A volatile probation relationship

Mike Guilfoyle
Thursday, 17 September 2020

Often when reading criminological tomes, a phrase or reference will leap out from the pages to evoke a memory of past probation practice.

The phrase, 'all coppers are bastards' often shortened to a pejorative acronym, was very much a piece of wall graffiti I recall from the 1970s. It appears as a chapter heading at the beginning of a recent scholarly and timely ethnographic study of the uses of discretion and the regulation of police powers in two forces in England, Police Street Powers and Criminal Justice: Regulation and Discretion in a Time of Change by Geoff Pearson.

The book analyses the utilisation, regulation and legitimacy of police powers. Drawing upon six years of ethnographic research in two police forces in England, this book uncovers the importance of time and place, supervision and monitoring, local policies and law.

The memory evoked was that of supervising Ambrose (not his real name), who had been sentenced to a period of statutory probation supervision for a number of offences of assault and alcohol fuelled public order infractions. His entrance to the probation office on our initial meeting was unfortunately bookended by two other clients on my caseload who each presented in distress.

The first client had witnessed his sister fatally stab her partner the night before and the other client was 'ranting' at the 'unfairness' of a system that penalised him for striking his pregnant partner!

Ambrose sat uneasily in the cramped waiting area awaiting his appointment time when I asked him to come to my office (at the time the probation office I worked at was a field office where all probation officers had their own roorms). He immediately struck a discordant note by insisting that, 'I should not be f******* well here and I will wear whatever I like'. 

The genesis of his court case centred on an escalating dispute with security staff (and later police) at a rock concert in which his hostility to being asked why he wore a jacket with an 'offensive' logo on it then spilled over into an altercation with a number of minor injuries to all parties.

I must admit that at the time of the meeting I was ill-prepared emotionally to respond in any helpful manner to the blustering obscenities which then greeted my attempts to better understand how matters could have been resolved more amicably. Colleagues hearing the crescendo of noise had looked into the room (a small window offered some measure of reassurance!) but after making clear that I would not tolerate this level of abuse and hinted that the order could be taken back to court for revocation, some modest semblance of orderly interaction ensued. I was shaking inside and felt impelled to shorten the appointment with an expectation that at our next supervision session we would chart the plan of supervsion, hopefully in a calmer and more collaborative atmopshere!

I sensed that the order would present many more challenging moments and although unnerved at what I had so far experienced, I still wanted to offer Ambrose a space in which we could look together at the factors deemed to have informed his offending history which had been eloquently outlined in my colleague's pre-sentence report. In which an entrenched pattern of similar offending was evident.

I thought that I had made some measure of progress, although our interactions often remained tense and strained, when Ambrose , somewhat flummoxed me by asking, 'Cut out the b*********, what makes you p******* off ?' I stuttered unconvincingly, and mentioned an occassion when a police officer had slapped me across the face when I was a boy for trespassing on a railway line. 'So you still remember this all these years later?' he quipped.

This shared disclosure seemed to elict some short lived empathy, but Ambrose then stood up and began to physically represent some of his more combative encounters with the police and security staff. I asked him whether he thought that the motif that adorned his jacket might be seen in a negative light? At this pioint he stared at me with a menacing intensity and stormed out of the room, slamming the door. After a few seconds had elapsed he returned (having circled the waiting area which was mercifully empty). 'Tell me Mr Guilfoyle, what would you do if that b********* copper was in the room now?'

I explained how much hurt that this actions had caused me, not least the humiliation of feeling powerless and fearful of the police . He mused on these sentiments, and when our appointment time was over, walked out of the room in a more respectful and thoughtful way.

The balance of the probation order continued more times than not in its troubled and oscillatingly emotionally charged way, (an anger management condition had surprisingly not been included in the order). I always felt that the core relationship which underpinned supervision with Ambrose was more volatile than most I could bring to mind over twenty years!

I also recall with some measure of professional regret, something I later shared in a supervision session with my then line manager (a wonderfully empathic Senior Probation Officer now sadly deceased) that I did not more confidently explore with him the baneful influence of racism as part of his negative interactions with the police.

He once tellingly said to me, 'I want people to see me as Ambrose the rock fan'. When the order had expired I passed him on the nearby frantically busy high road. Mouthing above the traffic noise, the lyrics from a 1970s rock song, '..I heard screaming and bullwhips cracking'.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer