The Guardian June 2003
Right there. That's where they got the Yardie guy. He was in that pub, the Jolly Roger, over on the corner of All Hallows Road and, although it's dark now and our van is racing, we can still catch a glimpse of the lamplit pavement where he lay with his blood pooling over the kerb and onto the tarmac street.
There were people standing all around, but it was one of those times when nobody saw anything. It seems like the men with the knives sent a message into the pub - "Tell Chrissie to come outside" - and for some reason (maybe he was stupid, maybe he was just too cool to be scared) he went out to them, and they slashed him 24 different times, tore open his belly and stabbed him through the skull on the neatly swept pavement of a quiet street in a city in south west England.
The inspector in the van says they never caught the people who did it. They tried. They arrested something like 19 different men including a former police officer - most of them Yardies from East Kingston, which is the original home of the Hype Crew and the Mountain View Posse and the Back to Back Gang and of most of the other Jamaican gangsters who have moved into this part of Bristol. But they couldn't prove anything against anybody. They just didn't have the evidence.
And that's how it is. The inspector knows it. Any police officer of any rank knows it. What see you on The Bill is not what you get in real life. Most of the time, most criminals get away with most of their crimes. The Home Office know it too. They crunched together their best statistics and analysed a hundred typical offences and then they worked out how many of them were actually brought to justice (which means a conviction, a caution, or being 'taking into consideration' for sentencing). And the answer they found was..... three. To put it the other way around: as far as we know, from the best research available, 97% of offences are never brought to book.
And that's the strange thing about this criminal justice system. It has power and, ever since Sir Robert Peel first picked up a truncheon, it has been gathering more. It has money. It is the one and only limb of the public sector which escaped the cuts of the Tory years. Even defence took a dip with the 'peace dividend' after the fall of the Soviet Union. But all through the years of the cuts, the funding of the enforcement of the law grew, from less than £5 billion in the early 1980s until, by the end of the last Major government, we were spending £16.2 billion a year on chasing and punishing criminals, most of whom were not Yardie gangsters but pimply adolescents armed with nothing more sophisticated than the sawn-off top of a Pepsi bottle (they use it to prise open Yale locks). And they were still getting away with 97% of their crime. The criminal justice system bristles with questions. There is only one that really matters. Who's winning?
An hour ago, the inspector addressed the troops. They were in the old police gym, 40 men and women in white shirts and black stab-proof vests, sitting on crooked rows of plastic chairs in amongst the battered punch bags and weight-lifting machines. A rusty bucket collected rainwater at the bottom of the concrete steps. It was very quiet while the inspector spoke, and they sat with their arms folded and their chins on their chests. "This is a really serious situation," he told them.
He described how the Yardies were being attacked by Bristol-born dealers who call themselves the Aggi Crew. The Aggis used to run the St Paul's area in the city centre, which is a magnet for drug deals, but a few years ago, the police busted them, and they all went to prison. Now they're out again and they want their turf back. A few weeks ago, five of them put on balaclavas and picked up guns and made a personal tour of the local bars - the Black Swan, the Malcolm X Centre, Lebeqs and the Caribbean Club - and announced that they were taking over. They offered the Yardies a deal: they could stay and work in St Paul's, but they'd have to pay a tax for the privilege. £50 a day for each Yardie and £100 a day for any business they were running.
The Yardies didn't like that idea. They met in one of the local cafes that has an illegal gambling room in the back, carrying their Mag 9 automatic pistols and their Brocock Magnum air pistols converted to fire live rounds, and they agreed that, first, they would not be paying the tax, and second, they would take on the Aggis. But one of the Yardies changed sides and went over to the Aggis (for a fee). The next night, in Badminton Road, he caught up with one of his former mates and shot him through the back of the knee with a 9mm handgun. The main man in the Aggi Crew repeated the message in the Caribbean Club, where he started jeering at a bunch of Yardies; he attacked one of them, a guy called Dufus, and hit him across the face with his pistol; Dufus went home and got his gun and came back and shot the Aggi (didn't kill him.)
So, naturally, the Aggis attacked the Yardies' street-dealing operation, staged some rip-off robberies, stole their drugs at gun point, and kidnapped one of them - they hauled this guy out of his home, locked him up in the boot of their car and drove him off somewhere quiet where they pistol-whipped him. And just to make the point that they were in charge now, two Aggis walked into the Black and White Cafe on Grosvenor Road and robbed every single Yardie in there at gun point.
