Category Archives: Lawyers

CIAO

No two people are the same. I’ve sat behind the charge desk over a period of seven years and seen people from every walk of life. From those in penury to those who have more than they will ever need. From those who couldn’t give a toss about arrest to those whose life I could see unraveling before me as we spoke. Those who were confident of their innocence when guilty and those who were innocent scared of what guilt may mean. I’ve seen them all.

Some I’ve seen once and never again. The more concerning ones are those who come regularly. Our frequent flyers. Some who landed so often that if we had a custody club card they would have amassed thousands of points!

The relentless vicious circle of crime, drugs, poverty, domestic violence and other factors means many people are trapped in a world they cannot escape from and pretty much becomes normalised. One young woman used to be in custody every week. Sometimes every day. She was involved in drugs, she was stealing, dealing and also getting knocked about by a procession of “boyfriends”. Her life was in a total mess. My dealings with her were regular but I can’t, hand on heart, say that I had any influence over her. She was so regularly with us it was almost like she was one of my team. She was skinny, unhealthy and looked.. for want of a better word, like shit.

Then suddenly she stopped coming in. The assumption was she was finally back inside prison. It really was only a matter of time. She probably was for a short while. However, a few weeks became a month or two. A few months became 6 and life moved on. I hadn’t heard she was dead but it could have been a very real possibility.

Then, 18 months later, local cops arrived with a prisoner. The prisoner had been arrested in another force for a matter she had been identified as being responsible for some time ago in our area. I barely recognised her as she walked in. She had clean hair and clothes. She was clean. She had put on weight and the gaunt face she always wore had been replaced by a rosy cheeked, sparkly eyed one with a somewhat cheeky grin. It was like meeting an old friend. What a transformation. Underneath all the abuse she had put herself through (and been exposed to) was a good looking young woman.

We chatted as I booked her in. She had made a change in her life. She had moved to another area, was off the gear, had a stable home, was trying to learn new skills and find a job. I was, to much consternation from my colleagues, utterly delighted for her.

She was ultimately charged but with a lack of recent offending and a new life at her feet she was granted bail. Something she never got and this also put a smile on her face. She left. I don’t know what happened next but over a period of a few weeks she went to court. She met up with old contacts in her old town and suddenly, defying all logic, she was back in the town and back on the gear. She spiralled rapidly downward into the hole she had so successfully crawled out of. Regular arrests, remands into custody, lost weight, gaunt face, dirty and unkempt and her health crumbled. She was right back where she started from. It was all her doing but it was tragic. My heart cried for her.

I’ve no idea where she is now. I hope and pray she found her way back out of that dark place. I hope she is healthy, happy, clean and living the life she was clearly capable of giving herself.

Having spent 7 years in custody I met many people like this. I often pondered about how this circle of behaviour could be broken. Over the years my only hope was to talk to people in custody. I never knew if I got through to someone but, where I could, it was worth trying. I was then introduced via Twitter to a lady called Clare McGregor whom I then met at the very first BlueLight Camp in Manchester. I have remained in contact with Clare ever since and she has been doing some amazing work with women at Styal Prison. Working with women to help them break this cycle of crime, prison, crime.

She has now written a book about her work which is really making a difference for women in prison.

Coaching Behind Bars

I have met many women similar to those Clare speaks of in her book.   Women trapped in a revolving door of crime and despair for a whole multitude  IMG_1132of reasons that we, the police, rarely get beyond. The cycle of reoffending is notoriously hard to break but Clare took this project on and once she has something in her sights she is like a dog with a bone. Her determination, passion and commitment to succeed and help women at Styal shines through on every page.

This book will open your eyes to a world rarely seen. It will make you think and seriously challenge any stereotypical perceptions you may have of offenders. These are people that are lost who, ironically, have the map to freedom and a new life within their own head. They just need a coach to show them where to find it.

At a recent TEDx event I listened to a presentation by Clare. She said she had realised she couldn’t tell people what to do. She had to ask them what they wanted to do. What they wanted to change and then help them explore how they were going to do it themselves… and it’s working!

It’s a remarkable book detailing some amazing work by a team of dedicated and passionate people who can only inspire you.

