The Big Society - Get Stuck In!

As part of the 'Big Society' idea, it will be expected that the public take more responsibility for keeping the streets safe. This will inevitably lead to groups being formed with the express intention of stalking the streets in cheap uniforms and no doubt causing many more problems than they solve. Does anyone remember the Guardian Angels? They had a presence in London in the mid 1990s, but haven't been seen since. When the Metropolitan Police was formed, officers were often attacked by a public who took exception to being ordered around. Hence the notion of policing by consent. Any formal attempt to 'empower' the public will only attract the sort of person you don't want doing the job in the first place.

I do have great admiration for members of the public who risk their safety to help others. I have written about them previously. As a police officer, I am expected to act even when off duty having completed a 'dynamic risk assessment'. This basically means can I do something without getting my head kicked in or making matters worse. I would be interested to know whether my readers would take matters into their own hands. If not, why not? For those who would act, I would like you to consider the following scenario, and consider at what point you feel it would be time to do something, and conversely, when it would be an inappropriate intrusion on someone else's privacy.

You are on a train. The only other passenger on the carriage is a woman in her thirties. Two male teenagers get on. The next stop is ten minutes away. There is no guard on the train, however there is an emergency stop system to alert the driver.

The youths are well-built. They sit together opposite the woman. One of the youths begins playing loud music on his mobile phone. This goes on for a few minutes. The woman glances at them, but says nothing. She looks at the sign on the window showing that you are all in the quiet coach.

One of the youths puts his feet on the seat opposite. He then lights a cigarette, and shares it with the other one. The woman starts to cough. She says, "Do you mind?" to the youths. They laugh, and carry on smoking. The woman informs them that they can't smoke on the train. One of the youths calls her a 'bitch' and tells her to 'fuck off.'

One of the youths goes and sits next to the woman. He starts to talk to her. You can see she is uncomfortable. She stands up and moves up the carriage towards you and sits down. They follow her, and sit each side of her. You notice one of them is drinking lager. One of them puts his arm around her shoulder. She shrugs him off, and tries to get up, but is pushed back down. He tries to kiss her, but she manages to fight him off. She breaks free, and runs down the train chased by the youths and out of your sight.

The train stops at the next station. You see the teenagers get off and run towards a nearby estate. You see the woman being led of the train by a man in a suit. He is using his mobile phone. She looks distressed. The train pulls away, and you go back to your paper.


Anonymous said...

An interesting scenario, not uncommon I suspect and very difficult to answer. Whatever the response it is likely to escalate into an assault situation. But lets have a go at some first thoughts. I think I would be looking to see if the carriage was fitted with cctv. I would be getting my mobile ready to dial 999 and try and get a message to BTP at the point where the woman was being harrassed and at the same time clocked how near I was to the alarm handle. Being the age I am and probable coward through and through, trying to reason with them would be the only other option, hoping that there was cctv on the train and did they really want to end up on Crimewatch UK?

The World Weary Detective said...

That sounds like an ideal solution. You have acted without actually getting 'hands on'. The ideal solution is to prevent assault, as you say, or the situation becoming more serious in any other way.

Matt Walton said...

I'd probably be backing her up when they start smoking, because I really can't stand people smoking when there are no smoking signs (and everyone should know about trains by now, and should not be smoking anywhere at all anyway because it's a stupid thing to do).

If it comes to the point of feeling physically threatened, an advantage of being in a train carriage is that they're going to find it tricky to get behind me, so I can retreat to an emergency handle so at least the driver knows something's going on.

I'm also 6'5", so have a certain physical presence about me. Aikido training is supposed to help with this stuff too, but I know better than to think I'm invincible. As my instructors have said, the best fight is the one you don't have. But I also wouldn't sit there and let that happen to that woman without trying to intervene.

mitchell-images said...