If tonight's the night that the Yardies hit back, there is going to be blood on the streets. The inspector tells his officers: "The danger is that there are people out there who have killed before, in other countries." He tells them their priorities: above all, community reassurance; apprehend drug dealers; take firearms off the street; public safety; flexible response to whatever goes off. In one corner of the gym, a group of the officers are carrying handguns. For the first time in the history of Bristol (and for almost the first time in the history of any British city) there will be armed police on the streets - not covertly in plain cars, but overtly where the people of St Paul's can see the protection and where the gangsters can see the threat.
But the rest of them will be unarmed. The inspector tells them how to contact the special intelligence cell, to check car numbers and IDs; how to link up with the 24-hour charging unit who will handle all the paperwork on arrests. He shows them mugshots of the Aggis and warns them to look out for the mixed-race male with the burgundy scarf who shot and pistol-whipped a man on Saturday night. He has a silver revolver, his mate has a seven-inch knife. He tells them not to use their radios - there are scanners out there, so stick to mobile phones. "And don't self-deploy," he tells them. "This is about your safety as well as public safety."
There has never been a human community without crime. There are thousands of specialist academics around the world who have tried to put their finger on why some communities generate so much more than others, why some individuals are so criminal, why some victims are so vulnerable. Some thought that crime was linked to consumption: more goods, so less need to steal. Then they discovered the opposite: more goods, so more opportunity to steal. Then they discovered the opposite again: more goods, so lower prices, so less that is worth stealing. No theory fits. Not poverty, or inequality, or maternal deprivation or paternal absence. They all have some impact - big sources and small sources, all constantly shifting in power and in relationship to each other. It's like trying to map the wind - infinitely complex.
And crime control is just as complicated. Councils put up street lights: the night crime falls; but the day crime falls too. Nobody knows why. New York police clamped down on their first generation of crack dealers, imprisoned masses of them, but gun crime soared: the second generation were younger, more impulsive and they had seen what had happened to their older brothers. People carry credit cards instead of cash; mugging falls. They get mobile phones; mugging rises. The police chase around behind them. Governments hire more police officers to cut crime; the extra officers discover more offences; so recorded crime rises. Crime has risen almost constantly for many decades, and yet the criminal justice system now delivers fewer detections and fewer convictions than it did only 15 years ago.
An hour after the briefing, the inspector in the van prowls St Paul's, his ear-piece crackling with updates from the men on the women on the street. This is the police at maximum force - manpower, fire power, intelligence back-up. Who's winning? At the moment, it's quiet on the streets - on Foster Street where a man had his car stolen from him at gun point, on Denbigh St where they stabbed a man in the street before they robbed him, outside the St Nicholas pub where somebody absent-mindedly left a fistful of shotgun cartridges on the bar. The inspector cruises past the Black and White Cafe and automatically glances up at the roof of the council flats across the road. The Aggis were up there the other day, firing giant fireworks like mortar rounds at the cafe door, to oust the Yardies. They've fired them direct at his van too, from close range.
Tonight is just the latest crisis. This has been building up for two years. The night they murdered Chrissie Hewitt outside the Jolly Roger was more or less the beginning. That was in June 2001 and the police knew then that something strange and terrible was happening in St Paul's. There was crime bubbling out of the ground like swamp water. Some of it was hideous - vicious assaults and kidnappings - and, when they looked back at the end of the year, they found their 'major and serious' crime had shot up by 72%. And the ordinary everyday crime had shot up with it - robberies nearly doubled that year. People breaking into cars, breaking into houses, snatching bags in the street.
That summer, the St Paul's Carnival turned into a shooting match. The Burga Crew came down from Birmingham; one of the Bristol Yardies shot one of them with a nail gun; the Burga Crew pulled out their guns; the Bristol guys got theirs; somebody had a machete. That night, there were at least five separate gun attacks. Nobody even really knew what it was all about - might have been a squabble about a drugs deal, might have been a ripple from some turf war over in Kingston, where the Yardie gangs are locked into alliances with local politicians, controlling whole neighbourhoods with corruption and fear.
The police were ahead of the game. As early as February 2001, they had spotted the Yardies coming in and set up a special team to gather intelligence. They found there were Yardies crawling all over St Paul's, maybe 200 of them, some of them well-known in East Kingston as killers. Within a week of that first Yardie murder, they had pulled in 19 more officers to tackle the open drugs market which was now booming around Grosvenor Road and to target the Yardies who were behind it - who had been giving away crack cocaine and selling 'snowballs' of heroin and crack combined, expanding their client base. On Grosvenor Road, the dealers had started wearing bullet-proof vests.
