Inside policing podcast season two launching – homicide prevention
In the first episode of season two on the Inside policing podcast, Antony Bushfield talks to three guests about homicide prevention and how we reduce serious violence.
Hello and welcome to Inside Policing. I’m Antony Bushfield and this is the podcast that gets behind the blue lights and sirens to take a closer look at the issues affecting the police. And there are few issues greater than homicide. In recent years, rates have fluctuated between 600 and 700. To put that figure into context, there were around 300 killings a year in the early 1960s. So even factoring in population changes, that is still a significant increase. It was in the summer of 2021 that the government published its beating crime plan. It set out what ministers expected of law enforcement and the wider justice system. In short, a reduction in killings and more work to tackle what is driving them. Since then there’s been lots of operational activity across all forces. And in the background, researchers have been at homicide more closely. Considering how domestic abuse can begin with coercive control and end in murder, how drug dealers look to take out their rivals and rule their patch through violence and the ways others, apart from the police, can prevent homicide’s. So let’s get started.
And to begin, I’m joined by ACC Simon Wilson. He was the NPCC lead for homicide until a few months ago. Simon, thank you for coming on the podcast today. If we look at the homicide rates since 2016, they seem fairly stubborn when you remove the dip during the pandemic. Why do you think that is?
So homicide is complex. Homicide is that worst case manifestation from various different crime types, whether it’s domestic abuse, whether it’s serious violence, youth violence, drug-related criminality, knife crime, gun crime. It’s a complex landscape. And albeit they’ve remained fairly stubborn as you say, they’re also fairly stable. One is always one too many. And our main goal and our main driver in policing and indeed working with our partner agencies is to protect life, is to prevent homicides, and policing is working really effectively towards dealing with that.
We have seen some changes, as you quite rightly say, in relation to lockdown, where we saw some reductions and thankfully so in relation to homicide. But we’ve now started to see some increases as a result. And I think, if I’m honest, I don’t think we truly understand the impact of the pandemic on the drivers and the causes of homicide. I think that will take a little bit of time in terms of whether there was a lot of activity that was taking place online in various chat rooms between whether that be gangs, whether that be county lines. You’ve got the dynamics in relation to domestic abuse, people being in one location for significant periods of time and the impact that that has had on domestic abuse rates. So I think over time we’ll start to better understand the impact and better understand the causes as a result of the pandemic.
But what I will say, the rates of homicide in this country, albeit far too many, you know, too many lives lost, too many families, loved ones shattered as a result, are still some of the lowest in the world.
We’re looking to produce a national problem profile, so a template which will hopefully support and enhance forces to better understand their profiles in relation to homicide. The benefit, obviously, of all forces doing it the same is you can augment that into a national problem profile so you get a much better understanding of the nuances, the drivers, the causes, which in turn will give us a much better understanding of our response to tackle those issues.
Is that the purpose of that? Is that how that will be used to help forces tailor their response to the particular issues they have?
Exactly right. So in our early stages of this work, we put what we called a call for practice out across policing because, you know, I was convinced that there was a huge amount of work that was going on to tackle homicide across those various different crime types. And I’ve absolutely been proven right in terms of the responses that we’ve had from policing, from some of our agencies that we work with, whether that’s the Vulnerability Knowledge [and] Practice Programme, whether that’s the Youth Endowment Fund, whether that’s the Domestic Homicide Project, a huge response.
And some of those were around forces’ problem profiles in terms of how they were better seeking to understand the drivers and the causes that lead to homicide equally in line with the changes that have come about as a result of the pandemic. So what that allowed us to do was to develop that template, working very closely with the College of Policing to develop, working very closely with policing and the national lead around intelligence to enhance and finesse that template which provides, I think and I hope, a much richer picture better than what we’ve had before, certainly at a national level.
And the problem profiles that are coming back. Are you seeing themes? Because I think if you speak to a cop in Blackpool and a cop in Bolton, they’ll say, ‘Well, our problems are completely different. We can’t have one national profile.’ But are you seeing themes regardless of where these issues are in the country?
Yeah, of course. Everywhere is different and everywhere has its own different challenges and different themes will result. But I think homicide in terms of its themes, in terms of the drivers, has been fairly stable for a number of years, if not a number of decades, predominately around serious violence, predominately around domestic abuse, drug-related criminality and vulnerability. And that’s a fairly stable picture.
But the template allows that flexibility. So it allows forces to drill down into a particular issue or particular area. And if I’m honest, that’s why we’ve designed the homicide prevention framework in the way that we have. What we didn’t want to create was a static, word-based strategy that says ‘here are 10 things that you need to do to respond to homicide’ because it’s too complex, it’s too challenging to do that.
That’s not to decry static strategies. They all clearly have their place. But what we wanted to do was create a framework, a web-based product that had exemplar strategies from policing, had exemplar initiatives, had promising practice, where forces are starting to evolve their response with greater insight to homicide. So therefore, a force lead could use the framework to either enhance their own arrangements or indeed look for a specific initiative that they want to evolve in their force. But it gives that flexibility in terms of using the framework to enhance their own arrangements in line with the nuances of the challenges in that particular force.
And there’s lots going on already in forces. You’ve been to lots of forces all over the country. If you had to pick one really promising piece of good practice that you would like to implement, what would you think that would be?
So we visited 10 forces currently. There’ll be more forces to visit in the second tranche of this work. Of those initiatives, I think it would benefit policing and ultimately the public to pick any one of those initiatives in terms of the impact and the benefit that it would have. But there was a bit of work that’s gone on in Thames Valley Police for their violence reduction unit. They have done a huge amount of impressive work around the utilisation of multi-agency data. Not just information, multi-agency data, which they’re sharing across their violence reduction unit, across their violence reduction network, to better understand risk, to better understand vulnerability. And I think when you’ve got that framework in place, you can then start to derive much more understanding in terms of who’s at risk, who is a risk, and be able to much better respond to those when you’ve got those multi-agency data sharing arrangements in place and indeed that culture of sharing data. And albeit the initiatives that we’ve seen elsewhere are hugely impressive, I think if you can get that foundation right, which TVP have appeared to do, I think policing and its partner agencies, because we can’t do this on our own, are in a much better position to respond to some of the challenges.
