Society’s retributive and punitive tendencies are not helpful in creating less violent environments

Checking violence in Durham

Posted on 31 Oct in

Chief Constable Michael Barton, Durham Constabulary
From my vantage point in the Chief Constable’s office in Durham, I suppose the good news is that we are becoming a less violent society. Not too many years ago police houses were built with small barricaded windows and corporal, as well as capital punishment, was how society dealt with violent offences. The building I am in has curtain walls of glass and here in Durham we are reducing the number of police cells we use.
This is not to ignore spikes in crime involving robberies from scooters, and acid attacks. But the understandable headlines of these phenomena belie what I believe is the underlying trend of a safer society. Crime figures are at an all-time high but over 70% of my violent crimes involve no violence or injury. They are crimes of harassment and disorder not serious assaults.
They say that “society gets the police force it deserves”. But society also gets the society it deserves. We cannot expect higher standards of behaviour than we ourselves exhibit. If children are brought up in violent households, in violent communities, in a society harbouring violent values we should not be surprised when those children then become violent.
Legislators are prone to legislate. Ministers and politicians over the last 15 or so years always ask the same question of the police, which roughly goes along the lines of, “What legislation do you need to do your job better?” I do not want new legislation. New laws rarely help. The drive to legislate for zombie knives ignored the fact that they were already illegal: there is sufficient legislation already on the statute book to restrict the length of knife blades. In the 1960s as a 12-year-old scout I was proud of my sheath knife. I can no longer legally carry it.
England and Wales have a common law system of justice based on precedent. This means the law gradually changes as judges interpret statute and previous cases.  The police can never be sure when an Act of Parliament is enacted how the judiciary will interpret it, and refinement of how to use the law effectively to influence the behaviour of people in public places takes many years, not the days the newspapers. egged on by impatient politicians, expect and demand.
The police need a long time to work out how to best use new laws. In 1980 when I first patrolled the promenade in Blackpool the legislation I used most was the Public Order Act of 1936. This allowed me to arrest people who were threatening others, whether drunk or sober. But that particular piece of legislation, the Public Order Act 1936, was designed to deal with Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.
Society’s retributive and punitive tendencies are not helpful in creating less violent environments. The Government’s recent Serious Violence Strategy contains some interesting ideas, some preventative, some involving enforcement. Although it contains the thought that we will not solve violent crime through enforcement alone, it falls short of nailing its colours to the mast of advocating a public health approach to tackling violent crime, as first described in Glasgow over a decade ago.[1] This public health approach has got to be the answer; the flagship slogan around which we can agree and coalesce.
This means that we must look at the problem of violence end to end. The best way to stop people offending is for them never to start. If we prevent young people committing crime by the age of 15 then the likelihood is they will never commit crime.
The Durham Agency Against Crime is an arm’s length charity from Durham Constabulary which focuses on crime prevention. The agency has a long successful history of encouraging young people not to commit crime. Its EDDY (Engage Divert Develop Young People) programme tackles young people who have been cautioned and committed minor offences. Over time it was clear that pretty much all of the young people on the EDDY programme exhibited a combination of factors including: low self-esteem, low aspiration, high absenteeism from school, lived in high-impact households, came from single parent families, or had no parents or unemployed parents. Children from these families have an 80% higher chance of being victims or perpetrators of crime.
We thought about this and realised, if we went to schools in years 7 and 8 before the peak offending ages of 14/15 and asked the schools to identify young people who could be loosely categorised as falling into a combination of these categories, then we could actually work with those children without them ever having to accumulate a caution or conviction. That’s what the HAGGRID (Horticulture AGGRiculture Improvement and Development) Project now seeks to do. We also have created the Mini Police Programme for years 5 and 6 across the county which encourages junior schools to have a Mini Police force, encouraging a range of children to join, but ensuring that the children from higher risk groups are actively recruited. Educating those children and increasing their understanding of what crime and anti-social behaviour is and how they can combat it allows them to become an agent for positive change within their school, community and family.
We also actively pursue problem-oriented solutions to all crimes, but especially violent crime in Durham. Most violent crime, it is fair to say, involves people drinking alcohol to excess. It involves ‘hot spots’ and ‘frequent flyers’: i.e. the same places and the same people crop up time and time again. Sometimes the most effective way of reducing the propensity of people to engage in violent crime is to dissuade them from drinking to excess.
Sending people to prison for less than 12 months does not assist in our fight to reduce crime. The revolving doors of the criminal justice system welcome them back all too swiftly and all too often. Durham’s Checkpoint programme seeks to find a longer-term solution to offending by encouraging people to agree to change their lives. Offenders sign a contract with the Constabulary not to commit crime and to actively work on the issues in their life which are leading them to offend. They are supported by a navigator employed by the Constabulary who support the Checkpoint client to change their patterns of behaviour and thinking.
Alcohol is no doubt a significant factor. So people on the Checkpoint programme for drink-related offences are asked to volunteer to fit an ‘alcolock’ in their cars, even if their offence did not involve driving. Once the device is fitted they have to blow a negative sample prior to turning on the ignition. This plays on the nudge theory of behavioural change. The person with a problematic relationship with alcohol is reminded of this every time they try to start their car. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
The second compulsory contractual element of Checkpoint (after promising not to commit crime) is that the offender will cooperate in a restorative meeting with the victim should that be the victim’s wish. This puts restorative justice at the heart of reducing reoffending and central to improving the confidence of victims.
People who assault Police Officers are eligible for the programme. My research, based on those arrested in December 2016, showed that the average punishment for assaulting a Police Officer was for the offender to be fined £15. This convinced the Police Federation that it was a smart idea to consider these people for an out-of-court outcome. All our officers use body-worn video, and of the drunken offenders who assault Police Officers who are shown the video footage of their arrest 100% of them asked to apologise to the arresting officer. When I arrested violent drunken people in 1980, generally, when I next saw them it was round two and they had their friends with them. The Checkpoint programme does seem to offer a smarter way of reducing violence.
While we have conducted extensive public consultation on the wider Checkpoint programme we felt it perhaps a step too far including emotive crimes such as domestic violence and hate crime. Recently I was both pleased and surprised that focus groups in the county asked for us to consider the inclusion of these crimes as part of Checkpoint as long as there were no ongoing threats of violence or coercive control.
The Criminal Justice System has a key role in creating a less violent society. Prison has a part to play, keeping people behind bars who are a danger to others. But arresting, prosecuting, convicting and imprisoning violent offenders is not the complete answer even if some journalists and newspapers would have us believe it so. Victims must be protected and in the immediate aftermath of an assault it’s usually preferable for the offender to be arrested. However, what follows is crucial and we believe that challenging those violent people to change their behaviour and thinking is a much smarter way of reducing violence in the future rather than simply resorting to punishment.
Michael Barton is chief constable of Durham Constabulary. He leads a force that is recognised as a leading force in tackling serious and organised crime as well as managing offenders. A glance at the most recent HMIC PEEL inspection will show a police force at the top of its game with an enviable slew of outstanding grades. He attributes this to inspired and positive staff that have their feet on the ground and a burning desire to look after victims of crime and anti-social behaviour.

He has long been a keen exponent of problem-orientated policing and integrated offender management, including restorative justice, and has successfully embedded these concepts in his Force.
Michael is the National Policing Lead for Crime and intends to use this position to ensure British Policing is in the vanguard of tackling crime on the internet.

This article is included in the Centre for Justice Innovation’s Monument Fellowship book, Curing violence: How we can become a less violent society.