That autumn, 2001, the police were all over them. They found a local guy was running a phony college on Lower Ashley Road, selling enrolment to non-existent courses so that gangsters and their smugglers could slide through immigration controls - 300 of them in less than a year. They set up a new unit to track their money, busted a greengrocer and a travel agent for money-laundering and followed streams of cash from Bristol back to Kingston - just under £10 million in their first year, some of it buying property in Jamaica, some of it funding new crack consignments to the UK. And they arrested hundreds of street dealers, something like 700 of them in a year.
By now they had set up a special unit, Operation Atrium, which pulled in officers from all over Avon and Somerset. All the divisional commanders lost men and women. They pleaded for replacements and eventually the local police authority agreed to backfill the lost manpower. It would take 18 months to fund, hire and train the new officers. The street dealers they were arresting were being backfilled in less than 24 hours.
This was a police force recognising a threat to one of its communities and defending it with all of the weapons of the criminal justice system, and... it made no difference. It was like trying to walk on water. Each day began with dozens of reported crimes; each day ended with most of them undetected. The police would arrest people; the courts would give them bail. They would deport people; the airports would let them straight back in again. One of the Yardies they arrested for the murder outside the Jolly Roger was a guy known as Mr C. He was here illegally, so they deported him. He came back; they caught him a few months later and deported him again. In October 2002, they found him a third time and deported him yet again. This time, he was slower to come back: he got shot by another gangster in Kingston. And all the time the Yardies were dealing, bringing in more users, who committed more crime.
Even when the courts did lock someone up, it was nothing more than a breathing space. The ones who were worth locking up - the 'prolific offenders' - came straight back out and carried on offending. Down the road, for example, the city centre car parks have just seen a surge in break-ins on cars, simply because one local lad has been released from prison and gone straight back to the life he knows best. (There's another lad down there who's also a specialist in car crime, but he lives on the job: he sleeps in a multi-storey car park, wakes up, robs a few cars, goes out for the day and drifts back to base when he's tired or needs some more cash. He's been arrested more times than they can count, only to pop out of one of the multiple exits in the system and carry on thieving.)
The inspector turns out of St Paul's and stops in a street full of shops on the edge of the City Centre. He wants to check the cells in the Bridewell. At the desk, he ticks charts and signs forms. Down in the cells, he tells the girl who's been done for shoplifting that he'll get her a light for her cigarette, tells the man who is sitting in total darkness in the next cell that he'll be seen by the doctor very soon. This is the 3% in real life, the offenders who have finally been brought into the system. This is where you begin to see that the machine whose neck is so narrow that it misses 97% of the offences it is aiming at, then lacks the equipment to change the behaviour of most of those it does manage to catch.
Sometimes, it makes no difference simply because it is too weak to enforce its will. Most of the offenders who are convicted will end up in magistrates court where the bench may solemnly fine them. And 41% of those fines will never be collected. We know that, because the Lord Chancellor's department, which is responsible for the courts, checked the numbers. They reckon it would take four years just to collect the backlog even if there were not something like 320,000 new fines being doled out each year. In the financial year to April 2001, the courts wrote off £74 million of fines which they had failed to collect. The offenders simply shrugged and walked away.
It's the same with community sentences. The courts handed out 169,000 of them last year (and they are much fiercer than they used to be), but tens of thousands of offenders simply don't turn up to be punished. With the most severe - the Community Punishment and Rehabilitation Order - the Home Office's records show that 47% of offenders who were supposed to serve community punishments simply didn't bother. Of course, their breach was eventually reported to the court which duly issued a warrant for their arrest, but we know from the Audit Commission that 56% of those breach warrants were never executed. They just piled up on a shelf somewhere.
And then there's prison. At least with prison, the sentences are usually enforced; very few inmates now escape. But here is the radical contemporary critique of its impact: "Prison sentences are not succeeding in turning the majority of offenders away from crime. Of those prisoners released in 1997, 58% were convicted of another crime within two years... The system struggles particularly to reform younger offenders. Eighteen-to-twenty-year-old male prisoners were reconvicted at a rate of 72% over the same period.... At a conservative estimate, released prisoners are responsible for at least one million crimes per year... In terms of the cost to the criminal justice system of dealing with the consequences of crime, recorded crime committed by ex-prisoners comes to at least £11 billion a year." That is the verdict not of some maverick commentator but of the Prime Minister's Social Exclusion Unit.