In Italian the word “Ciao” means both “Hi” and “Bye”. It is fitting that CIAO is the name of the organisation. The coaches say “Hi” to a new client and later say “Bye” as they wave them off to a more rewarding and satisfying life. Brilliant.

Ciao!

You can find out more about Coaching Inside and Out here

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Looks Matter

We are told these days that looks do not matter. We are told that those who are slightly, or even heavily overweight should not be ashamed. They should be proud of who they are and how they look because looks do not make the person. The person makes the person. We have adverts where shapely women show off their curves and point two fingers at the sterotypical size 6 figure that has, over the years, been portrayed as the perfect form. Oddly, as women’s magazines start to use models with a fuller figure, the mens magazines are full of tanned muscle bound, six pack toting chaps.. it seems a bit odd to me.. but that’s another blog. I’ll stick with my family pack! The bottom line though is that how you look is not a factor that should determine your opportunities or you abilities. It is most definitely not something that should be used against you in a discriminatory fashion.

A person should be proud of who they are without fear of being singled out, sneered at, abused or overlooked. Conversely everyone also needs to be accepting of others and challenge those who are not. Looks and appearance DO NOT matter.

With nearly 24 years service I have been IMG_4601very fortunate to have been awarded three medals during my service with the police. I am very proud of them and whenever I get the opportunity to wear them I will. There was a time when turning up at court to give evidence meant a tunic (as above) was essential. Times have changed and now officers turn up at court in combat trousers, body armour and the well worn coat or fleece that they wear every day on duty. Sadly, even after my fight for a tunic, I’m not allowed to wear it at court. I think I’d probably defy the rule for crown court but for magistrates I wear my fleece.

In addition to my physical medals I also have a ribbon bar. This is always attached to my fleece when attending court. I’m proud of my uniform, I’m proud of my service and I’m proud to be a police officer. Granted, I do not wear the medals themselves, but I wear my ribbon bar because I can and because I’m entitled to. I have never been asked to remove the ribbon bar.

This week we have had the case of Cpl Mark Kershaw appearing in court in Hull as a witness. He was the victim of a dreadful assault by 3 people and attended at court, in a civilian suit wearing his medals. His wearing of the medals was challenged by the defence on the basis that they might ‘unfairly affect the jury’. The suggestion here was that standing in the witness box wearing his medals may cause the jury to incorrectly give his evidence greater credence. The jury may fall on the side of the victim because he was a war hero and would get favouritism. The judge agreed and for the four day trial Cpl Kershaw was banned from wearing his medals.

Does the wearing of medals sway a jury so easily? I’ve never been asked to remove my ribbon bar. I’ve proudly stood in the witness box wearing my medal ribbons and been called a liar, told I’m making things up and I’m particularly rubbish at my job. The defence have not had any qualms in challenging me, regardless of the decoration on my chest.

There was some discussion about the Cpl Kershaw case yesterday and one of the arguments put forward supporting the barrister and judge was that the Cpl has previous cautions. He apparently has cautions for violence and, if I understand the circumstances correctly, a deal was struck that the cautions would not be mentioned if the medals were not worn.

I find this a little odd. If the court is interested in the truth then the truth was something very different than that presented to the jury. The truth was that Cpl Kershaw is a decorated soldier commended for bravery. The truth is that Cpl Kershaw also has a police caution/s for violence. It seems a little odd to me that the defence asked for the medals to be removed. I can’t imagine, after the treatment I’ve had in the box, a barrister giving up the opportunity to build up a witness based on his gallantry and medals and then shoot him down with his previous history.

Ultimately the case concluded and the 2 suspects (a third had pleaded guilty) were unanimously convicted of assaulting Cpl Kershaw. Sentencing will follow in December. So it was a win for the victim yet it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. A deal was struck. It shouldn’t have been. The Cpl should have been allowed to wear his medals if he chose to do so and any self respecting barrister would have been able to leverage them to the advantage of the defence in this case. One of the purposes of the defence and the prosecution is to discredit the witnesses. Why did that not happen in this case?

The defence and judge claimed that wearing the medals may ‘unfairly affect the jury’ or give a ‘false impression’ of his character. Cpl Kershaw had the medals but also had cautions. As the defence chose not to try and discredit his character by use of his previous cautions it seems clear to me that it was his ‘appearance’ that was the issue. The worry was what the jury may assume based on what they see and not on what they hear.

