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Thursday, 21 March, 2002, 11:05 GMT
Six Forum: Tackling street crime
You put your questions to former police officer Charles Shoebridge, who led a street crime squad with the Metropolitan Police, in a live forum for the BBC's Six O' Clock News, presented by Manisha Tank.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:


A government taskforce is deciding how to tackle soaring street crime, beginning with a crackdown in 10 hotspots across the UK.

Mobile phone thefts, carjackings, the use of weapons in the commission of crimes, and the role of drugs in criminal activity, are all being targeted.

Tony Blair wants co-ordinated action to combat the 25% increase in muggings and robberies across England and Wales.

The country's top police chief, Sir John Stevens, has hailed the new initiative as "tremendous."

What concerns you about the increase in crime? What else should the government be doing in the fight against criminal activity?

The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • Bobbies on the beat
  • Police efficiency
  • Sentencing
  • Prevention of crime
  • Young offenders
  • Zero tolerance


    A Government taskforce is deciding on ways to tackle street crime and they are thinking of targeting 10 hotspots across the country. It is an issue which is very close to your hearts and we have received many e-mails and text messages on the subject. Here to address those questions and comments is Charles Shoebridge who led a street crime squad for the Metropolitan Police.

    Charles, thanks very much for being with us. One of the major issues that we picked up on in many of our e-mails was the fact that many people out there are dissatisfied with the fact that there aren't enough bobbies on the beat.

    Bobbies on the beat

    Andy H, UK asks: Why is it so difficult to find the police on the streets? Surely they should seen outside Underground and train stations at night as a deterrent for muggers and rapists thus making the streets far safer for people to get home at night safely.

    Something that many of us will have thought about when we've been coming home from work on any particular night. Ed in the UK writes in to say: My flatmate was mugged on the street at 9.30 a.m. just the other day and the muggers had the cheek to tell him to run away after they'd taken his wallet. There was a sense that the muggers could get away with it and that he wouldn't run to the police.

    Zena in London, UK writes: When may I expect to see police patrolling on foot the inner London hamlet where I live?

    All of these questions are about having more bobbies on the beat.

    Charles Shoebridge:

    I think this is something the Government and the police themselves are very aware of. We've got this issue of public reassurance which is what uniformed bobbies on the beat - high visibility policing as it's called - is all about.

    The questioner who asked about tube stations and railway stations - this is the very essence of what's called hotspot policing. It's been around for some years but there is a new emphasis on it now. You get uniformed officers in these high visibility jackets, if possible, to reassure the public that they are safe in these areas.

    The problem is that uniformed officers on the street do not in fact arrest many muggers. They deter crime and in many ways they displace crime. So the crime is actually put somewhere else because you cannot of course have officers on every corner of every street in the country at every time. Consequently fighting these muggings has to be a combination of uniformed officers to deter but also plain clothes operations to actually target and arrest those muggers and sadly the only sure-fire way of arresting and then convicting muggers is to actually catch them in the act.

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    Police efficiency


    There seems to be a sense within the police force and outside it as well that there needs to be more efficiency of manpower and I know this is something that you have an opinion on. Tim Robbins, UK wrote in to say: I am a frontline PC in South Manchester. There are tens of thousands of police officers who do 9 to 5 desk jobs and rarely speak to a member of the public never mind take a crime report or arrest someone. I firmly believe that a lot more of these positions could be streamlined or filled in by civilians.

    Charles Shoebridge:

    There is no doubt that this is true. Again it is something that there has been awareness on for many years and gradually, slowly but surely, we are getting civilianisation of many posts. For example, the people in police stations called jailers, who look after prisoners - basically they're the people who fill in the forms, hand out food and so on - that could be a civilianised post. In the Police Reform Bill that is before Parliament that is one of the measures that's proposed there.

    The problem comes if you civilianise too many posts, that you are then going to have an adverse effect on the criminal justice system later down the line. There is no point arresting many, many people if they are then not convicted. So, for example, if you have a civilian - perhaps a case manager responsible for interviewing suspects and so on - which at the moment is done by a detective or the officer who arrested that suspect. Let's say if somebody was to be put in that position without the experience, without the training and the background of a police training that could impact upon the conviction rate and that's the last thing we want to do because without convictions these people cannot be taken off the streets.


