Monday, March 15, 2010

Neighborhood Watch, UK-style

I'm both pleased and annoyed to read about a group of residents banding together to take action against low-life elements plaguing their village. The Times reports:

When Marilyn Hebbron bought her house by the green in a Hampshire village she had not planned to become a crime-fighting pioneer.

It was only after she was kept awake night after night by youths who congregated on the green, and woke up morning after morning to find the green littered with bottles, drug paraphernalia and occasional comatose teenagers, that she decided to act.

She rallied her middle-class neighbours in the village of Four Marks and organised street patrols. Clad in luminous yellow jackets and armed with mobile phones, rape alarms and notebooks, the platoons marched out each evening to confront the troublemakers.

Hampshire police began supporting the patrols, and the idea of Street Watch has been circulated to every police force in the country by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo). A document, Citizen Focus and Neighbourhood Policing Programme, does, however, warn forces to be wary of “unintended consequences”, such as being seen to promote vigilantism or “policing on the cheap”.

Street patrols have since spread to several other wards in Hampshire and six forces have visited the area to see the project in action.

. . .

The Four Marks scheme was backed by Detective Inspector Philip Kedge, who realised that his force could not respond to every call about antisocial behaviour. He told The Times: “No matter how much I told the public that they were living in a safe area they were not buying it and were telling me that their areas were full of feral youths out of control and were scared of going out at night.

“I felt that the fear of crime was disempowering the community and they had an over-reliance on us as a force.

“The message I took to the community was, ‘Can you help us and do something very brave and courageous and patrol your own community offering reassurance and support?’. It is not policing on the cheap but giving people confidence to reclaim their open spaces.”

There's more at the link.

I'm pleased that the locals are doing this, and are getting support from their local police: but I'm annoyed that it's considered something out of the ordinary, even newsworthy. As I reported after our encounter with Hurricane Gustav a couple of years ago, folks in my neighborhood banded together to safeguard our area, and nobody turned a hair. We went much further than this English group, in that we were armed, and had no hesitation in detaining suspicious individuals and calling the police to take matters further. Again, no problem whatsoever. We operated within the law, and the cops were grateful to have our help at a time when they were greatly overstretched.

A Times columnist, Libby Purves, writes about the Four Marks 'solution' and raises some points that, alas, demonstrate how far things have deteriorated in England. I've highlighted a couple of her points in bold print.

The villagers are reportedly happy, and as a side-effect some say that they feel more benign towards the hoodies now that they are confronting them rather than cowering behind the front door to the sound of smashing bottles. But ACPO and others express wariness. It is not just self-protective fear of policing on the cheap, but warnings of “unintended consequences” — vigilantism and carte blanche given to “far-right groups” to form private armies.

You can see their point. One person’s merry night out is another’s antisocial menace. I am sketching notes for this very article on a late-night train, and there are several fellow passengers who are lucky that I have no power to issue fines, lifetime travel bans and draconian injunctions against shrieking “F***!” or giggling at any frequency higher than 1,000Hz. Plus, obviously, confiscation of alcohol, loud headphones and any trainer placed on a seat.

I like to think that I would restrict myself to an affable PC Dixon “move along, then” (though I did once confiscate a crisp-bag from a runty glue-sniffer) but at times we all have an inner Singaporean cop. And it must be regretfully admitted that there are citizens of this fine country who want nothing more than a quasi-virtuous excuse to vent their private emotional difficulties by swinging a baseball bat at their fellow man.

That is why we hesitate to name sex offenders, and spend a fortune giving Robert Thompson, Jon Venables and Maxine Carr false identities. In civilised countries the State must hold a monopoly of forcible justice because, from the Ku Klux Klan to the INLA, history is full of lynchings, “punishment” beatings and illegitimate hatred dressed up as citizen-justice.

However, not all justice is violent, and there is a balance to be struck. We should talk about it calmly, and public authorities should not work on the insulting assumption that we are all, given a chance, that swivel-eyed person with the baseball bat. Nor, whenever they do ask for help in the form of information, should libertarian commentators sneer at a “culture of snitches”.