Many years ago I dealt with a pretty awful young girl in care. She had committed a nasty robbery on two young girls, of around the same age, walking home from school. The evidence was compelling but she pleaded not guilty and went to trial. She turned up in court in jeans, a scruffy top and hair like she’d been pulled through a hedge backwards. She looked a mess. My two victims on the other hand turned up in school uniform, ties and blazers. They were beautifully presented, spoke eloquently and were a credit to both themselves and their parents.  The contrast between the two sides was stark. Granted this was not before a jury but before youth court bench but were they asked to dress down? No.

If we had a frail pensioner beaten and robbed during a burglary by a violent thug what would happen at court? Would a jury be swayed by the fact that the witness in the box is a frail, weak, elderly pensioner in need of a sympathy vote? No. They would consider the evidence. We do not hide such persons behind a screen to stop the jury drawing conclusions based on how they look or speak.

If Cpl Kershaw wanted to wear his medals he should have been allowed to do so. If the defence then worked those medals against him then that’s his own fault. Even if not wearing them, a shrewd barrister, with the requisite knowledge, who wanted to discredit him may have asked about them anyway.

The fact remains that in this case the medals of Cpl Kershaw were seen as a fact that could adversely influence the jury. His appearance may cause the jury to believe him to be honest and trustworthy. His appearance may secure him a conviction he wouldn’t get if not wearing them. Is this really the trust the judge and barrister had in the jury?

Then we find the two defendants were both allowed to wear a poppy. What does a poppy signify? What mindset might it engender in a jury? Someone who cares perhaps? Some one empathetic to the losses our military personnel have suffered over the years? An upstanding, compassionate and caring member of the community?Would the presence of the poppies ‘unfairly affect the jury’ or give a ‘false impression’ of the character of the defendants?

In the court room it is EVIDENCE that is king. Not the appearance of the witness. So it would seem that whilst we say appearance doesn’t matter and we should take people as they are… this doesn’t apply to medals in court because, it would seem, that ‘Looks matter’

Detention Not Authorised

I was a traffic officer for 7 years. You may be able to tell by the amount of tweets I put out about drink drive, speed, phones, seat belts and others. I had dealt with every type of accident you can imagine. A fantastic job and one I miss very much but I made a decision. That decision was based around finances and my family and meant that I transferred to another force.

In a naive kind of way I expected my new force to assess my skills and put them to their most effective use. How wrong could I have been. They binned the lot of them and put me on a custody investigation team dealing with run of the mill arrests for the response teams.

After 4 months and a few weeks a brand new custody facility opened. I went from a small police station based custody suite, that was pretty awful if I’m honest, to a smart up to date unit with over 3 times as many cells. I continued to work in this role as a PC for another 8 months. During this time I passed my Pt2 Sgt exam and passed a board interview.

Nobody wanted to work in custody so I made it known that I would gladly work in custody should the opportunity arise. It did. Far quicker than I expected. In October 2006 I was promoted to Sgt and moved from the upstairs investigation office to the charge desk downstairs. I’ve been there ever since… until today.

I walked out of custody today for the last time as a full time member of the custody staff. I may well get called back in to cover on occasion. I may well get asked to do overtime. But as of today I am no longer part of that team.

What an experience it has been. I have authorised the detention of 1000’s of suspects for every offence you can possibly imagine… well maybe not all of them..  Men, women, boys and girls. There have even been a few dogs.. albeit not proper prisoners but just lodged with us in the kennels for a while. Assaults, drugs, drink drive, drunk and disorderly, public order, rape, sexual touching, indecent images, murder, conspiracy, pervert the course of justice, prison recalls, warrants, international extradition warrants, death by dangerous driving, child neglect, firearms, immigration, fraud, proceeds of crime, mental health and more. I’m really only scratching the surface. I even touched on a terrorism matter but only briefly. (fortunately.. this is a very complex area of custody business!) I’ve booked in the local drunk, the respected business person, the teacher, the social worker, the celebrity and the frequent flyers. They all come.. they all go. In one way or another.

