Hitch-Hiking by Mario Rinvolucri/chapter-3

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The thumbers to come into most frequent contact with the police are the long haired contractors-out of the previous chapter. This has been more especially the case since the 1967 Dangerous Drugs Act which gave the police power of search without prior arrest, on simple suspicion that a person is in possession of a prohibited drug. But police interest in hitch-hikers is not limited to drug matters. We will come back to this important aspect later in the chapter, but it must be set in the general context of police-hitcher relations.

Out of the 186 hitch-hikers I picked up in August and September 1968 (see Appendix 2), 87, or nearly half, said they had at one time or other been checked on by the police while waiting for a lift. As has previously been made clear the 186 do not represent a sample. They are simply a group of people picked up mainly on motorways over weekends in the latter part of the holiday season.

A number of the 87 people who had been checked were aware why the police had wanted to question them. The points they bring up serve as a rough and ready guide to the sort of reasons the police have for interrogating hitchers by the roadside.

10 of the 87 people said they had been checked for standing beyond the No Pedestrian sign on a motorway slip road. When this happens it is rare for the thumber to be breaking the law maliciously. Usually he is infringing it technically to avoid getting a car to stop in a dangerous place. When the motorway starts from a roundabout the No Pedestrians Beyond This Point notice is often planted almost on the roundabout. This may look neat but it leaves out of account the fact that for a car to be flagged down on the bend coming out of the roundabout is exceedingly dangerous. In practice what frequently happens is that the hitcher thumbs on the bend but the driver pulls in further down, beyond the No Pedestrians sign. Usually the police turn a blind eye to the hitcher going 'onto the motorway' when a car has pulled up for him. I know of only one case where an over-zealous policeman booked a student who ran beyond an M.6 sliproad sign to pick up a lift. His superiors later quashed the prosecution. Friction that exists between the police and hitchers on this point is the fault of those who site the motorway signs. I have seen several near accidents provoked by the law forcing a person to thumb from a spot where it was palpably dangerous to ask a car to stop.

A second situation in which the police check on thumbers is if they seem too young to be on the road on their own. An art student was stopped and questioned when travelling near Southampton with his girl friend. He was 16 at the time:

They arrested us because I had no identity papers. We had to go to the station to ring my home. Once they'd seen the mistake they were very kind—gave us coffee in the police station.

An 18 year old clerk told me: When I was young the police were concerned if I'd run away from home. They're not bothered now.

When the police have been notified of a borstal or remand home break they keep a watch on any hitchers of the age concerned, especially on motorway approaches. In fact, though, most escapees of this sort nick a car rather than hitch. They are warmer and better camouflaged that way.

The police frequently carry out routine identity checks among people hitching. They do this more often at night and certain forces go in for it more than others. The official object is to catch up with wrong-doers but an important psychological element is boredom. Motorway and fast trunk road patrolling is a soul-destroying job and asking half a dozen hitch-hikers their names and addresses is at least a break in the monotony. There are instances when the police use these routine questionings in the middle of the night along frequently half deserted slip roads to express their own frustrations against sections of the public they find a trial. In November 1967 P.C. No. 555 R. Monk and his colleague P.C. 6 B.M. Smith questioned a student, A. McAlpine, on an M.1 slip road—P.C. Monk spoke his mind about student grants. In this case the hitcher reported him to the Leicester and Rutland Chief Constable and got a paternalistic semi-apology. There are plenty of times when the police speak out of turn to hitchhikers and no redress is sought. An interesting example of negative police attitudes towards hitch-hikers was given by a nineteen year old electrician:

My person was searched in Carlisle—they treated me well but their attitude towards me was that I was a beggar.

Police sometimes question and search people whom they suspect may be carrying weapons. A 24 year old labourer reported:

My luggage and person have been searched quite a few times—they were looking to see if I was carrying a weapon.

A major search for concealed weapons was on the day of the 1968 October 27th Vietnam demo in London. The police carried out massive friskings and luggage inspections of people streaming into London. This was a military style operation and gave those subjected to it a mild inkling of what it must have felt like to be a Malay Chinese, Kikuyu Kenyan or Greek Cypriot in the fifties, or indeed a Hong Kong Chinese or Northern Ireland Roman Catholic today. The police were stopping cars and coaches by the dozen so clearly they had no compunction about giving thumbers the once-over.

Some hitchers questioned by the police report that they were after stolen property. A 20 year old computer programmer told me:

Once they searched my luggage on the London-Brighton Road—they were worried about people doing hit and grab raids in London.

