The English riots; what can I do?

I normally only blog about science , scholarship and related matters on this blog and I am making an exception in this post. I feel a sense of wanting to help and while I have no solutions am open to ideas. At least from my experience I can relate emotionally as well as intellectually to the current problems.

I used to live in NW London (, a middle class, middle income suburb about 20km from central London). And if I had still been there I would probably have spent large amounts of last week in the local police station (I cannot find copyright-free photographs on Geograph so see some local photographs of the area).

(from Wikipedia)

In 1981, just before we moved to London, there were serious riots in Brixton, with strong feeling that the police were institutional racist. In the aftermath there was an official enquiry which culminated in a report from Lord Scarman ( This report included the analysis:

According to the Scarman report, the riots were a spontaneous outburst of built-up resentment sparked by particular incidents. Lord Scarman stated that “complex political, social and economic factors” created a “disposition towards violent protest”. The Scarman report highlighted problems of racial disadvantage and inner-city decline, warning that “urgent action” was needed to prevent racial disadvantage becoming an “endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society”.[1]

Scarman made several recommendations including setting up a system of voluntary “Lay Visitors” (now Independent Custody Visitors [ICV]) and in ca. 1983 I volunteered for this scheme

Initially, the provision of custody visiting was voluntary on the part of the Police Authorities, but it was placed on a statutory basis in 2002.

Visits to police stations by custody visitors are unannounced and can be made at any time. The custody visitors must be admitted to the custody suite immediately, unless there is a dangerous situation occurring.[7] They are allowed to speak to anyone being detained at the police station, unless a police Inspector (or higher rank) believes that access would place the custody visitors in danger or would “interfere with the process of justice”.[8] The visitors ask the detained person whether they have been informed of their rights under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes of practice [PACE] (for example, to speak to a solicitor or to make a telephone call) and whether they are being treated properly.[9] Visitors also check that the cells and other facilities within the custody suite, such as the toilets and food-preparation area, are clean.[10] The custody record, which records everything that happens to someone whilst they are in police custody, may also be examined.[11]

If the custody visitors find any issues, or a detained person raises an issue about their treatment, the visitors raise these with the officer in charge of the custody suite, or of the police station.[12] The visitors complete a report of each visit, which will record their finding including any issues identified during the course of the visit. Copies of the report are sent to the Police Authority.[13]

[If I’m incorrect, say so. I speak without active current knowledge – I stopped ca 7 years ago when I moved to Cambridge]. When it started there was distrust of the police, including by Guardian readers such as me. The role of Visitors is to ensure that police behave legally and appropriately within the custody suites of police stations. (It did not extend to police on the streets, or in general, to transport of suspects or prisoners). The week-to-week activity involving dropping in randomly and being shown directly to the custody suite. Even a few minutes delay was unacceptable. We got to see everyone in custody (with some exceptions such as high-security prisoners and immigration overstayers).

Visits are reports are strictly confidential but my general conclusions were that the police (at least in Harrow) were professional, treated prisoners appropriately and I never saw any evidence of mistreatment. My opinion of the police, in Harrow and in those parts of the operations I saw, rose considerably. There was almost, in some cases, a “business relationship” between the detainees (not criminals, since these people had not yet been to trial so they are not yet found guilty of the offence for which they had been arrested). Much of the activity was paperwork and when PACE came in it increased. I can personally vouch for the amount of writing and form-filling for each detainee – and this is required by law. It seems that increasing clarity in the judicial process requires increasing paper.

There was special provision for unusual circumstances where large number of people might be arrested. In these cases a local police station could (should) ask visitors to attend the station before arrested people were brought in. This was particularly important where the detainees belonged to an identifiable social/racial group. The visitors could publicly assert that nothing untoward had taken place, thus removing at least the suspicion that the police had acted illegally or irresponsibly. I would have expected that many visitors would have spent much time in custody suites last week.

On more than one occasion the visitors were able to represent objective problems encountered by the police to the Home Office and we believe that this had some effect. The most common was overcrowding, particularly when prisons were full. Prisoners on remand were often put in police cells which are completely unsuitable for more than a night’s stay. Moreover police are not trained as or expected to be prison warders.

I did this for two terms (the maximum was 3 years per term). After this I volunteered to be an “Appropriate Adult“.

Appropriate adult is a defined term in the United Kingdom legal system for a parent or guardian or social worker who must be present if a young person or vulnerable adult is to be searched or questioned in police custody.[1] If these are unavailable a volunteer from the local community may fill the role instead.[2]

The role is to accompany young people aged below 17, when they are detained in custody to explain the meaning of legal terms, offer counsel or comfort, give advice, contact relatives, ensure the offender is aware of his rights, and that the offender is receiving the care he or she is entitled to (clean cells with no adult offenders inside, for instance)[2]. The concept was introduced as part of the policing reforms in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.[3]

When an unaccompanied young person is arrested the custody suite will contact a local Youth Offending Team who has a duty to arrange for an appropriate adult to be available[4]. The request for an appropriate adult is often the first way in which Youth Offending Team’s learn of a young persons offences or re-offences.[citation needed]

Appropriate adults are also often used when vulnerable adults are detained in custody. Vulnerable adults are classed as people who suffer from mental illness, learning difficulties or literacy problems. In these cases it is the appropriate adults role to ensure that the detainee understands the custody process, legal advice and any questions put to them by the police. These appropriate adults usually have specialised mental health training or practical experience of dealing with vulnerable adults.

