The bike crime epidemic Part 3: The devastating consequences for police who try to stop bike thieves
If a motorcycle-riding criminal drives dangerously a pursuing police driver cannot also drive dangerously to catch them. Because if they do, they face the risk of prosecution, including a possible prison sentence.
That’s the point of law that, along with current Police and Home Office policy on protection of vulnerable riders, makes it so difficult for police officers to chase motorcycle riding criminals.
We look at what happened to one officer who decided that protecting the public from a dangerous rider was more important than any other consideration. A decision that proved to have career-threatening consequences.
In May 2017, standing at a podium in front of the Police Federation conference, PC James Ellerton from the Merseyside Police told the story of his experience as a serving police officer who had been prosecuted for dangerous driving as a result of the pursuit of a motorcycle rider he believed was putting the public at risk.
As he spoke, although calm and maybe slightly nervous at presenting to hundreds of his peers, it was clear PC Ellerton was still reliving the painful emotions of being an extremely dedicated officer, who had been prosecuted for doing the right thing and deciding to pursue a motorcycle criminal.
No wonder. The investigation and subsequent prosecution had a terrible impact on him and his family life.
In the line of fire
20 months earlier, PC Ellerton had been on duty when he became aware of a pair of motorcyclists driving dangerously through Liverpool’s busy city centre.
The scramblers were racing and pulling wheelies through crowded pedestrian streets. Neither had running lights or number plates.
The city has had a number of deaths and serious injuries to the public involving off-road bikes in recent years, so after the riders split, PC Ellerton and a colleague followed one of the bikes.
After a lengthy period of following the rider, PC Ellerton used his vehicle in a stop tactic to prevent the bike rider making further progress. The rider was hit and during the arrest suffered an injured knee.
Following the incident, the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) investigated and PC Ellerton was subsequently charged with ‘Causing serious injury by Dangerous Driving’.
Correct under current legislation
In their view, the IPCC investigators had no choice, because every police driver, regardless of seniority or the level of their training must abide by the same Road Traffic Act 1988 that all UK drivers, including emergency response drivers, must adhere to.
Under the Act, the meaning of Dangerous Driving is qualified as:
A person is to be regarded as driving dangerously if (a) the way he drives falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and (b) it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.
In a nutshell, PC Ellerton had fallen foul of the ‘competent and careful’ loophole that has directly led to the explosion of scooter and scrambler-based gangs going on criminal rampages. It effectively means they can have no fear of being chased by the police.
The highest possible training is no defence
As an Emergency Response Officer, Ellerton is trained to be at the forefront of any incident. Part of that training involves decision making and they have to follow a set framework, the National Decision Model .
In addition to that, in a split second, an officer also has to make decisions that can have serious consequences for himself – either his/her personal safety or the possibility that, in protecting the public, property or colleagues, they may put themselves at risk of investigation or worse, actual prosecution.
In a vehicle pursuit, for example, whenever there is a serious crash resulting in injury or a fatality of any person present (including the public, any criminal and other emergency responders), the IPCC will look at the incident to see if any officer has committed an offence which should be recommended to the Crown Prosecution Service.
It’s important to note that IPCC investigators are not actually police officers themselves, so they don’t always understand the pressures and circumstances in which an officer may be making a decision. They just know the rules the officer has to follow, regardless of context.
In addition to any IPCC investigation, the officer’s own police force can perform an internal investigation to determine whether the officer has broken any of the guidelines and legislation under which the police operate. And, believe me, there is a mountain of policy and guidance that they should know and understand.
Thirdly, anyone involved in the incident itself could bring a claim against the officer. So in PC Ellerton’s case, lawyers could jump up and down seeking compensation for their client. Indeed, in court during the CPA case, the offender’s lawyer made the claim that the officer had, “Beaten up his client.”
That’s three ways an officer’s career can be threatened, just for trying to stop a crime.
The next time you see a video where an officer is seemingly stuck dumb and immobile while a group of quad bikes spin doughnuts inches from his car, he will have all of those threats of discipline and potential prosecution at the back of his mind when considering what action, if any, to take.
Back to the incident
At the time of the incident, PC Ellerton already had about 5 years under his belt as an Armed Response Officer – about as highly trained, vigilant and calculating as it gets. He had passed both the Standard and Advanced Police Driver standards.
He had also been trained in using his vehicle for tactical contact between police vehicles and offending vehicles. If you want somebody to chase the bad guys and bring them to a halt, James Ellerton would be your pick.