Probably the major reason for stopping people in recent years has been in connection with drug detection. When the patrolmen are out for weapons, stolen property or drugs the check does not consist simply of a request for name and address and proof of identity. It entails searching of possessions and/or a body search. Out of the 186 hitch-hikers I picked up, 23 told me they had had their luggage, person, or both searched while hitch-hiking. The types of search were as follows:

Person and luggage: 8 respondents
Person only:        6 respondents
Luggage only:       9 respondents

One working class boy, unemployed for a year and very 'beat' in appearance had been subjected to luggage inspection four or five times and then:

... in 1966 I was taken to the police station in Sheffield with another boy and we were stripped and searched for drugs ....

This is an exceptional case as most searching is confined to frisking and takes place on the spot by the roadside.

The 87 people subjected to police checks were all asked:

What was their attitude to you?

33 of them said the police's attitude while checking them was positive. They used phrases like:

  • Good
  • Quite good
  • O.K.
  • Civil
  • Fair
  • Friendly
  • Quite decent
  • Courteous
  • Not bad

11 people said the policemen's attitudes were negative:

  • Cocky at first
  • Arrogant
  • Suspicious
  • Very suspicious
  • Angry
  • Bloody stroppy
  • Disapproving
  • He was a bit of a rat
  • I wouldn't say he liked us much
  • Fairly hostile
  • They treat you a little like dirt; they seem to think you have no rights because you're on the road.
  • 12 people said the police attitude was neutral or routine.

9 said attitudes varied, sometimes positive, sometimes negative - (24 of the 87 respondents had been police checked more than three times).

  •  1 felt the police were bored.
  •  1 said the fuzz who checked him were not vicious.
  •  1 said the police seemed to be having a bit of fun.
  • 18 respondents failed to report a clear-cut police attitude.

The most important piece of legislation this century as far as hitch-hikers are concerned is the 1967 Dangerous Drugs Act. Section 6 of this Act says:

If a constable has reasonable grounds to suspect that any person is in possession of a drug in contravention of the principal Act or regulations thereunder, or in contravention of the Drugs (Prevention of misuse) Act 1964, the constable may: (a) search that person, and detain him for the purpose of searching him ....

This amazing clause was passed by both Houses with hardly a murmur. In the panic over the spread of drugs the legislators have given the police powers of search without arrest which radically alter the British citizen's rights and civil liberties. In effect this clause of the Act makes nationwide the situation that formerly only applied in certain large towns: for a great many years local legislation had made it possible for a policeman to stop, search and detain a person without arrest in these areas: London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Birkenhead, Hertfordshire, Blackburn, Rochdale, Salford, Chester, Wolverhampton, Barrow-in-Furness, Southend, Rotherham and Southampton.

If one looks at the way arbitrary police searching has long been used in London one gets the idea of the importance of Clause 6 of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1967. Since the Metropolitan Police Act 1839, London constables have had the right to search any person or vehicle they 'reasonably suspect' of carrying stolen property. According to Peter Laurie in his book Scotland Yard, 40% of the Metropolitan Police's 50,000 annual crime arrests result from searching a person or vehicle on 'reasonable suspicion'. But Laurie also points out that only 1 in 20 of such searches yields any positive result. The London policeman's 'reasonable suspicion' turns out to be justified by facts in 1 case against 19 where it isn't. To put this another way round:

380,000 people against whom no accusation can be made are stopped each year in the process of winkling out 20,000 prosecutable individuals.

Peter Laurie, who spent 8 months accompanying London policemen on their various tasks, shows quite conclusively that search 'on reasonable suspicion' is fully accepted by alI ranks in the force. He quotes a sergeant addressing a group of night shift beat men:

The Superintendent's very pleased with the stops—keep it up. (A 'stop' is slang for questioning and search under the 1839 Act.)

The breadth of the word 'reasonable' was fully understood by one Scots constable Laurie went on the beat with:

After all, who does most of the crime in this country? Young men, anyone between 15 and 25. If there's more than one, or it's late at night, or they're carryin' something, then a stop is indicated.

Against this background of police use of arbitrary search powers in London the 1967 Act is worrying. It's disquieting because it legalises many past below-the-board police practices which before they had at least to blush about if revealed. Three hitch-hikers among the 186 had been searched, without being arrested, prior to the 1967 Act and in areas where there were no local laws allowing this.

One of the dodges the police used prior to 1967 to get evidence against a person about whom they had a hunch but whom they didn't dare to arrest was to demand that he allow himself to be searched. If he agreed they would search him. If he refused they would use the refusal as a valid ground for arresting him: an innocent man would not object to being searched. This ploy is set out without even a smile on page 94 of Police Promotion Handbook No. 2.