If you look at education data, so exclusions from school. There are some links between exclusions from school and children that become involved in serious violence. However, if you looked at all of the children excluded from school, it’s only a small percentage that become involved in serious violence. If you look at it the other way around, all the children involved in serious violence, how many are excluded? It’s a much bigger number. But then if you can layer that with another adverse childhood experience, so for example, one with a parent who’s incarcerated in prison, for example, or indeed a child that’s also suffering from domestic abuse. So you can start to layer those risk factors and actually then identify that that child needs some support, that child needs some help. We can then respond in a much more holistic and effective way. We need to respond to homicide through a public health approach as opposed to policing our way out of it.
How important is it then, in a world where, you know, your cops will be thinking, well, everything’s a priority and this is now being labelled a priority, how important is it that we make this work?
I think it’s vitally important that we make this work. Our job in policing, amongst many others, is the preservation of life. Homicide is a worst case manifestation of various different crime types. So therefore, the framework is designed to help policing, partner agencies, other agencies respond to those drivers and those causes. And I think if you look at a lot of different crime types, some of the causes or some of the drivers may ultimately be linked back to preventing homicide. So as much as, yes, this is a homicide prevention framework, but it’s focused on a broad response across various policing methodologies and the policing landscape. There is a huge amount of work that’s gone on through the national portfolios led by Louisa Rolfe in relation to domestic abuse. What we’re doing is pulling that, pulling the response to knife crime, gun crime, county lines, night-time economy policing into one place, taking the work that the Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme have done, taking the work that the Domestic Homicide Project have done and putting it all into one place, making it much more accessible.
When everyone joins the police, they do it to keep people safe, as you said, preservation of life. What would your advice be to officers who want to get involved in homicide prevention? What would your tips be for them? What should they be doing day to day?
I think it’s recognising that anything you go to could potentially be a homicide. And I think it’s having that broad mindset, that professional curiosity, that professional judgment, the effective use of the information that we may have on those individuals when we respond, to respond in the best way that they possibly can. And that goes on up and down the country, by the way, in terms of that response. But just to have that thought in mind that it might not just be an isolated incident that I’m dealing with, this may be a culmination of various other incidents or there may be a huge history with policing. And I think to have in mind when you’re responding to this, is one is it could be that individual’s first touchpoint with policing, so absolutely make it count or it could be that person’s 54th touchpoint with policing, so absolutely make it count. And just have that mindset so that this could be something bigger, maybe. Albeit, I’m sure, you know, the incident could be horrific for that individual, but actually this could lead to a homicide. And my activity here could potentially prevent that happening in the future.
710 homicides is just a stat. But of course, it’s 710 people and families left devastated. Can I ask you about the impact on officers? Do you remember the first homicide that you attended and how that affected you?
Yeah, so 710, and thankfully that number is starting to go down, but it’s still far too many. You’re right. 710 lives lost; 710 families shattered as a result. We in policing, we in our partner agencies are determined to reduce that number through the work that we’re doing. I think it’s absolutely right to recognise the impact that this has on families, on society, on communities, because it's devastating.
In terms of the impact on police officers, there’s a lot of things that police officers, police staff members, police community support officers, volunteers, those working in the police family and indeed some of our partner agencies see that they probably would never have wanted to see. Certainly from my own personal experience, when something you’re seeing, you can make a correlation in your own life in terms of whether that’s just a circumstance, whether you’ve got young kids and it’s a young child or perhaps grandparents and it’s a more perhaps mature individual. I think when you make that association to your own life, I think that’s where it can really impact. I’m not saying that it doesn’t when you just see some of these scenes, some can be truly horrific and can live with you for a period of time. But for me personally, when I correlate it to something in my own life, that’s where I think it has the bigger impact.
But thankfully, I think we’ve got a much better understanding within policing and society as a whole in terms of mental health, in terms of the impact of trauma. And there’s lots of effective support functions out there, whether that’s within policing or wider, where people can seek support, can seek help. And I think, don’t wait. I think if you attend an incident and if it’s unpleasant, don’t wait for it to have an effect. Speak to people, speak to colleagues, speak to supervisors, speak to family, speak to friends, speak to professionals, and have that conversation. Because sometimes these events have a legacy and they can impact on you much later down the line.
Simon, thank you very much for your time.
Homicide is a complex problem and as Simon said, you can’t arrest your way out of it. Put bluntly, if you’re looking to arrest someone for a killing, the ultimate harm has been done. So how do we push others to play their part? Well, one city that did this very well was my hometown in Glasgow. When I was growing up on an inner city housing estate there was a real fear of serious violence. Young people carrying, and using knives was common. And things were so bad that the World Health Organisation branded us the murder capital of Europe. In 2005, Scotland was shamefully titled the most violent country in the developed world. But it’s not any more.
Violence reduction unit will be a phrase and title known to most in policing now. But in 2005, when Strathclyde Police set up the first, it was in recognition that the status quo wasn’t working. It now covers all of Scotland and until recently was headed up by Niven Rennie. He was appointed director in 2018 after more than 30 years in operational policing. Niven, the turnaround in Scotland has been remarkable. Homicide down to the lowest level since 1976 and it’s now looked at as a model of how to cut violence. So, how did you do it?
In 2005, the year the violence reduction unit was created, we had 137 murders, homicides in Scotland. And that had been a situation that continued for quite some time. And the police response to it was a traditional police response of stop and search enforcement. And we’ve been doing it for years. And when things got really bad, we did the large scale enforcement campaigns.