    On the other hand there are some issues that are close to police officers hearts and we've just had a text message in from a serving police officer who asks: I would like to know how Mr Blunkett hopes to get support for initiatives like this when he wants to work us harder and cut our pay?

    He is obviously referring to the hotspots and the taskforce. But there are the issues: we're working harder and pay doesn't match up.

    Charles Shoebridge:

    I am sure Mr Blunkett would say that the savings will go towards more officers on the streets plus local authority wardens and police wardens to increase public reassurance.

    My own position is, as your caller suggested, that these sorts of operations tend to be very manpower intensive. With anti-robbery operations in the past - you can't be certain when the robbery is going to take place - so you are watching for street robbers - that involves usually a lot of overtime. This is very overtime that Mr Blunkett is proposing to cut and longer term there may be an impact on recruitment for police officers. The right kind of officers need to be recruited who are going to be willing to carry out this sort of work and carrying it out properly so that people actually get convicted as well as just caught.

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    Mike Hall in England asks: What happens when these people are caught - is it just a slap on the wrists enabling them to continue committing more crimes? Tougher sentences are required both as a deterrent and to stop re-offenders.

    Charles Shoebridge:

    There is no doubt I am sure that any person who is a police officer or ex-officer, such as myself, who has dealt with many, many muggers face to face, is quite aware of the situation. To a large degree, the problem of why people commit muggings is simply that they commit muggings because they're able to. When you commit mugging after mugging, involving quite often violence against usually the most vulnerable people in society - perhaps children or older people - and then nothing happens to you apart from arrest, there is no disincentive to carrying out those muggings.

    All too often, particularly where juveniles are concerned - and two-thirds of muggings are carried out by people under 21 - you've got the situation where somebody is arrested, they are then either put in custody and then go to court to be dealt with later that day or the next day when all too often they are then released again. Even when convicted, the majority of muggers do not get a jail sentence. Lord Justice Woolff recently re-emphasised guidelines that said that at a base level, muggers should get 18 months in prison. But really the reality of that isn't going to translate into hard facts on the ground for the reason that there are other laws in place, for example, that prevent under 15 year-olds being jailed unless it can be shown that they are prolific offenders. The problem is that somebody is on bail, they are then re-bailed, re-bailed and re-bailed by the courts every time a new offence is committed and it all adds up to what many of your viewers have intimated which is a sense of invulnerability that these muggers have. They regard themselves as untouchable.

    Now we've had some tough talk from the Government today and a lot of that is directed towards sentencing. It remains to be seen whether that is, for once, actually going to translate into hard action on the ground or in the courts which is where it is important. It is a critical issue.

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    Prevention of crime


    Now you did mention prevention there. Pat van der Veer, Liverpool, UK asks: I have been the victim of a crime twice since moving back to the UK three months ago. Why not look at some preventative practices, such as more CCTV cameras?

    With that question can I ask you - is there more that perhaps members of the public should be doing when it comes to prevention?

    Charles Shoebridge:

    A lot has been spoken recently about mobile phones. You need to know your EMEI number - the electronic identification of the phone. I say you need to know it but actually you don't need to know but it is very, very helpful in order to get the phone disconnected. Obviously you can take care of your possessions in a way that makes it more difficult, for example, to be mugged. You can carry your bag in front of you, don't walk around these areas wearing your best Rolex watch because it does ask for problems.

    But having said that, I think we need to be very careful that we're not saying that people haven't got the right, if they wanted, to wear their best jewellery. We shouldn't be in this position of, if you like, blaming the victim and there has been a bit of tendency to do that. In theory everybody has the right to do what they like so long as nobody gets hurt, in terms of wearing their jewellery or carrying their bag as they want. But I think certainly a lot of the cases that I used to deal with - it did cross your mind that commonsense could have produced a different result. Having said that, often when somebody is mugged and they haven't taken care of their possessions - had they taken care of their possessions perhaps they wouldn't have been but then somebody else would have been mugged. So I am not sure that it would have a great effect on the figures as a whole but certainly as an individual - take care of your possessions, perhaps avoid those dark areas and you can help yourself - there is no question. But should it come to that, that's a whole different issue.

