In a spacious office located in Bristol, a law enforcement officer is viewing body camera footage of two fellow officers detaining a woman for creating a disturbance on the Clifton suspension bridge. As viewers of the show To Catch a Copper have just watched the same video, the officer reviewing the tape reflects our own reactions at home. He is sitting with his mouth agape.
In the past four years, the Avon and Somerset Police gave permission for documentary cameras to follow the actions of its Counter-Corruption Unit. This is similar to AC-12 from Line of Duty, but this unit investigates all types of misconduct on the job, not just corrupt police officers. However, the show To Catch a Copper does not reveal any sinister plots or involvement with organized crime. Instead, the first episode focuses on the mistreatment of vulnerable citizens and exposes the despicable actions of certain individuals, as well as the unsatisfactory reactions from those in charge.
The shocking video begins with female police officers arriving at the Clifton Bridge after receiving a call about a woman threatening to jump from it. Instead of showing compassion, the officers treat the woman with disdain. She is restrained against a squad car with an officer’s hand on her throat. The officers then put a “spit hood” on her after she attempts to spit at one of them. In response to her kicking out, she is pepper-sprayed. When they bring her back to the station, she is constantly belittled and dismissed. The officers pin her to the ground and search her, even putting their hands on her trousers as she screams in protest. The investigator watching the footage expresses shame at the officers’ behavior.
Not quite as bad is another clip where two male officers assist hospital staff in preventing a female patient from absconding. Again, she is obviously in crisis (“I want to die!”), but is mocked by the officers, who laugh about her having possibly wet herself, and are at one point heard using the phrase “fucking bitch”.
The situation is alarming, especially considering that the officers were aware they were being recorded by body cameras. However, at the midway point of the incident, there is not enough evidence to suggest that as British citizens, we have completely lost trust in the police. With over 147,000 police officers in the UK, it is expected that there may be a few individuals who abuse their power. It is the presence of systemic issues that indicate a flawed law enforcement system, rather than isolated incidents, no matter how shocking and troubling they may be.
When the program shifts to broader issues, the initial argument suggests absolving the officers captured on video. As a police officer, interacting with individuals having the worst days of their lives is a daily occurrence: one distressing encounter with a desperate person is followed by another, and another. Documentaries like BBC’s Ambulance have highlighted how the decline of social care and mental health services in Britain has placed excessive responsibilities on paramedics, forcing them to handle issues that should have been addressed elsewhere. This also applies to the police force. One officer who responded at the hospital describes their work day as “all about safeguarding, vulnerability, and mental health.”
However, this would only justify a lack of emotional involvement, not extreme ridicule or threatening behavior – therefore, in the instances we have observed, were those officers at least immediately terminated? This raises a possible issue within the system: neither the Clifton Bridge incident nor the events at the hospital resulted in any form of disciplinary action. It has been reported that in 2022, less than 1% of the 81,000 complaints against the police led to formal misconduct investigations.
The show features a third, well-known case study involving Sgt Lee Cocking. On Christmas Eve 2017, he volunteered to drive a highly intoxicated individual home in Weston-super-Mare. Sgt Cocking was charged with the serious crime of misconduct in public office, but was able to convince the jury that his post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by a previous traumatic experience at work, prevented him from stopping the woman from engaging in sexual activity with him in a dark layby. His police misconduct hearing agreed with the court’s decision. During the show, a police officer criticizes Cocking’s defense as “absurd”, but the case is unique due to Cocking’s medical condition and the fact that the jury agreed with the police’s internal disciplinary process.
Returning to that process with regard to all the concerns raised by the programme, the Avon and Somerset chief constable, Sarah Crew, expresses her own frustration, going as far as to say that “hopefully this documentary will make a case” for reform. Hopefully, in subsequent episodes, it will make a more focused one.
On January 30, 2024, this article was edited to eliminate a mistaken mention of the Independent Office for Police Conduct.