I was a police officer for 31 years. I went through Operation Blade in the late eighties, early nineties. And then mid-nineties we had the Spotlight initiative and both of these were large scale enforcement campaigns linked to some sort of education campaign and to knife amnesties and what have you, and the seizure of knives and turned them into sculptures and such like and the use of fairground poles and having large amounts of police officers with yellow jackets out and about to try and alleviate the problem.
We discovered that that doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked. The problem just continued. Yes, for a while when you throw that amount of police resource at it, you might suppress the problem, but the problem doesn’t go away because you haven’t dealt with the root causes and you can’t sustain that level of police activity. Not only does it cause a problem from a financial point of view, you’re abstracting police officers from other communities and other jobs to ensure that you’ve got that level of police involvement.
And then as we discovered later on, when you have industrial scale stop and search, you actually alienate the population and you start getting critical comment from the press and from politicians. So there has to be an alternative way. And essentially the alternative way that we took started in 2005 with the creation of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit. We used a slogan from Nelson Mandela that ‘violence is not inevitable, it's preventable’. And we adopted a public health approach to violence.
So this coincided with the launch of the World Health Organisation report saying that violence was a public health issue, and therefore we were the first organisation worldwide to adopt that approach. And essentially a public health approach is a preventative approach, and it’s recognising that policing doesn’t have the answers to violence. Policing has a role to play, but the main way of preventing violence is to deal with the root causes, identify the root causes and deal with that. And that involves stopping people coming into the criminal justice system.
So we have worked with health, education, social services, third sector organisations, private sector organisations. What we basically explain to people is that we all have a role to play in preventing violence. But over that course of time, homicide has dropped. Last year’s homicide figures in Scotland we had 55. So we have had a relative success coming from 137 to 55. It’s not where we want it to be. We still would like it to come further down. And also, I wouldn’t claim that all of that is due to the work of the violence reduction unit, although we have certainly made a significant contribution towards that.
And what was driving the violence here in Glasgow?
That was largely territorial violence, gang violence driven by territorial gangs particularly in the east and north of Glasgow. Growing up in housing estates where you became a member of a particular gang and you could lose your life if you moved from one gang area into another and weren’t recognised there.
And we looked across the world for initiatives that dealt with this sort of problem in the past. And we identified the Boston ceasefire in America, which had been used in Boston and Cincinnati and other areas. And we brought it to Glasgow. And in essence, it’s a carrot and stick approach. You have the large scale enforcement that I spoke about earlier. So you are coming down hard on the activity.
And what we discovered through that was that many of the people who are involved in the gangs didn’t want to be involved in the gangs. They had drifted into it because their home life, their childhood had been so poor. For many, it was the first family they’d ever known, the first sense of status that they’d ever had. They carried a weapon because everybody else carried a weapon, and before too long they were using it or carrying it through fear of being attacked.
And we used a series of call-ins to bring young men who are involved in gang activity to the sheriff court in Glasgow. And they were given an input by a sheriff who said that if they continued in a way that activity would either end up in jail for a very long period of time, or they’d end up dead. And then we would have a mother talk about losing her son to gang violence and what a waste of a life it was, then we had a former gang member giving a similar message about how he’d wasted his life being a member of a gang and how there were better options he should have taken. And finally we had a motivational speaker said, ‘If you wish a different way of life, here’s a free phone number. And if you pick that up, we will get you rehoused, we’ll get you into employment, we’ll get you into education.’ And 75% of the people who were offered the opportunity took it, and the other 25% didn’t have anyone to fight with any more. That was a very successful campaign.
Your question was, what’s the root causes of violence? We brought to Scotland the understanding of adverse childhood experience from America. Two doctors in America are looking at why people kept coming back to surgeries time and time again and finding that there was some root causes and a lot of the root causes were from their childhood. And they identified 10 particular causes that they identified as adverse childhood experiences, such as drug taking in a family, breakdown of a marriage, neglect, childhood neglect, emotional neglect, parent going to prison, parents divorcing. There’s 10 of them. The most important message that comes from the study of adverse childhood experiences, the worse your start in life, the more likely your outcomes are going to be poor. But in truth, you can have one really bad or adverse childhood experience that can knock you for six or you can have six or seven and cope with it because of resilience, you’ve got personal or family wider, a support network.
We’ve focused a lot of our attention into that, dealing with childhood trauma and trying to give children stability, give families stability and getting other agencies to understand the impact of childhood trauma. And a great example is in education where we’ve done a lot of work with teachers and education authority, and Glasgow City Council took a stance that they used to have a form that you filled out, four reasons why a child should be excluded from school. They flipped it over. What four things have you done to keep that child at school? Last year, Glasgow City Council had one permanent exclusion. We’ve introduced free meals for kids at school, breakfast clubs, etc. We’ve made people understand that it’s really important to have stability throughout childhood, and that’s become wider understood in Scotland.
And there’s been lots of big events. There was one organised on compassionate prisons to try and understand. The information shared at that was that your average prison population has about six or seven ACEs. When you understand that, and once you’ve seen that, you start looking more at how you can prevent people from coming into the criminal justice system, what you can do to make their childhoods better.
And even when I was a police officer, I couldn’t understand why we spend so much money on punishing and incarcerating people for their life when we could spend that money at the front end, making their life better. Prevention is better than cure. I despair when I see politicians talking about building new prisons and calling for tougher sentences because the way to address our problems is not that. The way to address our problems is make people’s childhood better.
So where does all that link to suicide and drug addiction, poor health outcomes, poor educational outcomes? The driver of most of these issues, and there’s loads of academic studies to support this. Simon Pemberton, for example, from Birmingham University. There's a long study on this. The driver for most of these issues is poverty. And when the gap between rich and poor widens, then violence is very often the cause. And if you look at where we are just now, we’ve gone through austerity, we’ve gone through the war in Ukraine, going through Brexit, we’re now going through a cost of living crisis. So the gap between rich and poor is widening, is not surprising that violence is going to result from that.