This meant that I could be called – at random – whenever the custody sergeant could not find or persuade a parent or guardian to come. My role was to make sure that the detainee (normally a juvenile, but sometimes a non-english speaker) understood what was happening and what their rights were. The archetypal situation was a juvenile who had been in custody several times before and whose parent(s) would not come – this was just another arrest. The proceedings were predictable – a short interview with the detainee (who was fully accustomed to the process) and my explaining the right to have free legal representation. This was sometimes accepted, when there was a long wait (could be hours) waiting for the lawyer to arrive. There are not many more boring occupations that sitting in police custody suites waiting, waiting. Then the interview. The standard ritual is burnt into my brain:

You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.[10]

In passing, I think the first sentence is one of the worst ever written. Given that many detainees will have a poor grasp of English an inverted subordinate clause is total gibberish. It shouts at the detainee that the law does not care about them. It would be so easy to write simple monosyllabic English. But more seriously it also represented an erosion (by PACE) of rights – the “right to remain silent”.

Many repeated detainees would simply “no comment” the interview. Most are impervious to the process – they expect to be charged and appear in court and this is simply part of their normal life. I have once seen a proactive lawyer persuade his client that they should challenge police officers’ identification and as a result there was no charge. Sometimes there is no charge, sometimes there is a charge, sometimes bail, to appear in court the next morning. Young people locked up overnight is the consequence.

I did not go to court so I was not part of that system. But often the hearing required more material – social workers, more evidence, etc. – and could be weeks later. By that time some detainees could have been arrested for other offences, including WoW (“wanted on warrant” – see this site). Justice is slow and occurs so long after the offence that it is difficult to see any visceral connection between crime and punishment. Most sentencing of juveniles did not result in being locked up (I am passing no judgment).

By the time I left Harrow I could see clearly for myself at least that the formal criminal justice system had little effect on many persistent offenders. For some there would be a progression to prison which became an option when they turned 17.

Are there other ways forward? One option is

Restorative justice (also sometimes called “reparative justice” [1]) is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of victims, offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, “to repair the harm they’ve done—by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service”.[2] Restorative justice takes crime seriously without increasing repression and exclusion involving both parties and focusing in on their personal needs. In addition, it provides help for the offender in order to avoid future offences. It is based on a theory of justice that considers crime and wrongdoing to be an offense against an individual or community rather than the state.[3] Restorative justice that fosters dialogue between victim and offender shows the highest rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability. [4] According to Zehr and Mika (1998), there are three key ideas that support restorative justice.

  • First, is the understanding that the victim and the surrounding community have both been affected by the action of the offender and in addition, restoration is necessary.
  • Second, the offender’s obligation is to make amends with both the victim and the involved community.
  • Third, and the most important process of restorative justice is the concept of ‘healing.’ This step comes in two different parts: the healing for the victim, as well as meeting the offender’s personal needs. Both parties are equally important in this healing process to avoid recidivism and to instill safety back into the victim’s life.

I was introduced to this not by woolly do-gooders but by a senior police officer in Thames Valley Police. He believed that this was a constructive way to reduce crime, and certainly recidivism. It requires a great deal of commitment and hard work on everyone’s part. There is no guarantee of success. It requires people talking and listening to each other in several directions. Unfortunately I left London and have made myself too busy to be involved in police work more recently. But I believe that Restorative Justice must be part of the solution of our current problems.

I have purposely not given homespun solutions. I have been shaken by the events (even though there has been nothing in Cambridge). There are no surprises (other than the actual time of the event). There is still endemic tension and suspicion. I thought it was lessening. It was deeply disturbing to see the exponential growth of disturbance. Not only has this led to huge distress, it has also made it clear we have no mechanisms to prevent it happening again.

Arresting, charging, and imprisoning large numbers of offenders will inexorably put huge pressures on our criminal justice system. Police cells will be overflowing, convicted prisoners will be housed in police stations and maybe even army camps or other completely unsuitable places – I don’t know. It may solve a political problem – from my own experience I do not see it solving much else.

I hope and I believe that the people of England will come up with ideas to repair our society. Simple immediate reactions will not work. Justice and legislation carried out in haste and in reaction rarely work. We can learn from other countries and other cultures. The Brixton riots led to the Scarman report which made modest progress although many of its recommendations were ignored.

Any solution will involve the active involvement of the police. Robert Peel exemplifies the constructive approach to policing in his principles. They are all critical but I have highlighted a few:

  1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
  2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.
  3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
  5. Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
  6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is found to be insufficient.
  7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions, and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
  9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.[2]

I feel myself part of the historic tradition “the police are the public and the public are the police”. In that light, what is the way forward?

That’s it – if anything emerges that I could be involved in, I might. But this blog will revert to informatics, chemistry, openness and rants. To make the transition and raise our spirits here’s something beautiful I saw in the garden last week – a Red Underwing moth (Catocala nupta ) captured on my mobile:

They are normally nocturnal, but this was bright daylight and the red was brilliant



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