The inspector ticks the last form in the Bridewell and drives back to St Paul's. And we drift through the dark together, the inspector and the reporter, surrounded not so much by the life of crime as by the near-death of the criminal justice system. In the dark shadows of Brunswick Square, a pimp sprawls across the front seat of a Mercedes, smoking and eye-ballling the inspector. Not five yards from him, there is a bright yellow sign, posted by the inspector, warning punters that their car numbers may be recorded by CCTV if they cruise the square. The pimp's girls are working just around the corner, standing there as thin as string and using the old graveyard behind the unitarian meeting house to deal with their customers. The inspector could arrest dozens of working girls every night: he'd tie up multiple hours of manpower to send them to court where they'd just be fined, and then they'd be back again, working even longer hours to pay the magistrates as well as the pimp.
The failure of the system is mirrored by the complacency of many of those who talk about it. The government will tell you it is hitting its key targets, right-wing pundits still cheer the idea that prison works, liberals twist themselves around statistics like beans running up a pole, to prove that all is well. The truth is that the evidence that crime is falling is about as solid as mist (see sidebar). Even if, behind the veil of numbers, the truth is that nationally crime is coming down, communities like St Paul's - always the most impoverished - are nevertheless pockmarked with streets which tell a different story.
There's a family who live not far from here with five adolescent boys. All of them are thieves. They all steal almost every day. One of them was at it on Christmas Day. Another brother recently was arrested and released on bail - he was caught at it again within an hour. There's another lad whose routine is to go out screwing houses each night - at least three of them. Every night. And they steal from here. They don't go off into the middle class areas - that's foreign territory, they'd stand out on the street, and they don't know the houses or the routines of the people. Thieves steal from their neighbours.
Those who raise their claret to the success of law enforcement should talk to the primary school teacher here who has to tell her ten-year-olds that it is not cool to carry guns, that the flash lads who parade on the pavement with the rolls of cash and the chunky gold jewellery are not role-models; to the parents of those children, trying to get to school in the morning without stepping on bloody syringes; to the man who says he can't reach the corner shop to buy a paper without being hassled by some toerag with a hood over his face; to the old woman clutching her handbag like a baby as she takes her pension home from the post office. The council street sweeper here the other day was stopped in his work by a guy who jammed a gun up against his head: it turned out that the dealers had been stashing rocks of crack cocaine in old milk cartons on the pavement, so that they could sell their drugs without actually holding them, and the sweeper was demolishing their business.
Most of all they should talk to the police, who really know who's winning out there. Those on the right might learn that a lot of these officers have zero faith in their zero tolerance gospel. The left might learn that something important has changed. Twenty years ago, this country's police were led by a generation of chief officers who had left school at 15 and learned their lessons in life from the army. Frequently, they were crude and unsophisticated. A lot of them didn't like hippies or lefties or queers. Some of them were racists. But a great deal has changed. Partly, this is about one of the great success stories of state education. In 1976, the Edmund Davis report gave the police better pay and far better pensions than anybody else in the public sector, and so - slowly at first - the police service began to attract working class men and women who were the cream of comprehensive education. They joined a force which was then battered by a series of traumatic scandals - ruthless corruption in London and Birmingham, the miscarriages of justice around IRA bombing trials, urban riots spawned by clumsy and sometime vicious street policing, the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry, Stephen Lawrence. They had to change.
Of course, there are still police officers who abuse their power, who are idle and incompetent and dripping with prejudice, but far more than ever before, there are officers who are neither the lapdogs of the right nor the demons of the left. And they are losing. It is not for want of trying. They work in a system that bristles with power, that is rich in individual effort and (relatively) rich in resources. Every day, they win battles and yet overwhelmingly they are still defeated in the war.
That's not because they are all idle or corrupt or racist. It's not even primarily because of the practical difficulties of their work - that most victims (55% of them) do not even tell the police that they have suffered a crime; that it is simply very difficult to detect an offender whose crime was not witnessed; that more witnesses now are intimidated and unwilling to come to court; that courts which demand proof beyond reasonable doubt necessarily release some of the guilty. The real problem is that these officers are running a system which has a design fault on the scale of the Maginot Line: it confronts a problem of infinite complexity with a response of gross simplicity. It approaches all crime with the same rigid routines - patrolling, detecting, imprisoning. They were born in the distant past; they are strikingly ineffective (see sidebar). Those antique rituals are themselves based on one rigid underlying idea which is equally weak: that all criminals will behave in the same rational and predictable fashion; that they will all be deflected by the prospect of arrest and the threat of punishment.