And if we really want to be serious about addressing violence and making our cities and towns safer places to live, we need to address poverty and we need to address the gap between rich and poor.
You took a public health approach, which was quite novel at the time, and you treated violence as a disease. How important was it to set that straight early? The thinking that you can’t arrest your way out of violence?
Well, I did a presentation at College of Policing and I put that slide up and somebody stood up and said, “actually, you can't arrest your way out of any problem”. Well you can actually. If you have a series of burglaries or a series of street robberies in a particular area, one person is causing that. If you arrest them and put them into prison, you’re going to bring about a reduction. That’s not the case with violence. Violence is a hydra. You cut off one head and many more will appear. Violence is driven by societal issues and in order to address these issues, you need to take a far wider approach.
I’m very clear on this. The role of policing in violence is twofold. One, detection. The other one is suppression. And clearly, I’m not advocating that people shouldn’t be responsible for the actions that they take. I have 31 years in the police. If somebody has committed a crime, they need to be answer for that. What I hope to do is reduce the number of crimes that are committed. And I also support the view that victims should be supported. However, what I also advocate is fewer victims. The best way of supporting victims is to make sure they’re not victims in the first place.
Ultimately, if you look at the Peelian principles, the consent of the police to operate is based on that support of the public. And if you get to a stage where you know best or where you continue to suppress a community, you will lose that public consent. And I think you do so at its peril. And we had experience of that in Scotland in 2013, 2012, where the chief constable was called to account in parliament for the amount of searching that was getting done on an industrial scale. And so that is one example where I think we need to be very cautious about looking for enforcement to be the answer to our problems.
How did you bring other agencies on board? Were there any difficulties? Because I think there will be people thinking, ‘well, this sounds great, but my local health board, for example, they’re so swamped, they’re not going to be able to do this’.
Well, a lot of that happened prior to my time. If you were to ask the three of us who have held this seat as director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, what’s the most important thing, in fact, what’s the most important three things in violence reduction, we would say relationships, relationships, relationships. So it’s built on the quality of the relationships you can form.
My predecessor but one he talked about a coalition of the willing, so you need to find people of a like mind. And I talked earlier on about the head of education at Glasgow City Council, Maureen McKenna, hugely bought into this and made a huge change in terms of how Glasgow went about its schools. We’ve had similar really good support from medical profession. We created a charity, Medics Against Violence, and they recognised that their doctors and nurses in Glasgow who had become experts in dealing with knife injuries. And that’s not an expertise you really want to have, people from all around the world would come here to find out how to deal with knife injuries. And they were fed up with that as well.
And so they began educational campaigns. Began a particular programme in accident and emergencies in hospitals, run with Medics Against Violence. And we had some really good support from some of the key doctors, not just doctors but dentists as well, because they were dealing with facial injuries that people were getting inflicted with. We’ve had great relationships with social services.
To me, the most important thing is that relationship-based practice. No one agency gets recognised as being the people who brought about the change. And so when we are sitting in this chair getting asked about the reduction in violence in Scotland, we’re very keen to point out it wasn’t just the violence reduction unit and it wasn’t just policing. All these other agencies had a significant part to play.
And ultimately looking across America again, we came across Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles where they took gang members that had never had a family, never had a life, never had any hope or opportunity or aspiration. And they employed them through Homeboy Industries, gave them a job and came up with a slogan ‘Nothing stops a bullet like a job’. And we have brought that here and we’ve had an educational employment programme called Street and Arrow for some time. And we’ve got young people going through that who do a year with us and then go into other employers and flourish. And these are largely people who society had written off. And we have shown that by believing in them, giving them that support, giving them that leg up, they can become very, very quickly productive members of society, some of whom whose educational ability and drive to work has astounded me. And all they needed was a bit of encouragement and a bit of support and somebody actually recognising them for the human being they are and not the criminal person that they’ve been labelled as.
There will be people thinking some of this violence is inevitable. We can’t prevent it all. What do you say to that?
I think they’re 100% correct. That’s why we’re the violence reduction unit, not the violence prevention unit. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start trying to reduce violence. And you can get into other issues here. For example, we have to recognise that in general, violence is a male issue. That you don’t tend to see groups of young women running through towns fighting with each other. You don’t tend to see women at football matches throwing things at each other and screaming at each other. In our homes, whilst there are occasional female perpetrators, in general domestic abuse is a man’s issue. So there is something about how we bring up our young men and perhaps we need to have a look at ourselves deep into our hearts. We’ve all heard phrases like ‘stand up and be a man, son’, and ‘don’t let them push you about, get the first punch in and protect your sister’. And even the behaviour of men at football touchline, watching their children playing football is abhorrent. A lot of parents relive their childhood through their children and put a lot of pressure on them that shouldn’t be there.
Another thing that we talk about is bystanders. The sort of people who are out in a group in a town and they can see poor behaviour from their friends or they can see a friend becoming aggressive and don’t take any action to prevent the activities that then lead to violence and lead to murder, attempted murder or serious assault. And even people walking along the street who can see something that’s going to happen and sense that there’s going to be trouble, but don’t phone the police or don’t take any action to prevent it.
Certain organisations have approached us for violence prevention activity, bystander activity within their own workplaces where bullying is rife or culturally things have been allowed to go wrong. And I draw, for example, I’m by no means pointing the finger at Metropolitan Police here because Scotland’s had its own issues in this area as well. But the sort of activity that led to Wayne Couzens becoming an offender last year, he was known in his area of work as ‘the rapist’, but who took any steps to prevent his activity from taking place?
When you start looking at wider society and wider behaviour in that way, you can see that we can all make changes that can reduce violence. I’m not for one minute suggesting that we’re going to have a perfect society in the United Kingdom where there’s absolutely no violence, it’s been totally prevented. I think that would be extremely naive. But we’ve got examples here, and we can show examples where you can bring about a significant reduction, just by taking an alternative course of action or alternative approach and having an open mind to ways in which that might be achieved.
