Death at the hands of the law

Criminalisation and criminal justice responses are the cause of more harm than good, argues Richard Garside

Richard Garside
Thursday, 31 March, 2016

Earlier this month The Times ran a series of pieces about the mounting pressures on the police.

At the serious end, the police faced a ‘new age of criminality’ (£), including terrorism, people smuggling, cyber-crime and child sexual exploitation.

Child sexual exploitation, people smuggling and terrorism are hardly ‘new’ problems, of course, though cyber-crime is a complex and shifting set of new challenges.

The point of the piece was rather to emphasise that the police had lots to be getting on with, despite falls in property offences such as car crime and burglary. 

At the other end of the scale, the police were left reacting to an endless parade of ‘dead cats and drunks’ (£). ‘Sometimes you feel more like a teacher, a social worker, a nurse or a psychologist’, PC Scott James of West Midlands Police told the paper.

It has become something of a truism that the police regularly act as the social service of last resort. A report last year by the Inspectorate of Constabulary in England and Wales found that 84 per cent of calls to the police related to ‘non-crime incidents’ such as mental health, vulnerable people and safeguarding.

Many police officers no doubt try to approach such challenging situations in a professional and sensitive manner. But there is a social and personal cost involved in asking our well-resourced police forces to undertake tasks more suited to our under-resourced health, education and social service professions.

Consider the awful case of Philmore Mills, who died in hospital in 2011 while being restrained by the police.

Mr Mills was in hospital with a lung tumour and pneumonia. Experiencing severe oxygen deprivation, he started to act in a confused manner. The police were called. They restrained him on the floor and handcuffed him. He died shortly afterwards.

An inquest jury this month concluded that the police's actions had contributed to his death.

In his temporary state of confusion and disorientation, Mr Mills needed the caring support of appropriately trained health professionals. Instead he was subjected to a traumatic and fatal intervention by the strong arm of the law.

Had the police officers involved been nurses or doctors, their actions would have been treated as a suspected homicide.

‘None of the witnesses accepted responsibility for the death of our father and grandfather’, Mr Mills’ grandson, Kyian Brown, said in a statement. ‘No family should have to go through what we have gone through’.

Mr Mills' unnecessary and untimely death is just one example of the problems that come from expecting the police to act as a social service of last resort.

A report this month from the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that people with a mental illness are four times more likely to die after the police used force against them than other individuals.

How many unnecessary deaths would be prevented each year if health professionals and social workers were as well-resourced to provide the kind of emergency response currently offered, not infrequently with fatal consequences, by the police?

The government is currently seeking to make changes to the Mental Health Act, to make it less likely that those in mental health crisis are detained in police cells. This is a welcome small step. It is also solving the wrong problem.

The police are ill-placed to act as first responders to those whose health problems makes them vulnerable, or cause them to act erratically. The police response should be replaced by properly-resourced health teams, providing appropriate care and support to those in crisis.

The harms resulting from our reliance on the police as a social service of last resort is part of a wider problem: the resort to criminal law and a criminal justice response to complex personal and social problems.

Consider the controversy that followed Jeremy Corbyn’s comments, earlier this month, in favour of decrimialising the buying and selling of sex. ‘I don’t want people to be criminalised,’ Mr Corbyn told students. ‘I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people.’

At stake here is the role of criminalisation and of the criminal justice sanction in discouraging harmful acts, promoting greater wellbeing and nurturing fulfilling lives.

Critics of Mr Corbyn, including Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman, argue that his decriminalisation stance is tantamount to condoning abuse and sexual exploitation. Advocates of Mr Corbyn's stance, which include Amnesty International, argue that it is precisely criminalisation that makes abuse and sexual exploitation more likely and harmful.

The criminalisation of the buying and selling of sex came up again earlier this week, with the collapse of the trial of three women accused of running a brothel in Manchester.

The women argued that they had set up a brothel together because it was safer than working alone. They had done so with the implicit support of the local police, they claimed, until a change of policy resulted in a raid.

The trial collapsed after the lead police officer involved in the prosecution refused to give evidence. All rather murky.

Like many others, I consider the buying and selling of some people for the sexual gratification of others an abusive feature of our society.

I am also sceptical of claims that those engaged in the sex trade are exercising a free choice. A recent study (£) of those who had been sexually abused as children reported a fivefold increase in being paid for sex as an adult.

Yet at a time when police budgets are being protected, local authority safeguarding teams and childrens services are facing further cuts. Meanwhile, hundreds of women and children are being turned away every day from a shrinking women’s refuge sector.

Something is going very wrong with the way we seek to resolve some of the most seemingly intractable social challenges.

What is needed is a rebalancing of public policy. Youth and social workers, professionals in health and education, local authorities and civil society organisations should be providing the default response to a range of social issues that are frequently treated as criminal problems.

The resort to criminalisation and criminal justice agencies to resolve complex social problems all too often creates more problems than it solves, and magnifies, rather than mitigates, harm.