There is some evidence that when you do empower citizens to keep an eye on one another, they do not immediately spread malicious lies, arm themselves with spiked clubs and pick on people with funny hairdos. They do no harm and feel safer. Initially, any patrol or individual will get a lot of lip — as do police community support officers with their ludicrously limited powers — but the more there are, and the more respect real police give them, the less it will be worth insulting them.

So good luck to Four Marks. One detective inspector who backed the scheme hit the nail on the head — patronisingly — when he said the community was “disempowered” by fear of crime and had an “over-reliance on us as a force”. Can’t blame them, though, can you? They read about people who really are disempowered and whose police force is not to be over-relied on. Ask the neighbours of the late tormented Fiona Pilkington and others like her. Besides, unilateral self-empowerment can land you in a cell. Ask Nicholas Tyers, of Hull, who nabbed a boy breaking his chip-shop window and had “six months of hell” before the court dismissed his prosecution for kidnap. Or Sal Miah, a curry-house restaurateur in Sussex who spent five hours in a police cell and had his DNA taken and was given a caution. He had grabbed a pair of teenagers who broke into his beer cellar , and fended off others outside.

. . .

... there are enough tales of this sort to deter us from doing anything except turn away, or glumly phone a minimally interested police desk. And that feels unhealthy. Nobody knows any more whether it is safe to attempt a citizen’s arrest. The definition of “reasonable force” rarely comes down on the side of the arrester and even a harsh word spoken in heat can make you fall foul of hate-crime laws. The police hate citizen intervention, partly because it can provoke a more serious crime as the villain fights back, and partly because they say we’re just not trained.

. . .

What are our core rights and duties? We no longer know and that’s the problem.

Again, there's more at the link.

My response to Ms. Purves' points is a baffled, "Why???" Why should the State have a 'monopoly of forcible justice'? We're not talking about individual enforcement of laws, you understand. There's a difference between law and justice. It may be against the law for a mugger to attack me, but that won't deter him. It's simple justice to allow me to defend myself against his unjust attack, and to use any and all means necessary to safeguard myself and/or my family and/or my possessions against his illegal assault. In the US, the State may have a monopoly on enforcing the law, but it most certainly does not have a monopoly on 'forcible justice' - for which, thanks be!

The same goes for the second highlighted point in Ms. Purves' column. Why should police 'hate citizen intervention'? Our local cops were only too happy to have reliable, trustworthy citizens take responsibility for the security of their own neighborhood during a time of crisis. It boils down to how the authorities view people, I think. In the USA, we're regarded as citizens. In the UK, its citizens are regarded as subjects. If you're a citizen, you're on a level with the law enforcement officers (who are also citizens), and your interaction proceeds as equals. If you're a subject (of the Crown, or the State, or whatever), and the law is an agent of that State, then you're an 'inferior' to the law enforcement officers concerned, and they'll treat you accordingly.

That won't fly here. Any law enforcement officer who habitually treats citizens as 'inferiors' will very quickly be called to account by his bosses, for fear of the complaints (and probably lawsuits) that are bound to ensue. Here, we have inalienable rights, and we insist on them being honored and observed. That makes the difference.



Anonymous said...

“I felt that the fear of crime was disempowering the community and they had an over-reliance on us as a force."

This quote stood out to me. I don't think it is fear of crime. It is the fear of what the law would do to them if they were to take action themselves. He these people started this without talking to him first, I wonder if he would see it the same way.


Justthisguy said...

"...and we insist on them being honored and observed." Judging by your later post, that doesn't extend to the right to have a political statement on one's doormat.

Michael Zeleny said...

There is no question but that in civilized countries the state must hold a monopoly of forcible justice. Forcible justice administered without a state warrant is subject to criminal sanction as kidnapping and lynching. Legitimate use of force in a life-threatening emergency is something else altogether.