If you’ve ever experienced the long plastic arm of the law at it’s most incompetent, you won’t so much be wondering if it’s your... Your Right to Swear at the Police



If you’ve ever experienced the long plastic arm of the law at it’s most incompetent, you won’t so much be wondering if it’s your right to swear at the police as it is your duty.


The problem is that although the police portray themselves as hardened tough guys, desensitised to the brutality of back-street Britain, they are in fact extremely delicate when it comes to hearing a bit of colourful language. Many a defendant has found themselves stitched up with a section 5 public order offence of “threatening or abusive words or behaviour” simply for uttering profanity in ear shot of a hyper-sensitive cop.


The crucial question we concern ourselves with here is, can you swear at a police officer? And if so, what’s the best way to give offence without committing offence?…


To answer that we refer to an infamous piece of recent case law: Harvey v DPP 2011:


In this delightful tale of judicial precedence, Harvey was an East End teenager who was searched one day in 2009 by a particularly squeamish police officer known as P.C. Challis.


Challis suspected that Harvey – and a group of teenagers – may have been in possession of cannabis. When asked if he was carrying the class B drug, Harvey responded by saying:


“Fuck this man, I ain’t been smoking nothing”.


PC Challis – who had clearly undertaken much of his police training at a Victorian all girl’s school – told Harvey that if he continued to swear he would be arrested for a public order offence.


The search continued and again Harvey put on his potty mouth:


“Told you, you won’t find fuck all”.


The officer gave him a final warning and concluded the search. Finally he asked Harvey if he had a middle name, to which the reply was:


“No, I’ve already fucking told you so”.


Challis then arrested Harvey for using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour contrary to section 5. He was prosecuted and convicted.


The conviction was overturned on appeal at the High Court.


The presiding Judge – Mr. Justice Bean – confessed that in preparing for his judgement he had searched the LexisNexis legal database for every instance of the word ‘fuck’ and had came up with a staggering 2,124 different cases. The purpose of the search being to prove just how commonplace harsh language was. The Judge then went on to say:

“This is particularly so in the case of police officers because they hear such words all too frequently as part of their job. This is not to say that such words are incapable of causing police officers to experience alarm, distress or harassment. It depends, as the court said, on the facts…(but) it is wrong to infer that a group of young people who were in the vicinity would obviously have experienced alarm or distress at hearing these rather commonplace swear words.

As for neighbours and people in the flats, it is not enough simply to say that this incident took place outside a block of flats and that “there were people around who do not need to hear frightening and abusive words issuing from a young man”. There was no evidence that anybody other than the group of young people was within earshot. If there had been evidence, for example, of apparently frightened neighbours leaning out of windows or of similar passers-by within earshot, that might have formed the basis of a finding that such persons were caused alarm or distress. But there was no such specific evidence in this case.

It follows that the appeal succeeds and Mr Harvey’s conviction must be quashed.” 


When the police so laughably failed at securing a malicious conviction for their own ends, they wheeled out the prince of stuffed shirts, Sir Hogan Howe – commissioner of the Met – to make it clear that no police officer should be forced to abide by the law of the land and should be able to make any petty arrest they damn well please:


Bernard Hogan-Howe. Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and a flatulent windbag.

Bernard Hogan-Howe. Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and a flatulent windbag.


“If the person is using threatening behaviour or acting violently, or it looks as though there’s going to be a breach of the peace but we decide not to charge that, we’ve missed an opportunity. So it’s not making evidence up, it is not aggravating a situation, it’s making sure we take all the circumstances into account and select the most appropriate charge.” 


In other words, what Howe was suggesting, is that if such delicate rose petals in the police service should encounter any un-fragrant language that causes them to go weak at the knees they still have the option to make up evidence, aggravate the situation and make a malicious arrest on an inappropriate charge.


For anyone that has even been sworn at or insulted by our less than civil police, they will realise this is a remarkable – but characteristic – double-standard on behalf of a service who increasingly seem to believe that the only victims they are employed to protect are themselves.


Communicating with the police in a colour of language that they themselves are fluent in could be considered a protected human right under article 10. Article 10 gives everyone the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without state interference. This includes the right to communicate and to express oneself in any medium, including words, pictures, images, actions and dare I say it, the right to use rude words as part of ordinary discourse. In fact speaking in profanity should be mandatory when it comes to dealing with the boys in hi-viz-green.


So traversing that narrow ground between what the police must do (Harvey v DPP) and what the police intend to do (Hogan-Howe v Everybody Else), how can you swear at the police in a manner they should be accustomed to and get away with it?


Well firstly, to avoid being stitched up for a frivolous public order offence you must avoid causing harassment, alarm and distress to any police officers or 16th Century nuns that may be in the vicinity. Therefore I would recommend extolling your lungful of blue air at a barely audible level. That way, the only people who can claim to have been offended by it are it’s intended recipients: The Police.


Secondly, why not dress up your naughtiness with a bit of personal insult. That way the police cannot claim that anyone other than themselves were the target. Be creative with your insults. Be imaginative with your bad language. Perhaps you could remind the officer how lacking in wisdom or intellect they are. How ungainly they are in frame. Or how ridiculous they look with a giant blue tit strapped to their head.


Also, if you’re going to swear at the police, then do so in a non hostile,  non threatening manner. Perhaps with a bit of a laugh or a grin.


But if you really want to give the police a good and proper swearing at, wait until they get you back to the station and let loose by the canon full. There is no section 5 offence you can commit in the confines of a police station custody suite and at least then you are guaranteed to get a much wider and much more deserving audience of touchy-feely cops then you’re ever likely to get on the streets.


Rob Warner

Rob Warner