More than 150 people have already been arrested for driving under the influence of drink or drugs as part of Operation Tonic, the police’s annual Christmas crackdown. Officers operate every day, mornings and evenings, with measures including stop checks and community engagement.
While these activities can be resource-intensive for Sergeant Matthew Boiles, whose three-officer team is responsible for dealing with incidents and criminal activity on the region’s roads, he believes it’s a critical part of the police’s work which can have far-reaching positive impacts that aren’t always calculable.
Avon and Somerset Police’s Operation Tonic, which seen 169 people arrested since November 21, isn’t the only safety campaign the force runs. They target a different hazard each month throughout the year to highlight dangers such as not wearing seatbelts or mobile phone usage. December’s focus is drink driving, for obvious reasons. With the Christmas party season coinciding with the World Cup this year, the operation started early.
Last year’s Op Tonic resulted in 246 arrests. So far, this year, it’s around 50 arrests per week, which acting Chief Inspector Andy Barry, Avon and Somerset Police’s lead for Op Tonic says, “is not acceptable, and there are no excuses”.
Given that a third of road traffic collisions in Avon and Somerset had a drink and drug driving as a factor last year, leading to the deaths of 12 people, it’s highly likely that Op Tonic has helped avoid some potentially devastating accidents. But with preventative measures, it’s not always possible to accurately know how successful they’ve been. Sergeant Boiles explained, “It’s not like Minority Report where we’ve got a crystal ball, and we can say categorically we’ve stopped a fatality from happening.”
He believes it’s not just the direct effect of taking dangerous drivers off the road that makes Op Tonic so important. He said: “The key thing here is that my job and its impacts are not measurable. So the drink-driving campaign that we’re doing, you can’t always quantify the impact that has.
“I could put 100 cops out doing spot checks and not find a single drink driver, but you can’t ever measure the impact that has on the wider public and their long-term behaviour. And that’s what organisations such as the police service struggle with at the moment is that because of the cuts and the cuts and the cuts. They have to make difficult decisions, and they have to use data and say, ‘I can solve this by doing x, y, z’.
“You could stick a marked police car on a motorway for an hour, but you can’t ask people who were doing 90mph and slowed to 80 how they then drove for the remainder of their journey. They probably stuck to 80mph – well, that’s a massive impact.”
He says that for police on the roads, as with many public sector organisations, activities are increasingly target-led. For them, this means a lot of focus in determining success can be put on fatality figures, but Sergeant Boiles notes that for his team, these can skew in the event of one particularly bad incident or if, say, a coach was involved in an accident.
The result is a balancing act weighing initiatives like Op Tonic against the team’s other work. Sergeant Boiles said: “When you’ve only got three officers covering BANES, South Glos, Bristol North Somerset, you’ve got to make some decisions about what you prioritise because there’s always competing demands.”
During the morning, when Bristol Live was observing stop checks, the team was called away to two minor incidents on the motorway, where they liaise with National Highways and ensure that a situation is safe before heading out to their next job.
Sergent Boiles said: “It’s their motorway. We are there for the more immediate response. We do a lot more that they can’t. For example, they can’t exceed national speed limits. But they help with vehicle recovery and removal, which means we can then leave because we can’t deal with everything.”
The team’s job is not just to be the first response to collisions. They also handle investigations and follow up on the consequences of incidents on the road. As the Sergent, Boiles oversees the investigations of his team and their welfare, as well as being responsible for leading investigations into serious and fatal incidents in the region, wherever that may be, from Yeovil to Frome.
Creating a consistent and wide-reaching sense of police presence on the roads is part of the job and no matter the workload, Boiles’ team endeavours to perform some form of Op Tonic very single day in December. In the morning, the stop and checks don’t produce many arrests, but Sergent Boiles says these sessions are more about mass education.
Deciding which cars to flag down, he looks out for windows that aren’t properly cleared and wing mirrors that maybe aren’t pulled out. We look on as two mortified drivers scurry out of their cars to scrape their frosty windshields, and it seems likely this will be a lesson they remember in the future.
In the evening, the team is more likely to respond to specific intelligence from members of the public who have seen someone driving erratically, and sometimes they even get community reports of someone drinking and planning to drive later.
Asked about the type of response he gets from the public, Sergent Boiles says, “I think it depends on who you stop and how you stop them. Some people will go, ‘don’t you have something better to do’, but it depends on their experience in life. If they’ve had a family member killed in a car accident, they think it’s the best thing ever.
“I think the public generally understands how difficult this job is. As in any walk of society, people either love you or hate you, and I’ve done this job long enough now that I brush that off. We can’t be everywhere all the time, and I understand that there are victims of crime that don’t see the police when maybe five or six years ago they would. It’s not because we don’t care; it’s because we don’t have the resources.”
Sergent Boiles has been an officer for 14 years, during which time he says it’s “changed a lot, society’s changed, and the challenges of policing have changed significantly”, but some things remain the same.
“I wanted to join the police to do the stereotypical ‘lock criminals up’, and I get to do that on this job, and I love that. My job is one of the best jobs in the force, in my view. Yes, you deal with unfortunate circumstances, but you also have a massive responsibility to investigate those circumstances.”
He cites a fatal incident recently involving a vehicle that failed to stop but which his team were able to identify within an hour and a half and have the suspect in custody the following morning. He said: ”We can go back to that family who has lost a loved one and say we’ve got this sorted within three or four hours – that’s huge.”
These actions with immediate outcomes are in sharp contrast to measures like Op Tonic that may help educate and influence people’s behaviour to drive more considerately over the long term. But it’s clear that to Sergeant Boiles, they’re all an essential part of keeping the public safe on the roads.
He said: “If I had a magic wand, no one would ever drink-drive, they’d never use their phone, nobody would ever speed. But I don’t, so all I can ever do is educate people about the risks, prosecute people who put themselves in those circumstances and explain to the courts why they need to take that matter seriously. And as long as my team and I are doing that, what more can I physically do?“