took part in training to police protests at fracking sites I began asking myself how I would react when expected to stand guard outside one and prevent protesters gaining access. Truth is, I would WANT to let them in and even help them stop the fracking but I would HAVE to do my job and fulfil my duty and follow lawful orders. That really causes a moral dilemma and conflict”.
So here I have highlighted just a few of the jobs and duties expected from a Police Constable which cause internal battles with their own morals and beliefs. Jobs where their sense of lawful duty takes precedence over their morals. Police Officers may sum it up by saying “We’re just doing our job”. In part 2 of this blog I am going to look at the consequences of them doing the opposite and standing by their beliefs AND ask where exactly a Police Officer would draw the line at simply “doing their job” and following orders.