It's interesting that you’ve achieved such a significant turnaround and if you speak to anyone in Scotland, they will all agree it is a much safer place than it was in the early 2000s. But the unit is still running and still very active. So what is the goal? Will there ever be a time when you don’t need to exist?
That’s a really hard question. The goal is always to bring about a further reduction. Pre-COVID we got homicide down to about 60 from 137. And last year we’re 55, and we’ll hear in a month or so what our figures are this year and I think it will be much around the same. So there’s still a job to be done because 55 murders is 55 too many and 55 victims’ families and 55 families have lost the perpetrator that has gone to prison. So I’m not going to for one second say that Scotland’s addressed its violence problem.
Wider issues. We’ve had an increase in wider violence, largely because of change in recording mechanisms, but there’s a lot of violence and intimidation online. There’s a lot of sexual violence. I think it’s a really good thing that the public have more confidence in coming to the police to report sexual violence. But it’s giving you more of a true indication of what the level of sexual violence is. And again, a lot of that goes back to the behaviour of men, behaviour of boys and how we bring them up, to be a bit more respectful. So there’s a huge job to be done.
Similarly, Scotland’s got a huge type two diabetes problem, for example. We tend to respond to that by how we issue medication and how we deal with people’s lives as they present with type two diabetes. We’re not doing an awful lot to prevent it. Similarly, we’ve got this drugs deaths crisis. The focus on that has been on naloxone, safe consumption, needle exchange. It’s all dealing with the problem. It’s not dealing with the causes that are making people move to harm themselves with drugs.
So to me, these are a couple of other examples where your problem’s not your problem. And we tend to respond and society expects us to respond and our newspapers expect us to respond. And our politicians expect us to respond. And we are not a particularly compassionate society. A compassionate society would recognise the benefit from addressing poverty across all these areas and what a more improved society we would have.
My belief is that what we should continue to do is to offer hope, aspiration and opportunity to our young people, no matter where they’re from. It shouldn’t just be the kids in the more affluent homes. They’re all Scotland’s children and they all should receive compassion, empathy and understanding and an opportunity for hope. And I think that is one of the messages from the violence reduction unit. That goes far wider than just violence.
Arguably, we’re in a slightly different place now than we were in the early 2000s. Youth violence was the number one priority, the murder capital of Europe title was so damning and, you know, all the focus was on this issue. In some parts of England they face so many competing priorities. And from a professional perspective, how would you handle that?
Well I think they do face a lot of competing priorities, but hopefully through this conversation I’ve outlined its other way. That part of the success of the violence reduction unit was to identify that violence wasn’t just the issue. I shall be provocative here now because I like to be, but I think in general we got a 1950s approach to 21st century problems.
Right from central government, the way we’re structured causes problems in that we have so many departments. The budget gets split in so many ways. We exploit the third sector. These are some of the most important workers that we’ve got. Your drug workers, your alcohol workers, your homeless workers. They get the lowest pay. They’ve got no job protection in general. And we throw money at responding rather than throw money at prevention.
And actually, it needs somebody at some point, and I think it will come eventually, penny is going to drop that we can put our foot on the ball and stop doing what we’re doing and realise that what we’re doing isn’t working. And that for an individual with problems, they shouldn’t be getting pushed from pillar to post. One statistic, which I utilise a lot, is that 1% of the Scottish population experience 65% of violent crime. And these are also the people who have poor educational outcomes, poor health outcomes, are suffering from addiction and largely homeless. And yet we tackle that through so many different agencies and we spend millions of pounds by supporting workers rather than actually having a coordinated response.
And there are examples right across the United Kingdom where we’ve managed a coordinated response. But I’m trying to take that more strategically to say this starts at the very top. How we separate money out. And we could actually reduce the NHS budget considerably across the UK if we took a more preventative approach. We’ve had it, for example, with bowel cancer in Scotland, where we took a preventative approach to how people take tests and therefore we reduced the number of people suffering from that.
What I’ve found through 31 years’ experience in the police and also working in the third sector before I took up this role, there’s an awful lot of meetings at a strategic level. We talk about our partners, talking about working together, then going back into their own organisations and not actually working together at all. Or where they have worked together, they’ve done it in a very piecemeal fashion, it’s not been long lasting.
And policing is one of the huge issues here because there is no long-term approach in policing. I’m often critical of five-year political cycles that politicians want everything to be better in a couple of years for the next election, actually this is going to take a more long-term plan than that. The finger can be pointed at policing as well, because we get such a turnover of staff. Somebody is not likely to stay in a particular post for more than two years, particularly in senior ranks. Once you get to commander level, divisional commander, area commander, you’re only likely to be there a year, two years at most, and then you move on to the next position or you’ll retire. And therefore the turnover and getting continuity of approach and continuity of service is not very high. My arrival here, four and a half years ago, we spent a lot of money training one of the particular divisions in Police Scotland in trauma-informed policing. Every member of police staff, every police officer. A lot of the partners were trained to look at childhood trauma and deal with childhood trauma.
The individual who had the foresight to make that investment then retired. His successor came in, didn’t agree with that approach. And all that work was thrown out overnight. Now, how often do you see that in policing? Well, it’s not just in policing, it’s right across the spectrum. We need a continuity of approach, we need long-term planning. We need a different approach. We need people working together. We need to recognise the value of the third sector. We need to support them. I think there’s so many changes that we can make to make things better. But just seeing one particular crisis and not seeing the links between the others is one of our problems.
Niven Rennie, former director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, sharing his insights from more than 30 years in policing.
John Hull is a detective chief superintendent with Sussex Police and has worked on homicide investigations for some of his career. He’s now working as the College of Policing’s National Performance Improvement Lead. John, you’ve worked on the frontline for 28 years. Tell us about the impact of homicide on a family to start with.
