INTERVIEW: SERGEANT NICK CLARKE

Sergeant Nick Clarke has raised the profile of policing in Primrose Hill recently and has attracted controversy in the process. In January, he hit the press and the airwaves – including BBC London, BBC Breakfast and BBC Five Live – to explain his stance on using available discretion when tackling the issue of cycling on pavements, a stand which had alarmed pedestrians who feared that a carte blanche was being given to cyclists at the expense of those on foot. And then recently he led a team carrying out a raid on three flats in the Hopkinson’s Place area, around the Primrose Hill Community Association, where six drug-related arrests were made, to general local relief and approval.

At thirty-two, a married man with two children, Sergeant Clarke is an articulate, considered and enthusiastic policeman. His career began as a teenaged full-time reservist in the army – he served with his regiment, the Royal Greenjackets, in Afghanistan – and has been in the police force since 2004, working his way through Brent, Kilburn, the Riot Squad and Intelligence, before serving in Hammersmith and Fulham as an acting Sergeant. He then took on his own patch in Camden and Primrose Hill on promotion to Sergeant over a year ago. Now, with his own team and station he told me how blessed he feels in his job.

“I’m in a fortunate situation:  I’ve got a really good team, I’ve got my own Police Station and ultimately I’ve got quite a lot of freedom to tackle issues.”

And in Camden Town, issues are complex. Sergeant Clarke points out that the crimes he and his team tackle are often the result of failings in society that have led to law-breaking which then has to receive the appropriate response according to the law. He says,

“Ultimately these are people from awful homes and circumstances and society should have intervened sooner. As police officers we are responding to the result of social issues.”

Clarke is conscious of the responsibilities that come with his job and is clearly prepared to tackle what he judges to be the causes of crime. “We get loads of criticism from people who say it’s not our place to try to make social change. But I’d argue quite the reverse, that’s basically my job.”

“The law is the law.  You can’t change that and that’s what society as a whole says:  these are the things that we don’t accept.  But that is very different to someone’s moral compass.  Far too many people think that they must be tied together and they don’t necessarily.”

“I think this is the thing that people have lost: the police have discretion. In every crime we have discretion but the more serious it is, the more we have to justify using discretion. For instance, I can’t imagine using discretion in a murder case. People say ‘you’re the police, you should just enforce the law, but if we did that we would not have the policing by consent that we do have. There are many more subtle nuances than people realise. That’s where policing by consent comes in. People actually want us to enforce the law in a sensible fashion and make informed decisions over when is the best time to enforce it.”

Clarke is a great believer in the ‘toolbox’ of the job, invoking various and sometimes obscure laws as tools in a police officer’s gift that can be used as a means to an end.

The cycling on the pavement debate became such a hot potato because it included so many of the nuances of policing, including the use of this figurative toolbox and of the police officer’s discretion. And it was frustrating for Clarke because of the public misunderstanding of what he felt was a simple and uncontentious issue.

He explained how it all came about:

“It began with Operation Closepass which, was about stopping vehicles passing too close to cyclists, and therefore it was to keep cycling safe on the roads. Then people started to ask, ‘what are you doing about cycling on the pavement?’ I said that people are not getting killed by cyclists on the pavements and you have to look at risk versus harm. In this case there was very little harm.”

“A study by with West Midlands police said that the Think campaign, which relates to vulnerable road users, that is motorcyclists pedestrians and cyclists. They target a certain audience but they miss another. If you’re driving along and see a cyclist and you know from Twitter campaigns that bike may have a camera on it, or might be a plainclothes police officer and you will get points and a fine for driving without due care and attention if you cut them up, you are now going to look out for them. So for instance, if you get to that junction in Holborn which is notorious for cycle accidents, your brain is going to go ‘cycle cycle cycle’ because your brain is very worried about getting points and a fine, so that is one of the major driving forces. Plus other additional benefits: if you can get people to stop cutting up cyclists, you get more people riding bikes instead of driving cars, so it comes with all those other social benefits.  Ultimately it is about trying to get people to spot them; that is what close pass was about.”

