Getting Cautions Understood

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 images-8he 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’.

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11 thoughts on “Getting Cautions Understood”

  1. This may not be te best way to word this ..but for some people it is wrong that the police play judge and jury … the magistrates court in the olden days was mainly for the more petty of offences. The police are there to go out and arrest anyone /everyone breaking the law .. why do the police also believe they are in a position to overrule the british justice system and decide the punishment too? … it was never in their remit. Of course many will argue that the magistrates court would be overrun by petty criminals,with which it could not cope .. and many would argue the time that is saved by not locking up these petty offenders ( which they are in most cases ) and not taking them to court is actually saving money for the judicial system ..But the people need to see justice being done .. the same for everyone and through the courts .. Am i just being old fashioned .? or maybe the real problem is the whole court system in this country needs to be relooked at, to do the job it was meant to do . so the police can do the job they were meant to do ? #just asking…

    1. You need to consider that this isn’t a power the police have decided upon and now enact. The ability to caution or give a PND is granted by Govt. We are told to do it.

      Many factors why out of court disposals are in the CJS. Reduced court time and cost and in right circumstances can have excellent rehabilitative effect. It’s certainly not a case of being judge and jury. Cautions can only be given with a full admission and the person consents to it. If they don’t consent then we would send to court.

    2. Chris – let me run a couple of scenarios past you…

      1. Playground fight between 11 year olds. One ends up with slight reddening to his arm which fades after a few minutes. For whatever reason the incident is reported to the police, who have absolutely no discretion when it comes to recording the matter as a crime. The circumstances fit the offence of an Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm (or a ‘Section 47 Assault’) which can be classed as ‘indictable’. This is also classed as a ‘violent crime’. By the time the police arrive the boys are friends again.

      2. Two neighbours fall out and one kicks over the other’s garden gnome causing £5 worth of damage. Again, we have a criminal offence (Criminal Damage) which can be dealt with ‘either way’ (i.e. it is not ‘summary only’ and therefore potentially indictable). The offender and the victim have been friends for over 30 years and this type of thing has never occurred before. The offender has purchased a replacement gnome for the victim.

      In each case neither offender has ever been in trouble before and the victim is insistent that the matter does not go to court, as they feel that it was a one-off, low level, incident that is best forgotten about.

      Do you really think these people should go to court against the wishes of the victims?

      1. I agree with the above. The scenarios are ones that comes up regularly.

        I’m no expert in the national crime recording standards. They are an admin function and very little to do with front end, public facing, day to day policing. I’m not sure how damage is classified in the stats but can say that damage offences less than £5k must be tried summarily.

        See CPS here; http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/a_to_c/criminal_damage/#a10

      2. InspectorGuilfoyle ..i would have thought neither scenario warranted any course of action whatsoever . but those were not the cautions i was talking about .. the drunk causing a nuisance cautioned time and time again because the police really don’t want a drunk in their nice clean cells,( more often the street drinkers ) but more often in real life is the drug carrying scenario .. where policeman A might well issue a street caution ( often seen on those tv fly on the wall documentaries ) but another day policeman B is in a bad mood and arrests everyone he finds in possession of drugs however minor. Where is the consistency ? This is where the caution system falls down and really annoys the public. which is right in your eyes? policeman A for saving the courts time and the carrier is free to carry on carrying ( next time he buys some ) or policeman B who might actually go the whole hog and hopefully some arrested might see the error of their ways and give up drugs ? Can you honestly say that a criminal who only gets a caution suddenly stops being a criminal ,or just laughs at the police the law and the public, and just carries on his errors as if nothing has happened ?

      3. The Custody Sgt is absolutely right of course about criminal damage below £5000 not being indictable. D’Oh! (My excuse is that I was half asleep when I wrote the comment..look at the time it was posted. Oh I’ll stop digging then).

        Let’s replace the heinous offence of gnome damage with one of Threatening Behaviour likely to cause fear of violence (Sec 4 Public Order) where Mr Gnome-Hater, says ‘I’ll punch you in the head!’ instead, but doesn’t actually do it.

        Same question..

      4. Chris, the problem is that once a crime has been recorded as such, taking no action whatsoever is not an option. Imagine the outcry! “Police took no action whatsoever in the cases of 108,000 reported crimes despite having the offender’s details”. Damned if you do etc.

        Neither is anyone suggesting that repeated cautions for prolific offenders is a good idea or likely to reduce reoffending. Does a court disposal though? How often do you hear someone was ‘let off’ at court with a conditional discharge, or community service? Do you think this will stop them reoffending?

        Re consistency, there are variables in every offence, offender and victim. Despite sentencing rules for courts, do you think they are consistent? Variation in disposals is everywhere and often this is good, as two different victims of similar offences may hope for different outcomes. We should take this into account when deciding the most appropriate course of action.

  2. Hi
    Just thought I’d say I really like your blogs , you explain things clearly and concisely without being ‘patronising’ .it’s interesting and detailed enough to be informative without overwhelming. As a member of the public that’s great and I do feel many people have realised the Police are human and some officers have realised the public are too.! It’s all to the good in my opinion and often down to social media, bloggers like yourself and giving people info.

    One question for you, how does some one become a custody Sargeant? Ie is it some thing all sargeants have to do at some stage or some thing you apply for? Just interested really as it sounds a tough job to do.
    Stay safe .

    1. Thank you for you kind comments.

      Any Sgt can be a custody sgt. I chose to he one from promotion. Some Sgts avoid it like the plague!! 🙂

      All forces work in slightly different ways. Some Sgts float in and out on a rota. However, custody has very much become a specialist role and so many forces now have dedicated staff who need considerable training before being let loose on live cases.

  3. Life was so easy in the 80s.

    NICK the b£&@rd”, or “Summons it”.

    NOW, it appears that your Copper “on the beat” needs to be a bloody solicitor as well!

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