All police drivers can conduct a ‘Follow’ without the need for authorisation from a commanding offer at their control centre. A Follow becomes a Pursuit, with emergency lights and sirens, when it becomes clear that the offender, by their actions, has no intention to stop.
At this point, the driver must seek authorisation for a pursuit and that authorisation can only be given to a driver who has achieved the Advanced Standard and is trained in Tactical Pursuit – normally the driver of the Area car.
On the night in question, it had become clear to the officer that two motorcycle riders were riding recklessly through busy city centre streets. So Ellerton, in an unmarked Mercedes police van, decided to conduct a ‘Follow’ of one of the riders.
This continued for some time as the rider headed away from the city centre, until, in an event captured on CCTV, the motorcyclist performed a U-turn that took him back towards the following van.
In a split-second and fearful that the bike might try and head back towards the nightlife crowds in the city’s centre PC Ellerton had three choices:
1) Follow ‘pursuit policy’ on these types of vehicle (motorcycles with a criminal use profile) and let the bike go – which in effect then produces a conflict in that the officer can be at risk of prosecution for Neglect of Duty or;
2) Activate his blue lights – a clear indication to the rider that he should stop, although the officer reasonably suspected the offender would not do so and would increase his speeds to avoid what he would now knew was a police vehicle or;
3) Somehow prevent the rider from returning to the city centre where, in PC Ellerton’s opinion, the rider would be putting the public at great risk of serious injury or even death.
The officer decided that it was his duty to ignore policy and instead protect the public, using Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act that enables ‘any person to use such force as reasonable in the circumstance in the prevention of crime’. So he used his vehicle to block the motorbike, and in doing so made it difficult for the rider to avoid coming into contact with the van.
The rider lost control with the bike going down. He was subsequently arrested for driving a stolen motorbike while disqualified and for Dangerous Driving. It turned out he had previous convictions for the same offence and was already on a suspended prison sentence for a separate matter.
Two weeks after the incident PC Ellerton himself was served with a charge of ‘Gross Misconduct’ by the IPCC.
PC Ellerton’s initial reaction was to believe that in protecting the public he had done the right thing and that he would be absolved of the charge in due course. But the doubts set in.
Sleepless nights followed as he mentally worked through all aspects of the incident and the actions he’d taken.
During the day, his work provided a distraction from the case. But even so, he was frequently reminded that he himself was, in his own words, “A suspect, under criminal investigation. How could this be? I had done my duty?”
After his first interviews with the IPCC there was a lull of six months. Six months when the idea that he could be prosecuted and potentially lose the job he loved was never far from his thoughts.
The timing could not have been worse
At this time, James Ellerton had been planning to have a child with his girlfriend. With the threat of losing his job hanging over him, they had to think long and hard as to whether they could afford it.
Like all growing families (they already had one daughter) they had been planning to buy a larger house. Would this be wise if James lost his job? Should they in effect put their family’s life on hold?
At this point in telling the story to the Police Federation conference, PC Ellerton takes a moment, presumably trying to calm the obvious emotions and anger that are still never far from the surface.
Firm in his belief that he was in the right, despite the IPCC’s conclusions, James and his girlfriend decided to go ahead with their plans to have a second child, and three months later they were expecting.
Three months after that came the news that, in addition to the Gross Misconduct charge, the NPCC had recommended to the Crown Prosecution Service that James should be charged with ‘Causing serious injury by Dangerous Driving’, a criminal offence. The CPS agreed and a trail date was set for November, more than a year after the original incident.
PC Ellerton was now facing a five-year prison sentence, disqualification from driving and, of course, dismissal from the Police.
As well as the potential to lose the income from his job and the effect this could have on where they could afford to live and how comfortable life would be for their young family, James and his girlfriend now had to work out how she would cope with two children if he was to go to prison.
James had another worry. They lived in an area of Liverpool where his job was not known to neighbours, it couldn’t be.
If, by newspaper reporting of what would obviously be a high-profile court case, the local criminal community discovered who and what he was, his family could be put in danger of retribution.
His commanding offers saw the potential danger the officer and his family were in and requested that a Special Measures Order was applied to all court proceedings, keeping his home address out of the news. Although barely able to sleep at all by this point, it was a small consolation for the police constable.
That still didn’t help when a local newspaper printed his photograph. It turned out that the motorcycle rider Ellerton arrested was the son of a prominent anti-gun campaigner. The newspaper put PC Ellerton’s role of Armed Response Officer together with the incident and vilified him.