Clarke describes himself as being ‘pretty pro cycling.’  As an enthusiastic road-racer, he rides about 250 miles a week, runs a women’s racing team and is a race official.  However, he doesn’t lack self-awareness:

“It is important to recognise when you may well be a bit biased, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re aware of it.  There are people from different community groups in the police that we draw on, so for instance if you’re from the Black Police Association you’ve got an inherent understanding of that cultural group, so you can better engage with it. Because I come from a cycling background, I’ve got an awareness of the things that cyclists want for and the issues that affect them, but having a self-awareness of that bias is important to balance it.  If someone does complain about cycling on the pavement, yes I can partially dismiss it by saying it’s not killing people, but it’s not just about vulnerable road users in the sense that the cyclists are the bottom rung. The pedestrian ultimately is the most vulnerable road user.  You can’t justify riding in the park because the law says you shouldn’t.  However, when you take it away from the park and onto the road, if there were really quite busy traffic and you were an inexperienced, nervous cyclist, and maybe you had a kid with you and there’s not a lot of footfall, is it wrong to take the safe option on the pavement, if you’re taking account of pedestrians and according them the respect that you would want on the road, to avoid the risk of being hit by a one ton killing machine: that’s the whole point. If you are flying down the pavements at full speed, you can really hurt someone.  That’s never acceptable, so that will always get dealt with.”

Sergeant Clarke points out how difficult it is to reconcile the different road-users and to foster realistic expectations form all groups. He explained, “you have cyclists who always want 100% of the law enforced when it’s an offence against themselves, yet they still want you to turn a blind eye when they jump red lights.”

“However with drivers we won’t necessarily take them to court for dangerous driving if they get out of the car and show that they understood that what they’ve done is wrong and that they’ve learnt a lesson from it, and we can see that we started to make that social change. Other times, someone will get out of the car and defend their behaviour by saying that cyclists jump red lights, and our approach in this instance will be different. It’s like a sliding scale, you have to apply the legislation to circumstance and people don’t always get that.”

And much comes down to sheer practicality. Sergeant Clarke told me, “there is no way in one million years, given that we currently police one borough and are going to be merging two, I’m going to find the time – or the inclination, or have the resources – to specifically and solely target pavement cycling. It’s never going to happen, but if I’ve got my officers out and about and I want to improve their abilities to write evidence for traffic offences, we are going to be doing operations that look at vulnerable road users.  We will have officers out in plain clothes, so if we have someone cycling on the pavement, they get intercepted and asked why they are on the pavement. If they say it’s because there’s a really narrow bit back there, and I keep getting cut up by cement mixers and I’m really worried I’m going to go under one, well fair enough.  But if they say it’s a one-way street and I need to get up it, I’ll say get off your bike and walk, there’s no excuse for it. Then a cyclist comes flying through and the officer barely has time to get out of the way and we have to call out another unit to get after them and they’re going to get a £50 fine. There is no way they’re not. It’s that graduated response.”

Officers will also use cycling offences as part of their toolbox in tackling other crime.  For instance, someone who is guilty of more serious offences that can’t be proved on the spot may be guilty of cycling offences, which can lead to their bike being impounded, thereby making it harder for them to carry out crimes such as robbery. This then has a snowball effect, and I can’t help thinking of Rudy Giuliani’s successful ‘zero tolerance’ approach to cleaning up crime in New York, where tackling small-scale offences was a tool in tackling serious crime.

Drugs in Camden Town has been a multi-pronged campaign for Sergeant Clarke and his team. Clarke is not willing to accept that his patch is synonymous with the availability of drugs, so has set about putting that right, showing me a room full of drug paraphernalia worth thousands of pounds that had been seized from one shop.

“Raiding that one shop sent a clear message to all of the shops. None of them now have this on display. The shops just want to make money and that’s four or five grands worth of stock they will never get back, on top of having to go to court, being fined and the tenancy not  being renewed by the council.  You can slowly start to make a cultural change so that Camden will no longer be seen as a place to go to buy cannabis. So that’s the theory behind it.”

Ironically, one of Clarke’s constables, PC Sam Sharpley, was at the Crown Court that very day to give evidence against a drug-dealer who had tried to sell him drugs on the street when he was in plain clothes. As you might expect, the defendant was found guilty.

Sergeant Clarke obviously loves his role leading the fight against crime in Camden and Primrose Hill. This is a man who is completely engaged in his task and doing his utmost to make a difference. “When I join the police, I said if I can make a difference to one person, then it will be worth it and I know that I’ve done that.”  I strongly suspect he has made a difference to rather more than that, and all power to him and his team. Camden Town and Primrose Hill will be all the safer and better for them.

 

© 2017 Joanna Reeves, all rights reserved.