Well unfortunately, I’ve been around death and homicide for a lot of my career. I think it’s something that you start early in your policing career and you realise that any death, homicide or not, has a huge impact on a family. I think the difference with homicide is that there’s that feeling that obviously something has happened to that individual and someone needs to be held account for it. And sometimes that feeling that it was preventable. Homicide in terms of impact on a family is actually quite narrow. I’m not devaluing the impact on that victim or their family themselves. But in terms of a group, it’s actually quite narrow.
But as we’ve seen in terms of media, any homicide can cause huge ripple effect through the community, and nationally and internationally sometimes. Really honestly, the impact on a family can never really be precisely understood. I think what it is when I’ve spoken to families is that sense of that there’s a hole there that we had someone one day, they’re gone now and that can never be replaced. That precious human life has gone, has been taken from them and sometimes it changes families forever. Some people never, ever get over that. And unfortunately, it will lead to many difficult outcomes for those families. So it’s hugely impactful.
And actually, as police officers and staff, what we come to work for is to prevent people from dying, prevent people from dying on our watch. And if you go right back to human rights, Article Two, we’ve got a positive obligation to uphold life, to protect life. Homicide sometimes is seen as, is a high value, as a very niche kind of subject. When you think about it and I think what we’ll cover is, is actually everybody’s business is business as usual.
You touched on it slightly when we were talking about impact. The volume is quite a low volume crime though it’s the most serious, but it probably creates the most fear in a community because maybe of the media coverage and stuff. Would you agree with that? Is that what you find in force?
Absolutely. I mean, if you look at the national figures, we lose about 600 people a year, 600 lives a year to homicide, which is a huge number, really, isn’t it? Some of those will attract more attention than others just because of the circumstances. Look at child death. Actually being an infant under one, you are the single most risky age to be a victim of homicide. And when you think about that, it really focuses your mind, doesn’t it? But we don’t actually hear too many times around infanticide, those really small children that are being killed. You do hear there are some, of course Baby P. And when they do hit the media, they’re obviously really, really concerning. But, you know, absolutely homicide is something that the public really worry about. And I think in the government’s beating crime plan, they talk about 20% reductions in homicide, and we’re on track for that. But I think we all need to have a continued focus, but absolutely has a huge impact.
That’s interesting because sometimes it feels like forces, officers are kind of being forced to do certain things just to satisfy a national level. More stop and search, violence patrols, hotspots policing, when those might not be the answer for the actual problems that are driving homicide in different areas.
I’ve always felt in my time in policing that we need to let our officers and staff know why we are asking for this information. But if you look at recent drives around crime data integrity, for example, actually the drive there is to clean up the data, is to have decent data on reporting, to really understand what is being reported, by whom and where, what the demographics of those individuals are, so that we can really refine the kind of problem-solving approach to reduce that work.
What I’d say to frontline officers is that data will always be used wherever you might be putting it into any database, I assure you, it will be being picked up. So whether you’re asked to police a hotspot, that’s usually due to drivers in homicide or serious violence in your particular area, you’re being put there for a reason. I do think forces can do a better job in saying why that is, and some do. In our homicide prevention framework, we talk about some police forces that are using that data, using app technology to put officers in the right place and asking officers to do intervention activity, whatever that might be, to drive those homicides down.
As a detective, when you are getting crimes and homicides in, how often were you looking at them and looking at the build-up to it and thinking ‘we could have prevented this at certain stages’ or ‘we may have been able to prevent them’. You can never predict I suppose.
So I think, I think every homicide is preventable. And that’s a difficult thing for policing to kind of try and deal with. Mistakes can be made. But I do think we can do more with data to make sure that we are harnessing our resource. Finite resource, let’s be frank about it. Forces up and down the country are having real challenges when it comes to funding and they always will have. So making sure that that right resource, highly trained resource with the right equipment is in the right place at the right time, I think is a fundamental thing.
So yeah, I do think a good few homicides are preventable. As somebody who worked previously in the professional standards department, I have probably seen cases where unfortunately I think we could have done better interventions that would have perhaps had a different outcome. And I think actually, if I was to boil it down to one thing, particularly working in multi-agency environments, it’s to have that professional curiosity. So if we’re in a group of five and we’re all thinking the same, we’re going to get one result, aren’t we? If someone has the courage to say, ‘Well, I’m not actually sure about that decision, I don’t think they’re medium, I think they’re high, and I think we should think about that again.’ That to me is a nirvana approach. It’s where we need to be.
So let me then play the role of a response cop, because I think a lot of them might say ‘That sounds great, but I book on at two, and I am answering grade ones, I grades, immediate calls from then until 10 at night. Where do I get the time to do these bits and pieces that we’ve mentioned that can prevent homicide?’
Between two and 10 at night, because what you’re doing is homicide prevention. So give me an example of one of those calls.
So let’s say we’ve got a burglary.
Burglary will usually, they very, very often will be property related. Yeah, but sometimes you will get creeper burglaries and sometimes very, very rarely that offending will escalate into a place where we don’t want it in terms of serious violence and homicide. So you go to that burglary and you do a good job and you either catch the offender or you don’t. But you do a good job in terms of crime data integrity, you take the MO down correctly. You understand how they’ve got in, how they’ve got out. You make sure that there’s CSI opportunities. So you do the best job you can do at that one burglary, we get an intervention that captures an offender that then puts them behind bars that will stop that escalation that may have ended up in a homicide.
I wonder when you are a detective and you get some of these jobs in, for want of a better word, and some of them are really horrific what’s happened to people. What is the impact on you? Even just getting the initial details of what’s gone on and then knowing that you’re going to have to lead that family through the most horrific point in their life probably, and be so determined to make sure that you get them a positive outcome at the end of it.
