The public are the police: What happens when citizens take the law into their own hands?

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The public are the police: What happens when citizens take the law into their own hands?

Ahead of the Police Foundation’s annual conference on Policing and the Public, Ruth Halkon examines the rise of vigilantism (or so-called paedophile hunters) and explores what motivates the public to take the law into their own hands.

The vexed question of what role the public should play in fighting crime is again dominating the headlines after a sharp rise in the number of prosecutions involving evidence from “paedophile hunters”. According to the BBC, the number of grooming cases brought to trial through the involvement of vigilante groups has more than tripled in two years. Last year, more than half of the 403 people prosecuted for attempting to meet a child following sexual grooming were charged using evidence from these groups. In some forces, vigilante groups influenced 100 per cent of cases.

There are believed to be nearly 200 paedophile hunting groups operating throughout the country. Members set up social media accounts purporting to belong to children and wait for adults to initiate sexual conversations with them. A meeting is suggested and the suspected paedophile is confronted at the rendezvous by vigilantes who film the encounter, broadcast it live over the internet and then involve the police.

Groups such as Predator Exposure and Yorkshire Child Protectors claim they are forced into hunting paedophiles because the police are failing to do their job. Phil Hoban of Predator Exposure told the BBC: “All I can say [to the police] is ‘go out and do your job so we don’t have to do it’…If we can catch them why can’t they catch them?”

But according to police leaders, these groups are a hindrance as they can compromise active investigations into dangerous offenders or waste police time which could be spent on solving more serious offences. The NPCC has recently criticised them as being motivated by “self-interest” and “self-aggrandisement” rather than the desire to safeguard children. During stings some vigilantes commit offences such extortion, blackmail and violence against the person and innocent victims have been wrongly targeted, sometimes leading to their deaths.

It is clear that members of the public should be prevented from taking the law into their own hands, but they nevertheless have a responsibility to help preserve community safety.  According to the Peelian principles the only difference between the public and the police is that the police are “paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare” – in other words the public are not absolved from their responsibilities to their fellow citizens just because their taxes pay for a police officer to don a uniform and walk the beat.  The fact we are in a time of increased demands on limited police resources makes the need for active citizens even more pressing. Nick Ross writes in his book Crime that the British people have forgotten their “guardian role as citizens” and if they do not reclaim it, the “thin blue line will always be stretched to the point where it can barely cope.”

As a Neighbourhood Police Officer I inherited a thriving community safety partnership and close links with faith groups and traders from my predecessor. The community safety partnership disseminated my crime prevention advice and regularly provided me with invaluable intelligence. The traders helped me reduce burglary by convincing jewellers to install alley gates behind their shops to prevent thieves tunnelling through the walls and stealing their stock. On one occasion two shop owners came to my rescue when I was almost overpowered by a man I was arresting on suspicion of punching a woman in the street. Without these networks I and my colleagues would have been unable to maintain good relations with the wider community after a terror attack just off my beat or a brutal murder which threatened to jeopardise public confidence in the police.

My experience of working with the community to cut crime is by no means unusual. Across the country people are giving up their weekends and evenings to work as Special Constables or police volunteers. Initiatives such as cadets and mini police improve community relations and divert young people from crime. In the West Midlands Police, Youth Street watches help cops connect with young people while combatting antisocial behaviour, graffiti and drug taking. The Neighbourbood Watch has a long history of reducing burglary through working closely with local police. The Orthodox Jewish Shomrim, which patrols streets in north east London and responds to crime reports, works closely with the Metropolitan Police. And members of the public regularly perform astonishing feats of bravery and risk their lives to save others.

Nevertheless, these are only pockets of good practice in a climate where austerity, increased demand and changing crime types have forced police to withdraw from public engagement and concentrate limited resources on the most serious crimes. The rise in violent crime and the decline in detection rates have contributed to a decline in public belief that the police can be relied on when needed.  In parts of the country this erosion of public confidence has led people to join uniformed volunteer patrols inspired by New York’s Guardian Angels. Much like the paedophile hunters, the Essex-based Night Angel Patrol Group Pitsea and the Canvey Patrol Group claim they are filling the vacuum left by the police retreat and preventing a tide of lawlessness. They say they wish to work with the police, yet reject Essex Police’s view that the “challenging, confrontational and dangerous” work of the police should be left to trained officers.

It is clear that the police need to maintain public support to prevent increasing numbers of people taking the law into their own hands. It is less clear how UK forces can achieve this aim. At this year’s annual conference, Policing and the public: Engaging communities in changing times, the Police Foundation will bring together police chiefs, academics and experts to discuss how the police can find new ways to maintain the confidence and cooperation of the public. The conference will be a unique opportunity to share best practice, and perhaps convince the public that the police can do their job effectively.