He was still having to go about the life of a father-to-be. So as family members would coo in excitement over the new baby’s first scans, James Ellerton’s thoughts would sink, overcome by the idea that if he lost his job and went to prison, he was giving his child the worse possible start in life.
The trial was set for the same month the child was set to be born.
It’s not just the officer that suffers
At this point, it’s worth considering the wider impact when an officer is charged.
It is practically impossible to imagine the stress an officer undergoes when facing this situation.
As an officer facing prosecution, he is still allowed to serve in the force, but with restricted duties.
This means all of the expensive training and valuable knowledge that he or she might carry is effectively removed from the public’s benefit.
In PC Ellerton’s case, that meant the people of Liverpool were no longer being protected by an officer of not just 10 years’ experience, but the holder of two Commendations for Bravery.
The effect on resources is palpable. The officer’s colleagues now find themselves having to cover his or her now missing experience and knowledge. If they get a replacement officer, the time has to be spent getting up to speed on the area’s known criminals and their undertakings and familiarising the replacement officer with the team’s working methods. That’s if they get a replacement officer.
It’s expensive to the public purse too. You’ve spent all that money training an officer in First and Armed Response, only to see it not being used and having to train and pay another officer to step in.
A new daughter
Before his trial in November 2017, PC Ellerton was able to spend a few weeks with his new daughter. During that time he was told that the ‘Serious Injury’ part of the charge had been dropped. This meant the maximum prison sentence would now be two years.
This had only happened because the PC Ellerton had uncovered evidence that refuted his liability. Not through any diligence on their part by the IPCC or CPS.
At the trial, James Ellerton spent four days in a glass dock, surrounded by his family, a story-hungry media and the process that was trying to prosecute him.
The jury found him not guilty of Dangerous Driving.
The judge, in his summing up, said the young constable was, “Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t.”
However, the Gross Misconduct charge was still there and, again in James’ own words, “This is where things really started to go wrong for me.”
Supported but still needing help
Luckily for PC Ellerton, Merseyside Police Force was fully supportive.
His commanding officers immediately lifted the restrictions meaning he could go back to his old role, pending the final outcome of the Gross Misconduct hearing by the IPCC.
On his first shift back, after being 14 months away from the team, he found himself in a vehicle pursuit. It ended well. An arrest followed.
But then so did a whole week of sleepless nights as he fretted over whether, if things hadn’t gone so well, the same thing would happen all over again.
Over the next two weeks, his mental state went rapidly downhill. Even the most basic decisions were becoming difficult.
This culminated in an episode when his car’s ANPR camera (the technology that recognises vehicle number plates) was triggered by an uninsured vehicle. Traffic conditions meant that PC Ellerton couldn’t pursue the vehicle safely.
But that didn’t stop him becoming convinced that, by not stopping the car, it could have gone on to cause serious injury to someone. If that happened, and he had been found guilty of not acting when he could have, he could face a whole new trial. This is how a damaged mind works.
When more physical manifestations like a tightening chest, difficulty breathing and an inability to calm himself down became apparent, he was subsequently diagnosed with anxiety disorder and he had to take six weeks off work.
Once again, as he told the conference audience his story, James Ellerton had to pause and compose himself, “My brain had been burnt.” His brain had decided that the decisions he had to take were too dangerous.
For the second time, a valuable officer was taken out of action.
The IPCC eventually found him not guilty of Gross Misconduct but recommended ‘Management Advice’, a lesser sanction.
As he spoke at the Police Federation Conference in May, PC Ellerton was still undergoing the process of rehabilitation.
The longest of the pauses he takes to compose himself comes after he admits that he had been looking at job adverts, to perhaps find an alternative career.
In that one heartbreaking moment it’s clear he still loves his job and is desperate to still do it.
As of July 2017, he is yet to return to frontline policing.
And the suspect riding the stolen motorbike?
In February 2017, Devere Ogungboro, 27, was found guilty at Liverpool Crown Court of Dangerous Driving and sentenced to six months in prison, along with a 21-month driving ban. He had previous convictions for dangerous driving and possession of offensive weapons.
Our thanks go to the Sgt Tim Rogers and the Police Federation for highlighting PC Ellerton’s story. It clearly demonstrates that, if officers can be so easily prosecuted, the current law and policy around the pursuit of motorcycles is not fit for purpose.
In this article we explain exactly why.
Until an exemption is made for police officers so that ‘competent and careful’ is removed from the driving standard, criminals will be better protected than the people who are trying to stop them.
You can help to reverse this situation here.
You can watch James Ellerton speaking before the conference here.