I think that’s a really good point. Having been involved in many murder inquiries over my time, I’ve seen the impact on people. If you just think about a homicide, you’ve got a scene. Its’s usually traumatic, can be traumatic. You’ve either got a premises to deal with, with a family, neighbours, the CSIs, the crime scene investigators that go in there are exposed to an awful lot of trauma. That body would then go to the mortuary and a post-mortem will be done. So a Home Office pathologist and the investigative team will be there. They’re exposed to an awful lot of trauma there.
So as an ex-interviewing officer, it was normal practice for us to go and see the scene of a homicide so that we can picture it in our minds so that when we interview a suspect, we understand it. I will remember some of those scenes until the day that I die, I’m sure. And you take a piece of these homicides with you in your journey across policing. The OIC, the officer in charge of the case, and the CPS lawyers and staff, all of whom are extremely dedicated, are exposed to an awful lot of trauma. The judge, the jury, all the people that have got to see and hear all these things, video, digital really, really out there now, isn’t it? And social media going out into the community as well. But as officers and staff, I think it does have a cumulative impact.
What I do think has really improved in my time in policing is the help and support available. And that’s usually available via forces and of course the College of Policing has got its Oscar Kilo programme. So I’m really, really pleased to see that.
The thing that I still think we need to work on is it becoming a usual topic of conversation in teams to say, ‘Do you know what, I need to take a back step on this one because of that last job, it affected me because of X, Y and Z.’ So you’re absolutely right to bring that up. And one of the reasons we need to drive down homicides, 600 victims last year or there or thereabouts, was 600 teams dealt with those cases. How many people in the sort of policing family were impacted by those homicides?
We spoke about the response teams and what their day to day is. But let’s think about some of the other elements of policing. So neighbourhood policing teams, for example, what role do they have to play in this?
So all of those business as usual things that we spoke about at the start. So you’re asked to go and do some prevention activity or high visibility policing in a particular area. You were asked to go and do a community street survey in a particular area. That is usually being fuelled because of data that a force has around a particular challenging area. And in fact, the Clear, Hold, Build initiative that I spoke to you about, without a doubt neighbourhood policing were front and centre in that approach. So no longer do you have a serious and organised crime team that manage an OCG, an organised criminal gang, line themselves. It’s the neighbourhood policing team that are managing that and serious and organised crime are helping them because they’re the ones that get the community intelligence. They’re the ones that understand what’s changing in the community. They’re the ones that understand that that block of garages over there is being used for drug dealing and there’s high harm crime going on there. So let’s work with partners to knock down the block of garages or do something better with them. It’s neighbourhood policing at the centre of that, not the major crime teams.
So I say their day to day business, when it comes to listening to the community and responding to those concerns and doing that in a joined-up way with your serious and organised crime colleagues, will probably stop people in sharp suits descending on your area as part of a major crime team, investigating a homicide which has rocked your community, which means you need to deploy more assets to calm those community tensions.
We’ve spoken about homicide prevention. What are the practical ways that we can prevent a homicide from happening? And if you look at some of the cases that you’ve dealt with over the years, presumably you’ll look back to learn from them. What are the things that are coming out as the ‘This is what we should have seen. This is what we should have done’ that would have stopped us getting to this most tragic of endings?
What’s interesting is when I ask you, the listeners, to think about homicide, what do you think of? Because you’re probably not thinking about infants or children. You’re probably thinking about adults and, unfortunately, knife crime or something like that. But the reality is that children dying is a real risk. All of those cases are reviewed without exception. Those reviews can take some time. But what those reviews will say in the majority of cases is there were opportunities to intervene.
Now, if you’re a neighbourhood cop, it might be the community expressing some concern perhaps around living conditions or domestic abuse that’s happening in that area. If you’re a response police officer going to a domestic, are you looking out for the child? Is there food in the cupboards? What are the general living conditions? Does everybody seem happy, healthy and being able to make decisions for themselves? Or is there an element of control going on? When we’re highlighting those cases to partners, are we doing that well enough with the right information and data to be able to present a case where we’re a little bit worried about this child? When a partner knocks us back and says, ‘We’re not worried about them. We haven’t got information. We’re not too worried about them.’ So, well actually, we are really worried about this individual. We really need us as a partnership to come together.
So that’s what you’d say do there. So push back. Because I’ve gone to houses where a child is sleeping on a mattress on the floor and I’ve said, ‘that's not right’. And care services have come back and said, ‘well, they’ve got a mattress’ as if that is alright. So you would say push back on that and say ‘no, I’m really concerned, that didn’t look like a good living environment’.
Yeah, I think it’s the circumstances, isn't it? So everybody will have different living conditions. So that mattress, was it clean? Was there other factors? Dog faeces, old food, a carpet that’s disgusting that this child is right next to? Was it a clean mattress in a corner of a small property perhaps? Those are very different things. So context, but what I’d say to you is back it up. Back it up with your body-worn video, back it up with your observations. And we talked about the quality of data earlier on. So I think we’ve all got a job to properly explain what those conditions are. After all, these are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They can’t speak for themselves sometimes. They are there most difficult homicides to detect because you’ve usually got no witnesses. If you did have, they usually can’t communicate with you because they’re too young.
So it’s a real challenge. I think, you know, be accurate, be evidence based. Look at all of the facts. Now I should say that some families will live differently to the officers and staff that are attending those properties. But is there food in the cupboard? What’s that gut feeling you get? What are those spider senses telling you? Because sometimes you can walk into house A: ‘Absolutely, we're happy here’. And it might be different living conditions to what you’re used to. You go into house B and there’s something telling you something’s not right. Follow that intuition is what I say. Ask those questions. Dare to ask those questions from those carers. What’s going on in your life here? Why are you living this way?
And one particular case that I can think of, a family was receiving an awful lot per month in benefits, yet the house was in squalor. So why as professionals are we not putting those two things together and saying, well, income shouldn’t be a challenge, but it is. So what’s happening? So what’s happening in terms of lifestyle for those individuals and how can we come together better as a professional community to make better decisions? We are in an age where data needs to work for us.
