Thursday, 13 July 2017

Devon and Cornwall Police - Operation Closepass

After much anticipation, the day finally arrived on which D & C Police would launch their Operation Closepass! For those unfamiliar with this, it is a method of roads policing pioneered by the West Mids Police Roads Policing Unit, and basically involves a cop, in plain clothes, riding a bicycle up and down a stretch of road. He (or she) has a radio, and the bike has a forward facing camera and a rear facing camera. If the police cyclist receives a close overtake, they radio to colleagues up ahead, who pull the driver over.

The operation is NOT meant to be punitive, but rather educational, so drivers aren't prosecuted (initially, anyway), but are given a brief education on why they should give cyclists more space. The idea is that drivers go away, realising they'd done something wrong - often without fully realising it at the time - to hopefully not repeat the mistake in future.

The vision was to have a fantastically successful day, launching the operation in Plymouth and in Dorset at the same time, with the ironic hope to catch (and therefore have the opportunity to educate, not prosecute) many drivers.

Now I'm fond of quoting Lennon;s words: Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. And life indeed happened. Or rather, the weather happened! The day before was dry, and the day after forecast to be dry, but on the day of the launch, it rained - heavily at times.

As a result, the operation was cut short in Plymouth, and in Dorset it was almost totally rained out. As one police officer said: I don't mind standing in the rain, but I can't exactly ask a driver to get out of their car and get soaked, while I explain things to them using the special mat.

BBC Spotlight News and ITV Westcountry News both covered the event, as did Heart Radio and the Plymouth Herald.
Chief Inspector Adrian Leisk, head of roads policing for the D & C Police and Dorset Police Roads Policing Alliance was there, as was Sergeant Gary Williamson from the roads policing unit. Sergeant Williamson, far more than anyone else, deserves the credit for making the operation happen. He has worked tirelessly, for quite some time, to make it possible.

Exeter Cycling Campaign attended, represented by Caspar Hughes, while Plymouth Cycling Campaign was represented by Stuart Mee. The surprise supporter of the day was Alison Hernandez, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall.

So was the day a failure, given that only three drivers were pulled over and educated, which is a very low number?

In short, no - absolutely not!

This was the 1st of many such operations throughout the force's area. The Roads Policing Alliance has two mats, and two sets of cameras, so they can deliver two operation simultaneously on the same day, in different locations.
Nobody had any real expectations of an enormous success on the first attempt, and the officers involved acknowledged that to them it was very much a learning experience.

Already, there's been a lot of good that came off the operation: Chief Inspector Leisk was interviewed on BBC Spotlight News, where he gave a very fair explanation of why Operation Close Pass is needed, and why the force will continue to repeat it throughout its area. As a direct result of that, potentially tens of thousands of drivers were told about Operation Close Pass, and told to expect more.

This simply means there's an increased likelihood that drivers will start giving cyclists more space, either because they've been told to (and the reasons were explained) or because they're worried that the cyclist up ahead may just be an undercover police officer.

Alison Hernandez was extremely supportive of the operation (her office purchased one set of cameras for police to use) and was keen to see it repeated. We also learned that the police officer cycling up and down on the camera-equipped bicycle, when the operation is repeated in Exeter, will be the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police himself.
With both the PCC and the Chief Constable supporting Operation Close Pass, it's fair to say it now has buy-in from the very top.

So was the day a complete success? Well, that's a no, too. It would be wrong to think of this in such black and white terms as success or failure. Instead, we should think of this as the start of a journey.

Many positives have already come from this, but there's more to follow, and many of those aren't obvious. For instance, it is tempting to want bad drivers arrested, fined, or even banned from driving, and while punishments sometimes are inevitable, research tells us we get far better results through education.
For a very long time, cyclists have said they have no trust in police, and as a result, stopped reporting incidents to police. Police, on the other hand, proceeded on the basis that there was no problem, as cyclists weren't reporting incidents. This miscommunication led to an almost complete breakdown of communication from both sides, and that wasn't helping anyone.

More than that, many officers simply didn't think a report of a close overtake, or similar near-hit, warranted them spending any time on it. As one senior officer said to me, a number of years ago: "We have real police work to do".

But we've moved on from that!

Now, police openly acknowledge that there is indeed a problem, and they're assigning resources to it.

Reporting incidents can still be a hit and miss process, and is best done directly to Sgt Williamson. Chief Insp Leisk is planning on setting up a peninsula-wide cycling forum, with members from the community, as well as police. That would be another huge step forward, allowing for better communication again.

Next year, a group of officers, including Chief Insp Leisk and Sgt Williamson (and hopefully Deputy Chief Constable Paul Netherton), are joining members from the cycling community in cycling Devon Coast To Coast over two days. I'm still hoping to recruit Alison Hernandez, too, but she doesn't know this yet, so don't tell her!

Police have clearly shown they are ready, willing and able to engage with the cycling community, and we cyclists need to reciprocate by reporting incidents we encounter on the roads.

Of course this isn't all one-sided - D & C Police are launching a programme highlighting cyclists' rights and responsibilities. They have an agreement with Halfords, that every bike sold will have attached a leaflet showing cyclists' rights on the one side, and their responsibilities on the other. Any other bicycle retailers who wish to join that programme are more than welcome to do so, by contacting Sgt Williamson.

If you thought the very first instance of Operation Close Pass delivered by the Roads Policing Alliance would result in fireworks, raised tempers and loud voices, you'd have been disappointed. Equally, you'd have misunderstood what it was about.

We turned a corner, yesterday. There's a long road ahead, but the future, as far as cyclist safety in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset is concerned, is looking far, far better than what it did just six months ago!