Ok, On the face of it this seems like a no brainer. I was brought up to know right from wrong. However experience has taught me that despite this.... intervention in situations like this is a mine field. Years ago, I saw a couple arguing. They guy lost the plot and started hitting the girl. This continued untill the girl was on the ground. Watching this unfold, I face a similar dilemma to the one in the scenario. I choose to get involved. ( I too have a certain physical presence, shaved head, Glasgow accent)I told the guy to stop. I tried to reason with him. Eventualy, I pulled the guy off the girl. The guy then attacked me. I defended myself. I didnt puch or kick the guy, just put him on the ground and held him there. At this point the girl decided to join in and she atacked me as well. Then the police arrived. The girl and the guy were screaming and shouting at the OB. Telling them to F*ck off ect. End result was I spent the best part of a night in the cells.
Hospital staff who treated the girl backed up my version of events (the girl was happy to tell hosp staff what happened, but not the OB) and I was released without charge.
I was a lot younger then. I now realise that in todays society, the smart person would not get involved due to fears of being attacked.
I said at the start I was brought up to know right from wrong - experience has not changed this. There comes a point in these situations where actions have to replace thoughts. In the case of the scenario, for me this would have been when events took on a sexual assault element. I understand completely, anyone who would not get involved. I would blame their refusal on society and the media, not on the individual. It would be interesting to see the results of a survey on this based on age. My money would be on the over 40's being quicker to get involved than the rest.

The World Weary Detective said...

Interesting comments. Matt, you decide to get involved when the smoking starts, which I would imagine is much earlier than most people - you obviously have self-defence training which might make you more confident?
Mitchell-Images: I think a lot of people would step in when the incident develops sexual overtones. Does anyone think the woman herself should have been more assertive?

Conor said...

Yes. Not presenting yourself as a victim is always a good idea. Easier said than done of course.
I was in that situation on a train 20 years or so ago.
Two yobs were bothering a woman. Before I could intervene, she moved to sit opposite me. I stood up when they started to follow. Lead yob thought better of it and took a step back, treading on his mate's foot in the process. They spent the rest of the short journey verbally abusing each other.

k said...

there is no right or wrong way to handle this situation. but i can tell you a similar situation i was involved in, and how i handled it. I was on a train, one of the intercity ones with a buffet car. i was in the quiet zone, minding my own, on my laptop, when a guy came in with a can of lager. he sat next to me despite the carriage being mostly empty. I eventually told him firmly but politely (raising my voice so that other people nearby could hear) that i wasn't looking for company and could he please move. he got up and moved to the other side of the ailse and pulled out a gun and started waving it around. one of the other guys on the train told him not to be so silly and put it away. When the conductor came round i wanted to say something but the guy was right there, and i was worried about making a bad situation worse, so i didn't, but after the conductor left, the guy got up and left the carriage. I later learned he'd gone to the buffet car and held up the barman with the gun, for more lager (needless to say, he was drunk). the guy ended up beating the poor buffet car guy up, before the train stopped at the next station. shortly before it stopped, the guy came back to our carriage, i had no idea what had happened, but they announced on the tannoy thing that the train had broken down, could we please make our way to the station front where there would be buses. we got off, walked to the station front and i was ahead of the guy, and i saw a police officer, walked quickly to her and tried to tell her. she said, "I know", and ushered me quickly through the waiting room - at which point i saw about 20 burly police officers and the penny dropped - the train hadn't broken down at all! I looked back in time to see the guy being jumped on, and he was then taken away and we all piled back onto the train.

the part that shocked me, and saddened me too, was that out of the 5 or 6 people in my carriage, i was the only one to go to court to give evidence as to what had happened. I later learned that the poor lad who had been beaten up (we weren't allowed to talk at the court, we were kept seperate but we passed outside the courtroom and he whispered "thank you" to me, for testifying) hadn't gone back to work since then, he was too scared.

Oh and the gun turned out to be a fake. not that any of us knew that.

i guess what i'm trying to say is that none of us know how we're ever going to react in a situation like that. i always thought i'd be a 'have-a-go-er' but when it came down to it i froze and played it safe. I like to think I'd do something like gone and asked the lady if she was okay, but like i said.. you never truly know.

k said...

oh, forgot to say. the guy was found guilty, although i don't know what sort of sentence he got. i know it was custodial.

The World Weary Detective said...

Really interesting story K. I think that anyone who tries to 'have a go' with someone potentially in possession of a gun would really need to be acting to save life and nothing else. The giving evidence at court is a whole different kettle of fish which I'll blog about soon...

k said...

exactly. and for the record, I'm a woman, without any self defence skills, and i know nothing about guns other than what i've seen on the box - so no, i wasn't about to try anything so stupid as jumping the guy, who was considerably bigger than me!!!

be interesting to see what you have to say about giving evidence - I look forward to reading that. :)

Blue Eyes said...

Why not just give anyone who wants it a basic understanding of the law and some safety advice? You could call them "Special Constables".

The World Weary Detective said...

Specials are very very strange people...