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    Young offenders


    The figures seem to be showing, very obviously that young offenders are playing a very prominent role in this rise in street crime. We've had a number of e-mails on this subject. John Howard, UK asks: It is quite simple - crime is on the streets and the police aren't.

    Again he is making the case about having more bobbies on the beat. The problem he and many viewers are pointing out is that the youth effectively are running wild. S. Mitchell, Scotland asks: Don't you think that a great deal of street crime can be linked to indiscipline in schools? Would it not be more prudent to restore discipline in those schools giving pupils a feel-good factor and a much better sense of responsibility towards others?

    So that's all about attitude. Also a text message that we've had come in: I personally think that young people are being allowed to get away with literally robbery. I've suffered so much and I never go out on my own anymore. Which obviously is very disappointing and no one wants to be in that situation.

    Charles Shoebridge:

    Isn't that terrible and I think that is a situation that many people feel across the whole country. Even though your chances of being a victim of crime are actually quite small, quite rightly and quite understandably people have fear of leading normal lives because they don't want to be a victim of crime - they don't want to appear in that statistic.

    As for schools, I think it's a very difficult situation because people who are disruptive on the streets - for example to the extent of committing robberies are quite often going to be the pupils who are very disruptive in schools which is why you've got this correlation to some degree between excluded pupils and those who are actually committing robberies.

    I've got no doubt that the situation regarding discipline in schools is an important issue - had somebody been subject to strong discipline, a strong sense of what's right and wrong from an early age then that would be bound to have an effect on somebody's attitude towards crime. But that isn't simply a situation that's the responsibility of the school - parenting answers a lot or the problems too. An awful lot of the young muggers that we are dealing with come from what might be called a dysfunctional background. Quite often, for example, there is no positive male role model in their lives. Although in a majority of cases - single parent families do not lead to that sort of dysfunctionality - but in some cases the young boy growing up, he will take his lead not from teachers, not from a father who isn't probably present but from stronger, bigger boys in the community - his peers in other words and when they are seen to be getting with - as your questioner said - robbery in some cases, as they are, quite often it is the case that they'll follow suit.

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    Zero Tolerance


    It's also been the case that in the last few weeks there have been many comparisons between London and New York. We had the former Mayor Rudy Giuliani visiting London not so long ago and the issue of zero tolerance came up. Matthew in the UK asks: Zero tolerance has been proved to work in New York and other locations. Why is it not under serious consideration for use in the UK?

    Likewise, we have a text message in from Tony Roberts in the UK who asks: Don't you think it's time we adopted the US system of zero tolerance to solve our crime problems?

    Are we dealing with the same model?

    Charles Shoebridge:

    We're not dealing with exactly the same model. There was a move towards what was called zero tolerance but it is intensely manpower-intensive. You've got to go through this phase where absolutely everything is being picked up by police. Now first of all that means lots of police on the streets which again comes back to the issue - have we got enough police - and somebody like myself would always say - although the most important issue is not the numbers of police but how you use them. No matter what the situation, you can never have any harm from having more police on the streets.

    The problem is that the zero tolerance policy has resulted in an enormous upswing of community relations problems. For example, in the United States - in New York - complaints against police - again from ethnic minorities particularly - rocketed during that period and so there is this balance to be struck.

    The author of the zero tolerance policy has actually gone on record as saying that crime levels in Britain do not justify that policy. Now as an ex-police officer, I of course would be tempted to say - yes, we should be addressing any transgression of the law but it is whether it is actually practical and whether it's the kind of society that we actually want.

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    See also:

    20 Mar 02 | UK Politics
    18 Jul 02 | UK Politics
    21 Feb 02 | UK
    17 Mar 02 | Breakfast with Frost
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