Listening to somebody and treating what they’re saying to you seriously has a huge, huge impact. The words ‘I believe you’ have a huge impact. Now as police officers and staff, our job is to pursue all lines of inquiry that lead to and away from a subject. So sometimes we can take a very independent view and go, ‘Well, kind of believe you, but I’m not sure. You know, you’ve called us quite a few times and I’m not sure you’re really telling us the truth. Is it as bad as you say it is?’ But failure to do that will put somebody off from calling us again. We won’t be able to put that information together. That behaviour carries on. Now we have stalking prevention orders. We have a range of things, safeguards in place that we as a policing community can draw on to try and prevent that homicide.
John, if you go back to the beginning, I asked you about the impact on the families and what it was like for them. Let’s end on the impact on you, the officers and staff who are dealing with these dreadful incidents.
So in writing the slides for the presentation that I’ve got coming up for the College, I looked at a quote that Alan Pughsley, who is the ex-chief constable of Kent Police, wrote in the time that he led homicide. And he said this. ‘The loss of life through homicide has a devastating impact, shattering families, affecting local communities, increasing the fear of crime and challenging the trust and confidence that the public have in policing.’ So we all have a role to play in preventing homicide. I would add to his quote that it has an impact on the policing family, too. So anything we can do to prevent it will, of course, help that, won't it?
I would urge anybody that works in serious crime and homicide, including all of the child abuse, to access all of the many and various support mechanisms there is in force, even if sometimes you don’t think you need it right now. And just to talk about your experiences and the things that have gone on in the last year will be of help. Now, some forces will have better mechanisms than others and some forces will make you do questionnaires and give you a score. I say act on what that is telling you. And sometimes, whilst we need to keep details confidential that are not in the public domain, sharing some of that story with people that are close to you, I think can be very cathartic for you. Having just been through a process where I dealt with an incident that had a huge loss of life, and that’s just gone through a coronial process now, that’s almost quite cathartic to have that end point to it. And of course I will always think about the victims and their families in that case. But having a point where you can say, ‘I’ve done my bit, the bit that I did on my watch was of good quality and I've done my best for those families and the victims’ I think is probably one of the things that helps me, whether it helps others, hopefully.
Taking the life of another person is the ultimate crime. In policing, we love to quote Sir Robert Peel and most forces will have some sort of nod to him somewhere whether it’s a building, road or a room named after him. And his basic mission for the police was to prevent crime. So when we look at a figure like 696 killings last year, we can all agree there is work to be done. But we’ve come a long way since Robert Peel established the police in 1829. And as we’ve heard, preventing homicide has to start well before the police would ever be involved in a person’s life.
You can view all the research you’ll have heard mentioned today at college.police.uk.
And it’s important that as a podcast looking inside policing, we recognise the impact on officers and staff who deal with these crimes.
You’ve been listening to Inside Policing, the official College of Policing podcast with me, Antony Bushfield. Join us again soon for the next episode taking a closer look inside policing.
In recent years, rates of homicide have fluctuated between 600 and 700. There were around 300 killings a year in the early 1960s. Even factoring in population changes, that is a significant increase.
In 2021 the government published its beating crime plan which set out what ministers expect of law enforcement and the wider justice system. Since then there’s been lots of operational activity across all forces.
ACC Simon Wilson talks about developing a national problem profile and how we share the work that is already going on in forces to prevent homicide.
710 lives lost, 710 families shattered as a result. We in policing, we in our partner agencies are determined to reduce that number through the work that we're doing.
ACC Simon Wilson
Niven Rennie, former director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, shares his insights from more than 30 years in policing.
Ultimately, if you look at the Peelian principles, the consent of the police to operate is based on that support of the public. And if you get to a stage where you know best or where you continue to suppress a community, you will lose that public consent. And I think you do so at its peril.
John Hull, Detective Chief Superintendent with Sussex Police, has worked on homicide investigations during his career and is now the College of Policing’s National Performance Improvement Lead.
...as police officers and staff, what we come to work for is to prevent people from dying... on our watch. And if you go right back to Human Rights, Article Two, we've got a positive obligation to uphold life, to protect life.
DCS John Hull
About Inside policing
Inside policing is the monthly podcast for everyone with an interest in policing, crime reduction and criminal justice.
Each episode brings together voices from across the service, sharing knowledge and insight on critical issues in policing. Over the coming months, we will be discussing insights into digital policing and much more.
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Show notes – season two, episode one
ACC Simon Wilson, former NPCC Project Lead for homicide prevention
Niven Rennie, The Hope Collective UK
DCS Jon Hull, National Performance Improvement Lead, College of Policing
0:34 Beating crime plan
1:05 ACC Simon Wilson
3:12 Homicide problem profile template
4:05 Vulnerability Knowledge & Practice Programme
4:07 Youth Endowment Fund
4:09 Domestic Homicide Project
5:33 Homicide prevention framework
6:59 Operation Rasure
7:20 Vulnerability-related risks
13:55 Niven Rennie
14:33 Scottish violence reduction unit
16:58 Public health approach to violence
18:49 Operation Ceasefire – Boston
20:24 Adverse childhood experiences ACEs
22:00 Compassionate Prison Project
22:59 Professor Simon Pemberton
24:52 Peelian principles
27:25 Homeboy Industries
37:14 Trauma informed practice
38:13 DCS Jon Hull
40:07 Human Rights Article 2
41:48 Stop and search, violence patrols, hot spots policing
42:25 Problem-solving policing
44:20 Professional standards
44:35 Multi-agency responsibility
45:05 Response policing
45:07 Grade 1 – high grade – immediate, urgent calls
45:37 Creeper burglary
45:53 Crime data integrity
45:55 Modus operandi (MO)
46:01 Crime scene investigators CSIs
48:22 Oscar Kilo
49:05 Neighbourhood policing
49:39 Clear, hold, build
53:22 Body-worn video