PCC Blog 106

Last week I attended the launch of a new police campaign that I have funded on the issue of violence against women and girls – now universally known as VAWG.

Each time I mention VAWG I receive emails asking me about violence against males; and, of course, there is violence against males. But what we are trying to do with the VAWG campaign and other VAWG initiatives this year is to respond to a groundswell of public concern that has grown more intensively over the past eighteen months or so.

This campaign – called No More – highlights the many acts of mini-aggression that girls and women face every day, not least those who take themselves into town and city centre bars, pubs and  clubs – the night-time economy. All the unwanted sexual comments, ‘banter’, suggestions or touching. The campaign is designed to start a conversation among men as well as women and between men and women in the 18-35 age group about what is and is not acceptable behaviour – and to say No More to what women should not have to put up with. We want to encourage women – and men – to have the courage to speak out. There are posters, leaflets and digital advertising as well as a short, hard-hitting video that was previewed at the Curzon cinema in Sheffield.

Some of the models in the campaign were volunteers who also helped with getting the words right. Their authentic voices are captured and this should resonate with those at whom the campaign is aimed.

One shocking detail was mentioned at the launch. When the models were being photographed at various locations for the posters and video, they experienced much of the sexualised and abusive behaviour the campaign is seeking to call out.

Scaring straight does not work

If we are to deter young people, especially males, from carrying knives, we need, as far as possible, a consistent approach. We need to do things that work and stop doing things that don’t work. Above all, we need to stop doing those things that actually have the opposite effect of the one intended and encourage knife-carrying.

If we are to get this right we need good research.

Last year the South Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit looked at some of this research. One of the things they found from studies in the United States was that people are unlikely to be ‘scared straight’ – in other words, trying to influence people to behave well through fear – fear of the consequences – does not work. Fear that carrying a knife may lead to the one carrying the knife being injured may have the perverse effect of causing them not to shun knives, but to carry them – to protect themselves.

This is what happens all the time in the USA with respect to guns. Each time there is a shooting at a school or college, fear leads many Americans to buy more guns not to give up those they already have – something we in this country find truly puzzling. But once a society is in the grip of this fear and the reasoning that goes with it, they will not be scared straight.

One conclusion to draw from this, therefore, is that we need to be very sure that none of our anti-knife-carrying interventions has the opposite effect of the one intended. I have to be very careful because I am asked all the time to fund anti-knife-crime projects that often have that element of fear in them. I am asked by people with ‘lived experience’ to give them grants so that they can tell young people in lurid detail about the consequences of being stabbed or stabbing another.

Last week, a new study by the University of Strathclyde suggested that the police practice of posting photographs of knives they had seized could have the effect of encouraging, not deterring, knife-carrying. Some police forces use this practice a great deal. In 2020-2021, the Metropolitan police shared more than 2,100 images of knives they had seized. Yet in the same year, 27 teenagers died as a result of stabbings in London – the highest death toll in more than ten years. I am not saying a direct causal link can be shown, but it ought to make us pause and ask whether we have got some of these anti-knife-carrying interventions right.

One study is not necessarily decisive, and the Mayor of London has a review into violence that will report next month and may shed more light. But it does fit with other research and sends a warning. Showing photographs of knives may lead some young males to conclude that more people are carrying knives than is really the case, and they need to arm themselves with the type of blades that are displayed.

The police sometimes issue photographs. But so do the media. We need both to be sure that graphic pictures really do deter and don’t actually encourage otherwise all we are doing is creating a culture of fear.

Hills and valleys

I was invited last week to see a training exercise by members of Lowland Search and Rescue in Sandall Park, Doncaster. I had given the group a little funding from the community grants fund to buy medical equipment.

I had always thought that the difference between Mountain Rescue and Lowland Rescue was the difference between hills and valleys – Mountain Rescue were on the moors and the hillsides while Lowland Rescue were down below on the floodplains and the flatlands.

There is truth in that, of course, but there is a far more critical difference which I had not really understood until last week. In a nutshell – as Mark Boswell pointed out – Mountain Rescue are looking for people who want to be found. They have been called in because someone has got lost or become incapacitated on some remote moorland. Lowland Rescue on the other hand are seeking those who either don’t realise they are missing – such as people with dementia – or those who don’t want to be found – such as the suicidal. In this work they are often helping the police.

Crucial to the work is an understanding of how people in particular demographics behave when they go missing, and here behavioural science plays a part.

In the training scenario we were looking for a woman who was depressed and had gone missing. Sandall Park was thought to be a possible place she might go to.

I watched one team search the lakeside area, two of them in a boat, while another searched areas of grass and trees. It was all carefully managed and done. There are even protocols for how to approach someone who may be depressed or may be suffering from forms of dementia.

The evening ended with me presenting some Platinum Jubilee medals for Volunteers. What I didn’t know until the following day was that just before the team went home a call came through and they were asked to help find a missing person.

Bravery awards

I also attended the first South Yorkshire Police Federation Bravery Awards. The federation represents the rank and file police officers. There were five awards for brave acts (including one brave dog and his handler) and then two surprise awards for people who had been an inspiration to their colleagues.

It was a humbling experience to hear the stories of what some SYP officers had done for the sake of the public that involved them putting themselves in harms way. I presented an award, for example, to four officers – PCs Beth Hindley, Lynsey Kingston, Andy Glover and Rich Hall – who had tried to prevent a man dowsing his house and himself with petrol. He threw petrol at the officers as well and finally ignited everything. The Fire Service arrived and put out the blaze but sadly the man died.

What came across during the evening was the way all the officers played down their role. This was what any of their colleagues would have done, they said. And it was just ‘all in a day’s work’. Well, perhaps it was, but to those of us who look at this from the outside it seemed like amazing bravery and anything but every day.

These are not stories we hear very often. Perhaps we should.

Stay safe and well.