Littering – PC or not PC ?

There was a fascinating news item reported last week. It involved two police officers in County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Routinely enough, the officers decided to take a break from their patrolling duties and were stopped in their patrol car having a drink, a snack and, one of them, a smoke.

What happened next is open to some debate. Two passers-by (one of whom was a litter warden) claimed that the officers threw a steaming tea bag and a milk carton out of the patrol car window. One of the officers was also accused of smoking in his patrol car and then throwing the butt out of the window. The officers claimed otherwise – that they certainly didn’t litter their leftovers on the ground.

What, on the face of it, seems so out of proportion is that the case came to court. In court, the District Judge failed to accept their stories – she fined the police officers and awarded the smoker and extra £100 fine for smoking in a smoke-free place i.e. a work vehicle. To add to their misery, the police officers were also ordered to pay £100 in costs after it was stated that the case had been “vigorously contested by both defendants at every turn”.

It strikes me that there are various conclusions that we can take away from this unusual case. First, that enforcement of the anti-littering laws is not, by any stretch of the imagination, easy. For a start, someone has to witness someone else littering and then, if necessary, be able to prove it in court. This is the difficulty that countless local authority enforcement officers have experienced over the last few years – they can fine someone only when they actually see them dropping litter. When you think about it, the chances of that are fairly small and depend very much on how many enforcement officers the local authority has decided to deploy on the streets.

Second, the process of enforcement can seem so disproportionate to the offence. If you think about it, the convictions of the two police officers for a littering offence is bound to have a serious effect on their career prospects – all for dropping the remains of their snacks and cigarette on the ground. And yet, on the other side of the argument, you feel bound to ask : “just what WILL get the message across to people that littering is a seriously antisocial activity ?”. There is widespread feeling that a few high-profile prosecutions do the anti-littering message no harm and that, over time, people will indeed change their behaviour accordingly.

I would add a third point – that if you can’t even rely on the police to abide by a law which supports a very elementary aspect of modern civilised behaviour, then it is an indication that our society is in trouble. Thankfully, I suspect that the two policemen in question are not typical of their kind.

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