In my previous force the solicitors were treated like the enemy. It was a culture I was born into. I knew nothing different and it was often adversarial in custody. When I came to this force it was different. I have built up a rapport with many of the local firms. There are some I don’t particularly like and wouldn’t have represent me but there are also some who I would recommend my best friend to. I have a great relationship with many of them and this is wholly conducive to a better working relationship and works in the favour of the detainee.. everyone, working together to get to the right result.

I’ve had arguments with difficult solicitors but I’ve had far more arguments with stupid drunks, intolerant people and those who simply refuse to listen. I’ve met people whom I have had compassion for and those I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw them. I’ve sat on cell floors chatting with people who need help and someone to talk to and I’ve slammed the door on those who want to spit in my face, kick me in the groin and tell me they will hunt down where I live and rape my wife.

I’ve conducted strip searches, fought with drunks, had my hand down people’s throats, rolled around on the floor in pools of urine, cut clothing from around people’s necks, talked people out of self harming and wrestled with a naked woman with mental health problems. I’ve laughed and joked with prisoners and at times I’ve been scared to death. I’ve made some great decisions and I’ve dropped a few clangers but fortunately, I’ve not lost anyone in all my time in custody. I thank God for that!

I’ve had occasions where I’ve felt that no matter how hard I’ve tried it was, in the eyes of some, never enough. I also have some pride in the occasions where I know I have made a difference… particularly with youngsters. That is something that is massively satisfying.

I’ve made decisions that some have loved and I’ve made decisions that some have hated. I stand my ground, make bold decisions and don’t simply fall back to the default position of sending matters to CPS and letting them take the flack for a decision. This invariably means that I come into conflict with others opinions. Some have been right decisions.. some wrong. One that was deemed to be wrong I still believe was right.

I got tweeting and was then discovered and identified by my Ch Insp and Insp. I took the wrap but they were good to me. My tweets from the desk were curtailed and then stopped but it led to some positive leadership and a huge deal of support from the ACPO command that has, in my eyes, paid dividends. I am very grateful to my force for the trust I have been given.

Custody can be an awful place. Every single drunken, fighting, spitting, swearing person arrested ends up in front of me. It takes a lot of personal control to remain professional in the face of such adversity. If you don’t have a strong constitution it will soon get the better of you. The key to my length of service in custody though was the team I worked with. A great set of DO’s, a brilliant team of Sgt’s and excellent medical support. The team are the people that keep you going. The team are the people who pick you up when you’re down and make you laugh. The team are the people who make it work, keep everyone safe and get the job done. This is as true now with my custody team as it was the first day I joined my section colleagues back in the early 90’s.

As of Monday I start my new job in the control room. I’m looking forward to the challenge but it’s going to be tough. I can handle the technology with ease but getting to grips with many of the practices I’ve not had any dealings with for 7 years or even longer will take a bit of getting used to. I’m going to have to fly by the seat of my pants for a while and no doubt there will be a few mistakes along the way.

In the words of my late tutor con.. “Error is the discipline through which we all advance”... I will remember this as I get going in my new role as I have throughout my service.

My time is up. There have been good days, bad days, brilliant days and some that I try very much to forget. Overall though it has been fun and barring a torn ligament in my wrist I have come out of 7 years in custody with no other injuries or problems… if you don’t count being of a rather pale complexion and an adverse reaction to daylight.

I have decided that my twitter name will stay the same. The blog will also stay the same for now. I thought about changing to @thecommsgt and ‘The Incident Log’ but if my role changes again then the same situation arises. I will start to look for a generic name and blog title that will travel with me no matter what I do. Until then I will remain exactly the same. The service will continue, I will no doubt comment on custody matters as and when they come to my attention but will also start to look at how we manage resources against demand and control room issues. It should be fun.

I’m replacing the cell keys with a headset.

My detention in custody is no longer authorised.

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Stitched Me Down

Charging decisions used to always rest with the police. We would investigate, arrest, interview, charge and despatch to court whether on bail or on remand.

Maybe we were rubbish at it. Maybe we were perhaps too close to the investigation and the victim to view the charges we decided upon dispassionately. This was part of the reason why the custody sgt was and still is independent of the investigation. Even so, we are still police after all and so perhaps still too close?

