• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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A Brief Note on a “Racially Aggravated Public Order Offence”

From The Sunday Times:

Last week, Jane Savidge, 69, went public to say she was the person who’d honked her horn when a driver ‘took ages’ and blocked her car at a petrol station in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, in May 2015. 

The driver she tooted at happened to be black, and Thames Valley Police were forced to quiz the pensioner under current current hate crime laws.

…Savidge said she had been troubled by the police’s insistence that the incident be recorded as a “racially aggravated public order offence”, even though the other woman later met the other officers and agreed that a crime “had not occurred”.

…Thames Valley police said: “Following a review of the circumstances, the incident was reclassified as a hate-related incident in line with national guidance.”

The story has gained some wider media interest, as an example of someone being unfairly tainted as a hate-crime suspect following a trivial incident in which the aggrieved party’s allegation of racism was clearly unwarranted. It also draws attention to the problematic nature of how “hate-related incidents” are defined: as an incident that may not even be a criminal offence but which “the victim, or anyone else, thinks is based on someone’s prejudice” – never mind that the complainant might not actually be a “victim”, but someone whose perspective is unreasonable or who may even be complaining vexatiously.

However, less attention has been given to the “public order” element in the story. The expression “racially aggravated public order offence” means that a public order offence is alleged, and that the supposed motive made it worse. Yet we can be very confident that the police would not usually treat someone who tooted their horn once to signify “get a move on” as having committed an offence at all. This means that the “public order offence” was invoked here purely to have something on which to hang “racially aggravated”.

This is not a pedantic point: if it were indeed the case that Thames Valley Police was “forced to quiz the pensioner”, then the officers involved would not have needed to come up with a non-existent “public order offence” as a device to facilitate the investigation.

Some might suspect here overzealousness in pursuing allegations of racism (perhaps due to fear of being accused of not taking complaints seriously enough), although my guess is that what happened more likely reflects TVP’s “believe the victim” mentality that means that trivial and false complainants are uncritically indulged.