With Freedom Comes Responsibility…

8 August 2011 London riots - police in Lewisham
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As I gingerly type the first few words of this post, not confidently knowing where they will take me, I feel as if I may have bitten off a little more than I can comfortably chew. However, not being one to shirk a responsibility to protect the rights of others, or indeed my own rights; with a modicum of trepidation, I will endeavour to tread a path across the legal minefield of human rights, freedom of speech, and the right to anonymity – if there actually is one?

Recently via Twitter, I have become aware of Sophie Khan, a person who in her words is; “a solicitor-advocate specialising in Actions Against the Police at GT Stewart.” I have since found that Ms Khan is a regular contributor to TV, Radio and press media debate on legal issues, especially those involving ‘alleged’ wrong-doing or abuse of power by the police. She also writes in The Guardian as well as maintaining her own personal blogs (see here).

Commenting in The Guardian last year (8th April 2011) on The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill she suggested it would “end accountability” of the police saying; “Without a dedicated regulatory body, the chance of transparent adjudication into complaints against the police will be lost.” She started with the following sentence…

Thankfully, last month’s anti-cuts march in central London did not lead to the kind of police brutality witnessed during earlier demonstrations…(guardian.co.uk)

More recently, the self-styled ‘Activist’ has been offering up her brand of legal and sociopolitical opinion, in a myriad of media outlets, this time on the police adoption and use of Taser. Again in The Guardian, Patrick Barkham wrote a piece entitled; If officers have a new toy, they like using it which went on to question their use by saying – “Tasers are part of the modern police’s arsenal. But how safe are they and why are the guidelines for their use so vague?”

Although the article was (in my opinion) relatively balanced, up pops Ms Khan again commenting upon Home Office approved ACPO guidance on the police use of Taser. The report says she is “representing a growing number of victims of Taser use” – could this have something to do with her opinion?

“There’s a loophole that has to be closed. It’s not rocket science to know that you should not Taser someone having an epileptic seizure, but this kind of common sense is missing from police guidance” (Sophie Khan)

If you have read this far, thankyou but I’m sure you’re wondering what point I wish to make. Before I start, I neither condone nor support any police officer who operates outside of the law or, uses excessive force when dealing with any suspected offender. I also believe our police service must be accountable in a transparent manner and, every police officer should be able to justify their actions and were necessary, in a court of law. And now onto my observations and reasons for this post.

Now I don’t know Ms Khan personally and if I did, I feel I would probably find her objectionable. I appreciate this is my opinion and one possibly not shared by others, indeed, I would be more than happy to be pleasantly surprised. However, after observing her interaction with others on Twitter over recent weeks, it’s probably wise that I don’t hold my breath in anticipation.

Ms Khan appears to have a tendency towards goading police officers (and those connected to the service), via social media, her blogs and mainstream media. For whatever reason, but probably to further her own agenda (and career), she seems to assume that all police officers are racists, all police officers are bullies and all police officers make a regular habit of abusing their authority and/or using excessive force. Not so! Just as it would be an incorrect assumption for me to say all defence solicitors are crooked and only do their job for the money, some may but the majority don’t.

Her almost constant anti-establishment and anti-police rhetoric may serve her well for attracting new clients however; it also has a negative impact upon our society and the concept of policing by consent. It borders upon encouraging civil disobedience and causes members of our society to kick against law and order. They believe they can do what they will because, Ms Khan and her like will save them from conviction of any ‘alledged’ offence.

It’s very similar to the methods employed by some elements of our media. Supposition of guilt, embroidery of fact with opinion, assumptions of wrong doing without evidence and emotive headlines with tenuous policing links, or accusations that we’re living in a ‘police state’, all serve to undermine the public’s support for, or trust in their police force.

I’m sure Ms Khan would counter my opinion and say, she is simply protecting the public, she is searching for greater accountability within the police service and/or, her raison d’être is solely to bring those to justice who do wrong. All well and good if that is her sole aim, I want the same thing however; is it right that her clients are presumed innocent until ‘proven’ guilty, yet she and others like her, constantly seek to reverse that rule of justice for police officers? Is it right that she should use the emotive words and phrases she does, subsequently attempting to hide from (or ignore) the resulting answers after lighting the blue touch-paper? I think not.

Now on to the subject of anonymity…

Ms Khan blogs for the Solicitors Journal and in her section of the site ‘On The Beat’ sub-titled ‘Sophie Khan talks law and disorder’ – she recently posted an item entitled; ‘Pushing the boundaries of freedom of expression.’

The question of whether we have a right to anonymity has once again been brought to the forefront of debates not just in the context of the protesting where many protestors, including the ‘Occupy’ movement, have been seen wearing the ‘V for Vendetta’ mask, but also in the forum of blogs and twitter accounts written by serving police officers…(Solicitors Journal – On the beat)

In summary of her post Ms Khan says; “I find it ironic that police officers have taken a lead in promoting the concept of anonymity and are reluctant to give up their right, when they are the first ones to ‘unmask the anonymous’ and lobby the government for more powers to deny others the same right.”

Firstly, any police desire to ‘unmask the anonymous’ often relates to those who are committing crime and obviously, seek to protect and hide their identity to escape punishment. E.g. rioting looters with face masks and hoodies etc. If someone smashed her car windows and stole her belongings but had their face covered whilst doing so, would she be as happy to challenge that call? Would she be happy if the police arrested a suspect, but were unable to identify him/her, simply because their face was concealed and not visible to the CCTV camera. The one she parked under in an attempt to gain additional security for her parked vehicle. I think not, unless of course she was that persons defence council and it was someone elses car.

Secondly, the anonymous police Bloggers and Tweeps she believes should be ‘unmasked’ are often trying to do the very same thing she purports to do i.e. expose failings within the police service. What better source of ‘evidence’ than one inside the organisation? The only problem is, unlike Ms Khan, they are more likely to suffer financial loss for their ‘openness’ and ‘honesty’ when sacked for some trumped-up discipline charge by an embarrased chief officer.

Oh that we could all be afforded the luxury of total openness, honesty and freedom of expression or opinion, without fear of judgement or retribution. We all have opinions and some are more able to express them than others. Mostly we are actually free to do so however; with that freedom also comes responsibility, to others and to our society in general. Please be careful how you use it.

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