We all know the phrases “The police stitched me up” and “they’ve got me on trumped up charges”. Both indicate, suggest or imply that the police have not played fairly, been underhand, used trickery or simply inflated the charges beyond the evidence. There is a great deal of evidence during my service where the Crown Prosecution Service took the charges applied by the police and downgraded them at court. A burglary became theft, GBH was reduced to ABH and robbery became a theft from the person.

I have blogged previously on this topic using “Erosion Control” as a way of describing how matters are constantly talked down.

Have the police a history of stepping up the charges one level which the CPS have then corrected or are the police getting it right and the prosecutors always talk it down? In truth I have always thought that on occasion we get it wrong and so do the CPS. Many times I have read a prosecutors charging decision on an MG3 and accepted their rationale as better than mine. There are also occasions when the CPS and I are in complete agreement. As many of my police colleagues around the country will testify, there are also occasions where we totally disagree with their analysis.

It has to be said that independent people with different backgrounds and experience will regularly disagree over evidence. It comes with the territory. Prosecutors and the police regularly lock horns over the difference between the threshold test and the full code test. This can be the difference between us charging and remanding someone into custody and bailing them whilst we tackle an evidential action plan the CPS feel is necessary. Again this is the system we work in and sometimes we have to take such decisions on the chin.

The CPS have, no doubt, over the years been subject to targets. It often seemed like absolute conviction certainties would be pounced upon. If a case looked complicated however, particularly offences in the Magistrates, then discontinuing the case early would attract no criticism whilst a loss after trial would. There may be prosecutors who will object to this analysis but that’s how it felt.

As the previous blog states. Matters routinely processed as ABH have now become common assaults. Burglaries become thefts from dwellings and robberies a theft from the person. It doesn’t apply to all cases but it seems, more often than not, that the CPS take the line of least resistance.

A regular offence that is avoided like the plague is Affray. Contrary to s3 of the Public Order Act this offence can be progressed to Crown Court and all the expense that comes with it. Prosecutors are reluctant to charge and will often authorise a s4 offence instead. The CPS charging standards are here.

I recently viewed some CCTV footage of a particularly nasty fight in a take away. Some initial posturing, led to a bit of push and shove and then an all out scrap between 4 young men. The take away was packed. People were struggling to get out of the way and all the staff retreated away from the counter. I’m used to seeing violence like this so I always try to imagine how my wife or mother would feel if they were present. Would they have been in fear of their own personal safety? Yes they would. It was an awful example of young drunken behaviour that blights our towns and cities and needs stamping on. Each and every one deserved to go to court an have the magistrates or jury see what they had done. The CPS chose s4 over affray. Why? Because the offence wasn’t made out or because they were taking the line of least resistance and avoiding crown court? You decide. The MG3 said the s3 offence was not made out.

This week I dealt with another matter. A very serious, indictable only offence and a very determined effort by the suspect that was only thwarted by a very fast reaction by the officer. I sent him off to CPS and in due course he returned with a charge authorised for a lesser offence. To add insult to injury the MG3 actually said, “I agree with the custody sgt. All the elements of the offence are present and the offence is complete.” They then went on to authorise charge with a lesser, summary only offence. This was crown court avoidance at its best and making an inappropriate offence fit what it was never legislated to cover. It was akin to forcing a square peg into a round hole.

The 20131126-233043.jpgcriminal fraternity have always been very quick to say they have been stitched up. These days it seems that maybe their professional pride should get in the way and they should be offended when their efforts are minimised.

It was a bloody good burglary, not a sodding theft. The cops have ‘stitched me down’ the bastards!

Bailing Out

Today the BBC have made a report about the number of people that are held on police bail in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The report states that based on freedom of information requests (to which 34 of 44 forces replied to) there are currently over 57,000 people held on police bail. It goes on to add that over 3000 have been waiting for a decision on charges for over 6 months. It then cites the case of Neil Wallis (former News of the World Executive) who was on bail for 19 months before an NFA (no further action) decision was made. It also highlights one particular case in the Met where the suspect has been on bail for 3 years and 8 months.

