The police in this country are beginning to emerge from a target culture. A method driven by Government and put into application by ACPO teams in every force that have eroded officer discretion and seen officers and teams being focussed and driven by targets. Forces have published breakdowns of figures and stats to show on a month by month basis whether teams are trending up, down or stable. I understand the problems this has caused to policing but I cannot top the blog and book of Inspector Simon Guilfoyle and highly recommend his work in this area.
Here is an example I can give. Forces were pushed to obtain ‘sanctioned detections’. In simple terms this meant that for every recorded crime, if it could be marked (subject to specific criteria) as ‘detected’ then it was a big positive tick in the statistical figures. Officers were put under pressure to ensure they met a certain quota of ‘sanctioned detections’ every month.
Whilst still a PC I worked within an investigation team at custody that processed many of the arrests for the response team officers. We were given an instruction that where the evidence was suitable, we should dispose of minor offences of drunkenness as offences contrary to s5 of the Public Order Act. To put this into some clarity. The s5 offence and that of drunk and disorderly are very similar. A person arrested for D&D ‘may’ also have acted in a way that is contrary to s5. If the evidence also fitted s5 then that would be the preferred conclusion. Why? The reason was that D&D was not a crime as per the national crime recording standards. Therefore, if a person was processed for this offence there was no sanctioned detection. There was nothing to show for the effort put in by the officers. No tick for the statistics.
Consequently, where the evidence was suitable, the s5 offence was used in the disposal. The team involved got their ‘tick’ and all was well with the figures.
Approximately 12 months later we got an urgent instruction. If the matter was D&D then it should be processed as D&D. If the matter was s5 but also fitted D&D then we should use D&D again. Why the change of heart? What about the ticks? The answer lies in the fact that despite the two offences being very, very similar, s5 is a recordable crime and falls within the ‘violent crime’ field. It is not a violent crime as can be seen by the description of the offence provided by the CPS. However, once the crime figures were returned to the force and compared to the previous year they suddenly found that the force had a problem with violent crime!!
I can imagine worried frowns at the top and police authority. How can we let the public know that in 12 months the violent crime rate has soared? In reality, I don’t know what they did but I do know that D&D suddenly became D&D and so did some s5 offences. Problem, over a little time, solved.
In the news in the last few days has been the announcement by the government that there is to be a review into police cautions amid fears they are being used to punish serious offences that should be dealt with by the courts.
I’ve also listened to the President of the Superintendents Association, Irene Curtis, in an interview on BBC 5Live. She was joined by BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman and comment was heard from John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates Association.
Lets deal with Mr Fassenfelt first of all. His part in the interview was only a brief recorded clip where he said that 50% of violent crime offences were dealt with by way of caution. What do you think of when someone says violent crime? Murder, serious assault, woundings? Do you think of minor shouting and swearing outside pubs and clubs on a Friday night? As can be seen above the classification of violent crime is broad and such a sweeping statement does not do credit to the breadth of offences covered. It also gives no regard to the percentages of different offences within that figure. In many ways it is a shock tactic announcement and one that we should perhaps expect better of from the chairman of the Magistrates Association?
Clive Coleman was then brought into the discussion. He identified that cautions (and latterly penalty notices for disorder) were designed to be for low risk, low level offences normally by first time offenders. He was also quick to point out that in the last 5 years the number of these ‘Out of Court Disposals’ issued by police had dropped by 42%. However, he then went on to cite the most recent annual figures that were available that showed 19 people were cautioned for rape. He also indicated that 1 person in 4 would be cautioned for violent crime and 1 in 5 for sexual offences.
Yet again we have an offence (rape) and grouping of offences (violent crime and sex offences) that are likely to stir up anger and shock in the minds of the listener. We already know that violent crime covers public order offences that the average man on the street would not consider ‘violent’. So what does sexual offences cover? Sex offences are crimes that are covered by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Take a look. It covers all the typical offences you would expect. It also covers indecent images, prostitution, exposure, voyeurism and sexual activity in a public toilet. A broad range you’d have to admit. Yet what do you think of when someone says ‘sex offender’?
You may now see a wider view but what about rape I hear you ask. How can the police possibly have cautioned for that? This is where Irene Curtis comes in. She makes it quite clear that the police welcome the review as there are always opportunities to improve. However, she makes a very important point that such decisions for more serious offences are made in conjunction with the CPS and the victim. Again, what do you think of when someone says rape to you? Do you think of a lone female attacked in a dark alleyway by a prowler? Do you think of domestic violence? Both are accurate descriptions of rape. Do you think of the two 16 year olds, fumbling around in the dark and getting a bit carried away? Do you think of the young 16 year old who has never been in trouble before and things got out of hand? I cannot cover the whole circumstances in this blog and do not intend to lessen the consent issues but does this give you another perspective? Such decisions are not reached lightly. It has to be in the best interests of the victim, the offender and the public interest. In such cases the views of the CPS are sought. An additional pair of eyes to review the evidence and admissions to determine if based on ALL the circumstances a caution is appropriate.
You may still look at this and think NO WAY. Well maybe that is something that will be addressed in the review. I have to say that given the right circumstances, an admission and the consent of the CPS I would have no problem cautioning for such an offence. It’s a multi pronged decision with a solution that is appropriate to the individual circumstances of that matter. As Irene Curtis was keen to point out to the host (who had clearly already made her mind up) that each case needs to be looked at on its own merits. The statistics do not do that and how they are being pushed out by the media may actually heighten fear about crimes where information about how they were dealt with is unknown.
Mr Coleman also stated there were 205k cautions issued last year. He then made a big play about summary offences (lesser offences that can only be heard in the Magistrates Court) and that 108k of that total were for indictable offences ( matters that are serious enough to go to the Crown Court). One would assume that if cautions are for low level offences then only summary offences would ever be considered? Lets put this into perspective too. Years ago offences were summary (Mags only), either way (Mags or Crown) and indictable (Crown only). It changed. Summary is still Mags only. Indictable means all offences that were either way or indictable. This means that shoplifting (an old either way offence), whilst in most cases would never get to Crown court, is actually an indictable offence. So a young person who steals a mars bar from the newsagent on the way home from school, gets arrested and finally cautioned for theft is technically cautioned for an indictable offence. Hardly the crime of the century is it?
In conclusion. Do we issue too many cautions? In all honesty I think we have over the last few years. Whilst chasing targets, people have been arrested and criminalised for matters that in years gone by may have been words of advice, a ride in a police car to your mothers and an intelligence report. Have a look at my blog here about how things went astray in a target driven culture. Are we getting better? Well with a reported 42% reduction I think we definitely are.
The decision to caution is not taken lightly (at least not by me) and takes some considerable thought. The circumstances, the offender, the victim, the public interest and the seriousness of the offence all have to be considered. If the offence is serious enough then a further safety net is added by getting CPS to rubber stamp the decision we are considering.
I agree with Irene Curtis. I welcome the review. Every such occasion is an opportunity to improve and do things better. What doesn’t help at the moment is media hype that groups offences into headings that will shock people and undermine confidence in the police.
I’m also annoyed by reports that cautions are ‘letting people off’. A caution is not a conviction but it is disposal that generates a criminal record. It may or may not be disclosable to current or future employers, will flag up on a CRB check and can be cited in court should the person ever appear before them. It is far from being ‘let off’.