, No more heroes? Part 3: leadingcounsel.co.uk
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No more heroes? Part 3

Whilst I think it would be sensible for the police to use discretion and common sense in dealing with citizens trying to prevent crime or antisocial behaviour, in practice this is likely to lead to problems both for the police and the citizens concerned.

One issue is the way in which those engaging in antisocial behaviour, whilst their reading and writing skills and school attendance may be poor, seem to have quite a good grasp of their "rights". A classic example is a true recent story. A 78 year old lady gets on the Manchester Metro. There are two youths sitting opposite. One has his feet on the seat next to where she sits down. "You should move your feet" she says, to which she receives some mild abuse. The youth then moved his feet on to the seat where she is sitting. "Move your feet" she said, and he refused. She hit his leg with her umbrella. He moved his feet, and said he could have her up before the police for assault. She got out her mobile phone and offered to telephone them but at the next stop the youths ran off. What is unsurprising in this story is the ready assertion of rights and grasp of potential offences committed by others.

This is exacerbated by the fact that such people are usually operating in groups. When the police arrive, it will be the word of the person who tried to stop them against the evidence of all the group. They will all say that none of them did anything wrong but that they were being pestered by the person trying to stop antisocial behaviour. At least 9 times out of 10 no other members of the public will want to give evidence or get involved. Saying that the police ought to exercise their discretion and take a commonsense view is one thing, but it is a bit more difficult in practice when they are faced with conflicting evidence and no "independent" evidence.

The other problem is that any form of interference risks a violent confrontation. It is all very well saying that you want people to interfere to stop antisocial behaviour but do not want them to act as vigilantes, but the reality is that most people engaging in antisocial behaviour are not likely just to stop as a result of a firm word. The most likely response to a request to refrain is a torrent of abuse. It may or may not be accompanied by violence. The idea that they would just meekly comply with the request is wholly alien to most people's expectation and experience. Especially if those engaging in crime or antisocial behaviour have been taking drink or drugs (which is always possible) they are likely to respond in an aggressive fashion, particularly if they are "showing off" to their friends, or in front of a girl (or these days it could be girls being abusive and showing off in front of boys). Whilst as a previous article in this series has shown, some member of the group will sometimes interfere to stop things happening, that will be the exception that proves the rule. If a fight starts, you may be injured or you may find yourself accused of having started it and then charged. This is even before you consider that there is a real risk nowadays that one or more of the group could be carrying a knife.

A few years ago after I had been to an evening football match with one of my sons, who was then six, I came across four youths, about 18 or 19, picking on three youths of about 13 or 14. I went and spoke to them in a very polite and reasonable but firm and very confident tone. They left the other youths alone. I thought there was a realistic chance that a fight would break out when I spoke to the youths, and I was very concerned about the position of my son, but on the other hand the youths who were being picked on were other people's sons and I felt strongly that I couldn't just let it happen. Fortunately there was no trouble. However there was no way I would have interfered if it hadn't been a case of bullying (or violence). If it was vandalism or antisocial behaviour, or theft, I would have reported it to the police, but would have regarded there as being too great a risk of getting involved in a fracas, and consequently being either hurt or in trouble or both, to make it worth while interfering. I would imagine that my view would probably be pretty similar to that of most people.

Thus whilst it is sensible to try and protect the position of those tried to stop antisocial behaviour or crime, in reality I doubt this is likely to lead to many people feeling confident about doing it in practice. There is also the feeling that "normal" citizens are soft targets for the purpose of police statistics. Next week we shall consider the malign influence of such statistics.

Michael J. Booth QC