One step at a time

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 2 September 2014

As an inveterate reader, I have a particular interest, as a former Probation Officer, in exploring the radical ways of mitigating the, often damaging, impact of poorly considered criminal justice policy, as well as looking at innovative ways of working with communities blighted by crime.  So, reading David M Kennedy's powerful work on how to effectively tackle inner-city gang and drug related violence, Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, left me reeling.

One reviewer aptly caught the visceral feel of the book by describing it as like a crime novel, Immanuel Kant meets Joseph Wambaugh!  Reading the book, my thoughts turned to a supervisory experience when working as a practitioner with Steve (not his real name). I was mildly apprehensive at the prospect of taking on statutory supervision, partly as Steve had a varied history of violence and involvement in gangs. But, just as significantly, he had (from my review of his earlier probation records) made threats against staff at his previous probation office, and this was without the more robust framework of multi-agency working that is now operationally enshrined under the rubric of Mappa (Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements). I sensed that I needed to draw upon the resources and support of seasoned colleagues in the office. The initial supervisory meeting proved (as often is the case) a little bathetic. Steve was almost apologetically polite. We worked on formalising the pattern of reporting and exploring areas of a possible joint agreement. This agreement would be focused on how he might detach himself from what had proved to be a challenging and controlling peer group, whose reputation (his links were outside London) for organised violence were apparently well founded.

Within a relatively short timeframe our professional relationship appeared to be improving.  I sensed some scope for working towards ensuring that he felt more enabled to safely engage with employment and training openings that he outlined as ways of detaching himself from his peer group. I was unprepared for what happened next. A call came from an 'associate' of Steve's, who left a message at the office to say that he had 'gone to ground'. The caller said he was wanted for a shooting that had resulted in serious injury, but this was being handled outside the normal parameters of legal sanction!  I would then receive phone calls from Steve, now more hyper alert than I ever recalled.  I discussed his situation with my line manager and local police, but there was it seemed no current arrest warrant or outstanding charges. As time elapsed, breach action was initiated (at this point in time Probation Officers directly undertook breach action by pursuing a summons or warrant at the local court). A warrant was issued, as Steve's whereabouts were unknown, and this was not backed by bail. Which meant that when he was arrested he would be held in custody before appearing before the court to answer the breach.

It was sometime later when I was called to appear at the local Magistrates’ court, and Steve admitted that he was in breach of his order. I spoke to him through the cell door in the custody suite at the court, to ascertain his current circumstances and clarification on the unresolved issue of the 'shooting’.  The fear and tension in his voice were palpable. What had transpired was that he had indeed been involved in a gang related shooting, but had served time for this and completed his licence. The threats and intimidation that he still had to navigate through dated from this earlier period. The probation order was allowed to continue and supervision resumed. Steve wanted a exit strategy from his gang related past, he listened and learned to survive and responded in the knowledge that maybe this time things would be different. Steve would say to me, 'Mike, I can leave this s*** behind me, but one step at a time, mate!'.


More on