In September 2014 PC Alice Nicholas and one of her Devon and Cornwall police colleagues responded to a call in St Austell where they were met by a man who proceeded to chase the two officers with a machete, threatening to cut their throats. He eventually put the machete down and was arrested without inflicting any injuries with the weapon. After pleading guilty he was given a suspended sentence of eight months in prison, suspended for two years.
In response PC Nicholas has begun a campaign calling for mandatory prison sentences for people who assault officers and more than 18,000 people have signed her online petition, meaning it will now be considered by the government.
There are two reasons why I hope she does not succeed in her campaign.
Firstly, the reporting of what happened to PC Nicholas and her colleague and of her subsequent campaign have given undue focus to the fact that PC Nicholas is an ex-beauty queen. This is not PC Nicholas’ fault, but it is typical of the media to report these stories from the most emotive standpoint possible. The Times headline for the story on 23 January 2016 was ‘Jail my attackers, urges beauty queen constable’. If PC Nicholas was a heavily built male and an ex professional bodybuilder, would the headline have been ‘Jail my attackers, urges bodybuilder constable’? I don’t think so. I don’t think the story would have been given much attention at all. And I base those opinions in part on the fact that nowhere in any of the news reports has the colleague who was also chased been so much as named. Put simply, the newspapers would rather you were left with the image of a defenceless (and pretty) young girl being pursued by a depraved and violent monster who wants to kill her in a very brutal way.
Let me be clear. I sympathise with PC Nicholas and her unnamed colleague and I don’t think either of them should have been subjected to this. I am in no way supportive of what the man did. But I think that painting what happened in the light that the media have done actually damages the integrity of PC Nicholas’ point and, if her campaign were to succeed, as much as I disagree with it, I would want it to have succeeded because society in general agrees with the message behind it, not because they have been emotionally manipulated by the media… again.
And why do I disagree so fundamentally with her fight for mandatory prison sentences for those who assault police officers? Because her campaign is undermined by how limited it is. I think that being attacked with a machete must be terrifying for anyone. Why should prison sentences only be mandatory if the victim is an officer? Why should the attacker not be sent to prison if the victim is a butcher or baker or candlestick maker? (or a beauty queen or body-builder or body-building beauty queen come to that?)
Some may argue that the police are only trying to do their job and that they shouldn’t feel at fear of attack. But everyone at work is only trying to do their job and, as much as some jobs are socially put down (here’s lookin’ at you traffic wardens, estate agents, and bankers) none of them deserve to feel at risk of attack. No one does. So why should the sentences handed out vary according to the profession of the victim?
Personally, I think there are instances when a prison sentence for assault might actually be inappropriate. For example, if you see someone getting attacked in the street and you step in to defend them then you probably wouldn’t get prosecuted for assault at all since this is a case of defence of another. However, if the person being attacked was your child and you were so angry in your defence that, as the attacker turns to flee and is no longer a threat you punch them in the back of the head, then you may find that you are charged for assault after all because you went beyond the limits of what was necessary to stop the attack. Legally speaking, you could be prosecuted for assault. Morally speaking I’d say that limiting your actions to that is actually quite restrained.
So, in these circumstances would you really want mandatory prison sentences for assault? You may well be prepared to serve such a sentence in order to defend your child, but the real question is, should you have to? Or, perhaps, as a society, shouldn’t we accept that there are some very specific occasions when we would like our courts to be able to show understanding, compassion, and leniency? Mandatory prison sentences would not allow for this.
This is not a simple campaign at all. I am morally aghast at the idea that anyone in the police would think that they should be treated any differently to the many victims of crime that they deal with every single day, I am dumbstruck that so many people would sign a petition to take away the power of the courts to show leniency where it is truly deserved, and I am frankly fed up with the emotional manipulation of the media in the way they choose to report such stories.