For a long time, I worked in a shop selling bicycles in an area with a fair few social problems.
One of the most difficult aspects of working in retail is dealing with people who want to steal your stock. Anyone who argues that shoplifting is a victimless crime has never had to confront a desperate drug addict attempting to aquire something, anything, which they can sell in order to afford their next hit. As deputy manager I had to take the lead and do that any number of times and I can safely say that it's a very stressful business. I've been spat at, verbally abused and physically threatened more times than I care to remember. As such, I certainly don't feel that I'm an ivory tower middle-class intellectual with no understanding of anti-social behaviour and the effects it can have on the "law-abiding majority".
I have also had considerable dealing with the police, having caught a fair few shoplifters fair and square. In the many discussions I've had with police officers, I've aquired a reasonable understanding of what evidence the police need to be able to charge someone with shoplifing and what steps a person can take to hold someone until the police arrive (in Scotland that is, although I believe the law in England is very similar on these issues). Here's an absolutely true real world example from a couple of years back.
It was a busy Saturday afternoon in the shop and I was serving a customer near the front door. While talking to this customer, I looked up and spotted someone, a man, probably 18 years old, walking towards the front door with a mountain bike worth £1,500. For security reasons, we had a rule that all customers leaving the premises with new bikes be accompanied to the front door by a member of staff and as no member of staff was present, I knew something was up. I tried to attract the guy's attention and he immediately bolted with the bike.
I shouted to a couple of my colleagues (for safety, and under police advice on the need for two people to give evidence, you can't go charging off on your own) and we were off out the door after him. He, on the bike, was already well on his way but as luck would have it, a regular customer happened to be driving past and saw what was happening. He stopped his car, I jumped in, and away we went, my colleagues pursuing on foot. We drove past the guy, stopped the car, and I jumped out in front of him, much to his surprise.
So he's cycling towards me on the pavement, looking pretty determined not to be caught. I am clearly identified by my uniform and he's clearly not going to just stop. What to do? I'm not a violent person, haven't been in a fight since I was 10 years old, but it's my job to try to stop him. So, as he approaches, I lunge for him, and try to grab him, bike and all. He falls off the bike and goes headfirst into a wall at the side of the road. He busts his nose open; there's really quite a lot of blood. I tell him not to move, he tries to get up, and I sit on him. I shout to one of my colleagues running towards us to go back to the shop and phone the police.
A small audience forms around the two of us. Some of them, particularly those around the same age as the guy, are hostile; more than one tells me that I've assaulted him, that they've witnessed it and that they'll give evidence against me and that I can't hold the guy against his will. I tell them to tell it to the police officers when they arrive but that I know I can restrain the guy till they do. An off-duty police officer arrives. He's also witnessed my rugby tackle and associated damage to the guys face from his car, sat in traffic at the other side of the road. The off-duty copper tells him not to move and I get off the guy. He stays where he is.
So what happened next?
In tabloid land, I, the law abiding citizen just trying to do the right thing, am done for assault. I did, in front of many witnesses, including a police officer, launch myself at him, bust his nose, albeit accidentally, and physically restrain him.
In the real world, no such thing happens. The uniformed police arrive. They take statements. The "hostiles" tell them that I've assaulted the guy. I explain exactly what I did. The police tell the "hostiles" that I have the right to use "reasonable force" to stop the guy and essentially tell them to piss off. This they do, grudgingly, their entertainment over. They take the guy away in handcuffs. I go back to the shop and, after a fag and a cup of tea to steady the nerves, go back to work.
The guy had previous, got bail but pleaded guilty before the case came to trial and was given a custodial sentence (I can't remember how long if truth be told, but we did get a letter from the powers that be informing us of the outcome).
What chance the tabloids would bother to report this?
If I'd actually beaten the guy to a pulp however, if I'd used unreasonable force, I might have been done for assault, and rightly so. What chance the tabloids would have reported such an outcome in outraged tones as some sort of travesty, while playing down any suggestion that excessive force had been used?
The truth is that the guy's behavior would not have been significantly different whether he was risking one day in prison or 10 years and there's every chance that he went on to reoffend on his release. There was only one thing on his mind that day, the need to feed his habit, and it's sadly quite probable that it's the only thing on his mind today too.
In 2002, the Audit Office estimated that half of all crime is related to drug use. This problem cannot be addressed by new authoritarian laws, summary justice or longer prison sentences. Drug addicts couldn't give a flying toss about any of that.
What this guy needed, not just for him but for society as a whole, was to be put on a drug treatment programme with a genuine chance of rehabilitation. Both north and south of the border, to give credit where it's due, funding for drug treatment programmes has been significantly increased. But more is needed. This is an area which does require a revolution in approach. Today, most drug addicts still do not get the treatment they need.
The emphasis needs to be on tackling the root of the problem, not the symptoms. If Blair seriously wants to do something about improving the lot of society, that's where he should be concentrating his energies.
Of course, the tabloids think of this sort of thing as "junkie scum loving, woolly headed, bleeding heart liberal leftie nonsense" and we know that a patient, well considered, and potentially successful strategy is never going to be at the forefore of Blair's mind when there are tabloid headlines to appease. It just isn't the New Labour way.
Tags: Politics, Civil Liberty, Law, Media