Picture Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Killing the good Samaritans 

In the face of monstrous violence, we are losing control of our public spaces

Artillery Row

Last year a teenager, Tieran Carmody, murdered Max Richardson outside a children’s play park in Harlow. The former has now been convicted of murder. What had led to this senseless killing? Was it a mugging gone wrong? A gang fight? No — Max had made the mistake of asking him not to hang around a children’s play area smoking cannabis. 

By any reasonable standard, Max did the right thing. He did what we would want people to do in that situation. He didn’t go looking for trouble — he was a local, this was the park in which his children played. Tieran had been loitering around it for days, smoking cannabis and scaring other families. When confronted, he immediately lashed out, throwing Max to the ground. Not content with this, he went  to his backpack and took out a machete, and — coldly and calmly — stabbed his victim through the stomach, despite Max’s attempts to surrender. 

At worst you might get shoved, punched, kicked — or stabbed

This was not a scene that played out in the third world — it happened in broad daylight, in front of parents and children, in Essex, in 2023. It is crimes like this that figure into the grim calculation that so many of us make when confronted with individuals misbehaving in public. 

You see someone swearing loudly on the phone. A group of teenagers blaring music on the tube. A man smoking cannabis outside your window. Two men walking down the road, drunkenly singing, tearing branches off bushes in peoples gardens. Do you confront them? You want to — you’re annoyed, you’re angry, perhaps even a little self-righteous. But you pause, you do the maths, you look ahead a few steps. It’s awkward to confront people. At best, they’re likely to ignore you, sneer at you. Perhaps you’ll be screamed at, intimidated. Maybe they’ll just turn the music up. At worst you might get shoved, punched, kicked — or stabbed. 

You could call the police, but so often the behaviour is below the level of what police should be bothering themselves with. Who do you complain to about rowdy drunks or sodcasters? Even cannabis is barely policed, and in London mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing for decriminalisation. Imagine calling the cops every time somebody lights up a joint. And the uncertainty goes in both directions. You want the law involved if you’re dealing with a violent criminal, but do you really want the police harassing every thoughtless teenager? And even if police do intervene, eventually, what chances are there of a meaningful intervention?

Option 3 starts looking pretty good: just ignore the annoyance. You move on to another park, you suffer in silence till your next tube stop, and you avoid an upsetting and frightening confrontation. 

But this attitude, fully rational and understandable, surrenders our public spaces to the worst behaved and most disruptive individuals. Not only does this make everyday life less pleasant for everyone else, it chips away at a sense of wider social responsibility and citizenship. When we’re too scared to speak up for standards of behaviour in public spaces, they cease to be public spaces. They no longer belong to us. 

I don’t want to live in a society where we rely on some vast carceral mechanism to keep the chaos at bay. Like many in Britain, I look on in some horror at those huge US federal agencies, at swaggering cops with itchy trigger fingers, and the millions of men living their lives behind bars. But such a system is not the result of some American cultural eccentricity — it is the simple and inevitable outcome of generations of urban violence and social decay. 

Police need to be visible, proactive and closely engaged with localities

Keir Starmer wasn’t wrong when he said anti-social behaviour ruins lives. It doesn’t take many killings of this sort — random, public, delivered against good Samaritans — to demoralise a population and wreck civilised standards of behaviour. And for every such dramatic moment, there are a thousand other small blows — calls to the police that achieve nothing, subtle acts of intimidation, catcalls and insults — that chip away at our social order. 

There is an alternative to our present complacency and to the fully carceral approach, but it requires organisation and swift, coordinated action. As I wrote earlier this year, Glasgow’s successful reduction in knife crime is a hopeful model, but one much misunderstood by activists. It presented a carrot — gang members offered help with housing, employment, relocation and education — but also a big stick: harsher criminal sentences for carrying a blade, and even more importantly, a greater certainty of arrest. Police ramped up stop and search operations, they rounded up gang members, took them to courtrooms, told them they knew where they lived and what they were up to, and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Crucially, they involved the community, winning trust, and backing up locals. 

It’s this kind of approach to crime and policing, in which “community policing” and “tough on crime policing” are combined, rather than seen as alternatives, that offers a real answer. We need to, as former London Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey warned, reverse the catastrophic closure of local police stations, and, as Peter Hitchens has long argued, get back to a preventative, rather than reactive mode of policing. 

Police need to be visible, proactive and closely engaged with localities. In the end it’s Dixon of Dock Green who has the answers to modern policing — pounding pavements, knowing your area and the people in it, understanding and sympathising with the community you police. These skills and habits, increasingly lost amidst bureaucracy and centralisation, are only becoming more relevant in the face of urban decay. If we can bring them back, we have some hope of putting power back into the hands of law-abiding people, and taking back our public spaces.

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