Conventional law enforcement does not fail completely. Its great achievement is that it regulates the behaviour of law-abiding people, who do pick up the signals it sends and react to them. Its great failure is in dealing with criminals. Think about those Yardies, about the five brothers burgling each day away. Conventional law enforcement rarely catches them and scarcely deters them. It controls them to the precise and limited extent that it can lock them up and incapacitate them - about a tenth of the 3%. But that's more or less it.
The government relentlessly ratchets up public expectation for law enforcement. And yet: "Despite all the changes of recent years, the signals sent out are ones of weakness in critical areas: too few criminals brought to justice; too many defendants who offend on bail; too slow to bring them to trial; too many guilty go unconvicted; too many without the sentence they and society need..... Far too many offenders escape justice, creating the ‘justice gap' between the number of crimes recorded by the police and the number where an offender is brought to justice." That is from the same government's preamble to its most recent criminal justice white paper. They put more money into more officers following the same rigid rituals. And yet: "There is very little correlation between levels or changes in funding and crime rates, or between changes in police numbers and crime rates." That is from the Audit Commission.
We spoke to a civil servant who has spent most of his working life in the criminal justice sytem. He put it this way: "The point is that the old Benthamite theory of a rational system producing results has collapsed. We are left with a different set of objectives which are really to do with pleasing people - the electorate, the civil servants, the prison officers.... The public and the press sing a contant mantra about putting more police back on the streets. It doesn't work. Same with long prison sentences in unpleasant conditions - they don't work. But they do work as ways of making people happy. So that's what we do." And we spoke to people at one level or another of every law-enforcement agency in the country and, over and over again, they came up with a version of the same wry line: "The criminal justice system doesn't catch criminals, it doesn't dispense justice, and it's certainly not a system."
Any government which confronts this reality is faced with a fork in the road: go down one route and increase the power and funding of the existing system in the hope that it may do a little better and in the knowledge that every new power for the police is a potential threat to the public co-operation on which they rely; or take a new route, recognising that a complex problem requires subtle solutions, and break out of the boundaries of conventional law enforcement in search of intelligent alternatives. Since April 1997, generally without public recognition, this government has done both.
It has made far more noise about its journey on law enforcement. It has taken the criminal justice system and shaken it like a Victorian nanny used to shake an insolent child. It has injected the whole system with an almost dizzyingly energetic programme of reform and used criminal justice bills for the hazardous purpose of giving it new muscle. But, behind the almost ceaseless flow of law-enforcement rhetoric, they have also looked outside the system. They have taken the advice of some of the most radical criminologists in the country and embarked simultaneously on a completely new approach, trying to link up all the agencies of social welfare to draw the criminal poison out of impoverished communities. The effect of this twin strategy has been electrifying. The great question is whether, as a result, the police have started winning.
In a small way, the inspector won tonight. The streets of St Paul's are quiet, and they stay that way - until two in the morning, when he has to pull back his officers, and the dealers and the gangsters will come out to work. They are working even now, around the corner on the pavements in St Jude's, and in their cars using mobile phones to find their buyers. The drug-buyers who have been robbing and burgling in St Paul's to find the cash for the dealers, have moved up the hill temporarily to St Lawrence's where they have been mugging the prostitutes and unleashing a mini epidemic of burglary.
Success is hard to find. This wave of crime, which has now become a shooting war, was almost certainly triggered by what looked like a law-enforcement victory: it was only because the police, through diligence and skill, arrested the Aggis a few years ago, that the drugs market in St Paul's had no owner, and the power vacuum sucked in the Yardies with their crack and their guns. The best available tactic for stopping the war now - quicker than arrest and prosecution - is for the police to link up with probation, using minor offences and intelligence to revoke the parole licences of the leading Aggis. That will put them back behind bars. For a little while.
The inspector has stopped the van for a moment in a dark side street. The radio plug in his left ear is babbling with feedback about Yardies and Aggis. There's another radio hooked into his right ear feeding him with reports of ordinary life on his sector. Somebody can't find the charging unit to handle an arrest. There's a 15-year-old girl wandering through the middle of the operation. The mental hospital has lost a patient, and they think she may be headed for the river. There's a battered woman and child at Trinity Road police station, looking for a refuge. The inspector needs his mobile to get the helicopter to look for the hospital woman. Another mobile in his pocket starts to ring; he's eating a sandwich; he can't read his notes; he reaches for the light, accidentally hits the siren and for a moment or two, we just sit there, wailing in the darkness.
Additional research by Tamsen Courtenay