Wondering where you stand when it comes to dealing with the police? We asked a legal expert to give us her insight.
Warning: this article contains references to rape and sexual abuse which some readers may find triggering.
If you struggled to comprehend the details which came out of Wayne Couzens’ two-day sentencing at the Old Bailey last week, you’re nowhere near the only one.
Over the course of the highly publicised trial – which saw Couzens sentenced to a whole life order for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard – it emerged that the then-Metropolitan police officer used his warrant card and police handcuffs to falsely ‘arrest’ Everard and get her into his hire car. He then drove her to Dover, where he raped and murdered the 33-year-old before disposing of her body.
While the violence of Couzens’ actions alone is horrifying enough, the fact that he used his position as a police officer to stop and kidnap Everard is especially chilling – and has led to many of us wondering how we can keep ourselves safe in the future.
Of course, it’s worth noting that the onus shouldn’t be on women to keep ourselves safe – the North Yorkshire police commissioner Philip Allott was (rightly) met with criticism after suggesting that women need to be “streetwise” and that Everard shouldn’t have “submitted” to Couzens (he has since apologised).
It’s also worth noting that this kind of fear isn’t anything new: many women of colour have long felt distrust towards the police due to the many incidents of racialised police violence which have taken place in the UK.
However, while we wait for the kind of institutional reform which is needed to address the issue of male violence against women and girls, it’s understandable that many women are seeking to find out more about their rights when it comes to the police – especially when it comes to dealing with lone, male, undercover officers.
Below, we unpick some of the main questions you might have about interacting with the police – both in a public place and in your own home.
What rights do police officers have to stop you in a public place?
Although you might feel obligated to speak to a lone police officer or group of officers if they approach you in a public place, there is often no legal requirement for you to respond.
“The police have various powers when it comes to stopping or speaking to people out in a public place – for example, they are entitled to ask any person who they are, what they are doing and where they are going,” explains Laura Baumanis, a criminal defence solicitor at Olliers Solicitors. “The fact that they have the power to ask such questions does not give them any power to force a person to answer.”
Because of this, Baumanis explains, if you fail to answer or refuse to respond to an officer’s questions, they cannot use this as a reason to search or arrest you. “If you are spoken to under those circumstances, and you are not comfortable in providing such information, you can simply walk off,” she adds.
If the police are seeking to act in a way that either a) restricts your liberty by way of an arrest or b) requires you to show them all the items in your possession by way of a search, they must be able to explain the reasons why and make you aware of your rights, Baumanis continues.
“If they are not being clear, if they fail to explain the grounds for their actions, or if they act in a manner which goes beyond the execution of their duty, such as using violence, threats, or inappropriate behaviour, you need to raise your concerns, both with them and with possible witnesses.
“If the officer cannot answer any of the above when requesting you to be searched or detained, then they are acting unlawfully and you do not have to co-operate.”
For more information about your rights when it comes to being stopped and searched, you can check out the government website.
What should you do if you’re worried about the legitimacy of an officer/arrest?
Amid continued concerns about women’s safety after Couzens’ sentencing, the Metropolitan police have released a statement outlining ways for women to try and decipher whether an officer is genuine if they’re concerned beyond asking for their name, police station and, if they’re not in uniform, a warrant card.
“It is unusual for a single plainclothes police officer to engage with anyone in London,” the statement reads. “If that does happen, and it may do for various reasons, in instances where the officer is seeking to arrest you, you should expect to see other officers arrive shortly afterwards.
“However, if that doesn’t happen and you do find yourself in an interaction with a sole police officer and you are on your own, it is entirely reasonable for you to seek further reassurance of that officer’s identity and intentions.”
If you’re in a position to ask questions of the officer, the Metropolitan police recommend asking the following four questions:
- Where are your colleagues?
- Where have you come from?
- Why are you here?
- Exactly why are you stopping or talking to me?
They also recommend trying to seek some “independent verification” of what they’re saying, for example, by asking to hear the voice of the operator on the other side of their radio if they have one with them.
“All officers will, of course, know about this case and will be expecting in an interaction like that – rare as it may be – that members of the public may be understandably concerned and more distrusting than they previously would have been, and should and will expect to be asked more questions,” the statement continues.
“If after all of that you feel in real and imminent danger and you do not believe the officer is who they say they are, for whatever reason, then I would say you must seek assistance – shouting out to a passer-by, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or, if you are in the position to do so, calling 999.”