Richard Atkinson is chair of the Criminal Law Committee for The Law Society and is quoted as saying people are often ‘left in the wilderness’ whilst a decision is made on whether to charge them with a crime or not. He calls for a 28 day statutory maximum for bail. Anything longer than this should be approved by a magistrates court. The text of the report is quite direct. However, if you scroll down the BBC article, there is a short video of Mr Atkinson being interviewed where he puts his case a little better. During the interview he recognises that some issues are unavoidable such as forensic examination of computers. He also mentions a case of a theft of a pedal cycle that took 7 months. He claims that ‘some’ officers are essentially lazy and defer matters to later dates that could be concluded easily. He ends by saying that if after 4 weeks, the police are not in a position to make a decision, then they should be prepared to justify to the court why further bail is needed.

There has, as one would expect, been some reaction to this on twitter. Some endorse Mr Atkinson’s viewpoint and others claim that it’s a ridiculous request. I find myself falling into the latter.

If people are on bail for too long then the first priority is to understand why. The causes of the situation need to be identified. Once this is achieved a review of how best to address the bottleneck is necessary. A solution will then release the pressure, reduce the need for lengthy bail dates and streamline the process.

If, on the other hand, the 28 day suggestion were to be applied without first identifying the source of the problem then it would simply add another hurdle to an already overburdened process. Outcome… even more delays.

So what causes delays that lead to lengthy bail dates? Each case has to be judged on its own merits. However, there are some common factors;

  • Forensic enquiries
  • Witness availability
  • CCTV evidence retrieval/viewing/copying
  • Officers leave / sickness / courses
  • Data requests to ISP’s and social media providers
  • Victims
  • Officers diverted to other duties – Lack of officers
  • CPS requests
  • Complex banking requests
  • Previous convictions of foreign nationals
  • International enquiries
  • Suspects failing to answer bail
  • High tech eForensics (computer examination etc)

The above are just a few and this blog would go on forever if I provided examples for each and every one. There are countless other reasons why a case gets delayed.

I make no excuse for lazy officers. There are some out there and they need to have some intrusive supervision. The majority though simply do the best they can with the tools they have available to them and the time they have.

Crime is changing. There are still shoplifters, assaults and drunk and disorderly matters but we also have complex investigations that are computer based and take some considerable time. eForensics are a very common bottleneck. If we make an arrest for indecent images and find some printed a material then we have something to go on. Should we therefore charge this person straight away or should we seize and examine any computers they own? The hard drive may be littered with content that constitutes far more serious offences. The examination of said computer takes time. It doesn’t take 12 months but with a backlog it may not get looked at for 10. The initial answer then is to throw more resources at eForensics. However, ignoring that this is a unique specialist field, throwing staff at one priority without any thought is likely to lead to a deficiency elsewhere.

A comment I saw today in support of the 28 day suggestion was that it would ‘focus the minds of Chief officers to resource properly’. This is akin to beating with a big stick. The solution to a problem is ensuring the staff and resources are effectively placed, with the right system of operation to ensure efficiency. Not adding another layer of bureaucracy and review. This simply adds to the bottleneck.

What was totally missed in the article and Mr Atkinson’s interview is the victim. I don’t like long bail dates. Sometimes I have to give them (eForensics) but otherwise I’m quite firm and try to ensure case progression. Sometimes though, even with the best will in the world, delays are inevitable. Whilst a quick conclusion to a case is in the interests of everyone I found it rather sad that yet again the victim was being put on the back seat.

I think that a review of bail processes may well be appropriate. It should, if done correctly, lead to a new way of managing suspects that allows security of the suspect, protection for the victim (or potential future victims) and is independently scrutinised and endorsed.

With this in mind I would probably support, after proper evaluation, a review process. However, here is the rub with what is proposed today. What process and system review was used by The Law Society to come up with this 28 day number? Is it based on a thorough understanding of the bottleneck, effective use of resources by all CJS partners and a realistically achieved solution or has it just been plucked out of the air without any evidence at all? I suspect the latter. If The Law Society want to produce evidence that proves 28 days is the perfect time scale I would be delighted to read it.

If the target were set at 28 days but the processes cannot normally achieve it then extensions will therefore be routinely applied for at the court. This simply generates waste and cost.

I don’t dismiss the suggestion made by The Law Society completely. However, I question how they came up with this figure. I suspect it has been a tail on the donkey type exercise and this is not a solution with any credibility.

The 28 day suggestion without any evidence and research to support it is simply bailing out the boat instead of trying to deal with the hole in the hull.

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