If the '67 Act is disquieting to the general public it must he doubly so to hitch-hikers and especially to long haired ones. Plenty of people who aren't hippies or beats wear their hair long, but to many policemen a long haired hitch-hiker is 'slag'. This revealing police slang term covers drunks, tramps, beatniks and hippies. The average police attitude to long haired types was pithily summed up by John Cowan, chairman of the constables' section of the Police Federation who talked to the 1970 Police Congress about filthy, long haired drop-outs. This phraseology in the mouth of an official police union spokesman would seem to amply confirm the conclusion reached by the Release Report on Drug Offenders and the Law (1969):

Under the terms of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1967, Section 6 (i) the police now have the power to search anybody they suspect of carrying drugs. This means that people with long hair may be stopped and searched for really no other reason than that they are perceived as being of a suspect generation. Their pockets will be gone through and, if the police are not convinced of their innocence, they will be taken to the police station for a more thorough search. Any sign of reluctance or lack of cooperation may result in charges of obstructing the police in the course of their duties.

How much searching of hitch-hikers goes on depends on the incidence of long haired thumbers in an area and the attitude of the local Chief Constable. One area where a lot of hitch-hiker frisking happens is in the West Country. Less than half a year after the passing of the 1967 Drugs Act the Devon and Cornwall police had publicly announced their intention of going through the pockets of people hitching into the South West. The Western Times and Gazette reported on 14 June 1968:

Devon and Cornwall police announced on Monday—following quickly on the comments by the Chief Constable in his annual report—that they will stop and if necessary search on the roadside hitch-hikers they suspect of carrying drugs. But the police do not want to be 'bad friends' to all hitch-hikers:'We realise that they will not be the only ones needing to be searched. The reason they are mentioned is there have been a number of arrests of people in possession of drugs while hitch-hiking.'

Whether massively to search hitch-hikers with long hair depends very much on the area Chief Constable. A change of Chief Constable can bring marked changes in police behaviour. To take one simple example: in the years 1955-8 inclusive the Manchester police brought three prosecutions for male importuning. A new Chief Constable was installed in late 1958 and prosecutions under him for this offence rose steeply. According to Ben Whitaker in The Police the increase was as follows:

  •  30 prosecutions in 1959
  • 105 prosecutions in 1960
  • 135 prosecutions in 1961
  • 216 prosecutions in 1962

Seems the new Manchester chief didn't like homosexuals. There are no doubt some Chief Constables who don't like long haired students and contractors-out.

In a situation like the present one the police can do virtually what they please. The long haired minority is not loved by the community at large and psychologically the police certainly feel they are expressing the majority will when they get at 'slag'. There are plenty of instances to show the way the police act when they have to do with a widely unpopular minority.

Southend police confiscated the bootlaces, belts and braces of several hundred skinheads on March 30 1970. They were drawing on their powers to prevent a possible breach of the peace. They would never have dared to infringe the liberty of the subject in this way if they hadn't had on their side the media and the majority.

Bolton police stopped football ticket touting before a match on March 26 1970 by charging four touts with obstructing the footpath. They were kept at police headquarters until after the match before being granted bail, despite the fact that they had o147 cash on them. Gloating to the Times correspondent on April 13, after the trial, a senior police officer said:

This is one way to stop ticket touts. It hits their pockets if they are left with tickets after the match.

Using the same charge Bolton police could no doubt fill the courts with bus queues—most of the ones I've ever seen 'obstruct the footpath'. The court played along with the police and fined each of the four men o10 for obstruction. The police in this case trumped up a charge in order to deal with activities that the public rightly dislike, but which were at that time still quite legal. They acted as pre-legislators.

So if you're 'slag' and you go hitch-hiking you stand a goodly chance of attracting police attention just because of the way you look. Your hair style and your clothes are more than sufficiently 'reasonable grounds' to suspect that you are in possession of banned drugs. If the way the policeman searches your luggage or person is unpleasant you can always complain ... to the Chief Constable who likely as not has let it be known that he fully approves of blanket 'stops' of the long haired. In preparing your complaint you should remember that you are 'slag' and that British coppers are the best in the world. The Chief Constable probably reads the Sunday Times and saw the poll published there on 21 December 1969 that showed 90% of the population thinking the police wonderful:

  • Helpful  95%
  • Polite   93%
  • Friendly 93%
  • Honest   95%

It is this wild public complacency about our police that makes it impossible to improve the service they give. It is this myopic public trust that makes organisations like the National Council for civil Liberties seem a way-out body. The reality is quite different. with dangerous laws like the 1967 Act on the statute book, the satrap-like powers of the local Chief Constables, the complacency of the majority and no rational complaints system, the NCCL and bodies like it have a vital role to play as a sort of Justice Consumer Council.

One of the hitch-hikers in the 186 group picked up gave a realistic recipe for hitching unmolested by the police:

If I hitch in a suit, l can expect no trouble—if I'm in jeans and have long hair I can expect to be checked on.

Simply wearing a suit is a quieter way of fending off the police than this young American's:

Robert Olmstead, aged 18, opened fire with a sub-machine gun when two policemen tried to stop him hitch-hiking on a busy Californian highway outside Sacramento. (Times, 7 November 1969)

Maybe it's because we have fuzz and they have pigs.