The Metropolitan police website also suggests calling 101 to check the identity of a police officer if you’re unsure who you’re dealing with.
When we put this question to Baumanis, she added: “The police do have a duty to protect and uphold the public’s confidence in them. They must, therefore, always act professionally and respectfully.”
On top of being aware of your rights (as outlined in question one), Baumanis recommends voicing your discomfort if you’re feeling uncertain, as most legal officers will be happy to answer your concerns.
“You may wish to explain to the officer, if they do indicate that they have the legal authority to search or detain you, that you are uncomfortable and would prefer that the discussion took place in a more public place, but there is no specific right in law for that to take place,” she explains.
“Officers do all tend to have body cameras installed on their uniforms, so you may wish to ask that the camera be switched on to document everything that is taking place. This would normally be done as a matter of routine and ensures all parties are safeguarded from future complaints.”
Baumanis continues: “If the officer is of the opposite sex, and you feel that some of the questions are personal, you may wish to request that you wait for someone of the same sex to attend. Again, this does depend on what the officer is asking, and the police do need to act expeditiously and cannot delay investigations without good cause.”
What details should a warrant card contain?
While warrant cards vary from force to force, according to the BBC they typically include the officer’s photograph, name, identity number, the name of the force and a security hologram.
You can see an example of a Metropolitan police warrant card in this tweet from Brent police from 2018.
What should you do if you’re worried about someone else’s arrest?
While it is an offence to interfere with an officer acting in the execution of their duties – such as when they’re arresting someone – there are steps you can take to ensure someone being arrested is safe and being treated properly.
Instead of physically or verbally getting involved with the arrest itself – both of which could lead to criminal charges – Baumanis recommends standing back and using your position as a bystander to help.
“If you are a witness who can exonerate the person under arrest, then it is important to make the police aware of the information you have, and to provide your details so that a statement can be taken. You should be aware that they may not be in a position to speak to you immediately at the scene.”
She continues: “If you witness an arrest and feel that the police are using excessive force or are behaving inappropriately towards the detainee or members of the public who are witnessing the arrest, you should contact the police directly. You may wish to record the incident so that you have evidence of what has taken place. If you believe there is a serious risk to the person in question, phone 999, and make it clear to the officers at the scene that you are doing so, and why.”
Under what circumstances is an officer allowed to enter your home?
The police do not have a general power to enter your home unless you give them permission, but there are some circumstances under which they can legally enter.
The first circumstance in which an officer can enter your home without your permission is when they have a warrant to search the premises. “This means that they do have a lawful right to enter and refusing to allow them to do so can result in you committing an offence,” Baumanis explains. “They can also use force to secure entry.”
However, just because a warrant allows the police to enter your home, doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to check that things are legitimate first.
To do this, Baumanis suggests asking for a copy of the warrant and looking at who it is addressed to, checking the address on the paper is yours, and identifying the purpose of the search. She also suggests asking for a copy of the search log which should detail any items the police remove from your home.
Other circumstances under which the police can legally enter a private property include when a person has been arrested (even if it’s a home they don’t live in full time) and if they believe a crime is being committed. However, in these circumstances, the police should still advise the occupant why they’re entering the property.
What should you do if you’re pulled over by a police officer?
The actions you should take when pulled over by a police officer vary depending on the type of car which has pulled you over, Baumanis says.
“If you are flashed by a fully liveried police vehicle then you must stop as soon as it is safe to do so,” she explains. “Unmarked police cars are also legally allowed to require a vehicle to pull over, but by law, [the unmarked police car] must contain an officer in uniform.”
If an unmarked vehicle attempts to pull you over, you should only do so if you are certain that it contains a police officer, Baumanis adds.
“If you are unsure you should drive to a public area such as a petrol station or local shops, where you are visible to others,” she says.
“If it is legal and safe to do so, it is a good idea to call 999 and advise them of your location and information relating to the vehicle behind you. They will be able to check if you are being followed by a genuine police officer, and if so, you should then pull over.”
Baumanis continues: “It is an offence to fail to stop when requested to do so by an officer, so if you are unsure and wish to drive to a more public area, it is advisable to acknowledge their request by indicating with your lights, and to ensure that you drive steadily to a safe place.
“Once you have pulled over you should keep your doors locked and only open them when you are satisfied that you are being approached by an officer.”