LAST month, PC Benjamin Monk of the West Mercia Police was jailed for eight years for killing Dalian Atkinson, a former Aston Villa footballer.
Monk, 43, had been called to a disturbance outside a shop owned by the victim’s father in Telford, Shropshire. Following an altercation, Monk fired a Taser at 48-year-old Atkinson for 33 seconds, more than six times the standard practice, and kicked him twice in the head while he was on the ground. Atkinson died after suffering a cardiac arrest in hospital. The jury at Birmingham Crown Court cleared Monk of murder, but found him guilty of manslaughter.
The court was told that Monk had exaggerated the threat posed to him by the smaller, lighter Atkinson to excuse his violence.
It is now known that Monk lied in his application to join the police. He failed to disclose that he had two previous criminal convictions, for stealing from his employer and drunkenness. Background checks at the time did not find them because they were judged to be ‘spent’ and removed from the police intelligence base. Nothing could illustrate more the perverse nature of this criminal-friendly practice.
In 2011, nine years after Monk was taken on by West Mercia, his previous convictions became known. The seriousness or otherwise of the offences aside, the fact he had shown a propensity to lie and commit crime was a powerful indicator that he was not suitable material for the police force. Yet the senior echelons considered this matter not serious enough to sack him. Instead, a disciplinary hearing found he had committed gross misconduct for failing to disclose his criminal record, and they sent him a warning letter.
Thus they dealt with him as if these previously hidden facts about his past and his deliberate failure to disclose them were trivial. They did what our justice system has been doing for decades, which is to misread the signals associated with so-called low-level criminal behaviour. It is the propensity to lie and commit crime, irrespective of the kind of offence, which is significant. Some may have judged Monk’s previous crimes to have been ‘petty’; nevertheless, five years later he killed Dalian Atkinson.
Examples abound to show that the offending pattern shown by Monk is not unusual.
Barrie Compton, with 54 convictions for non-violent crime, was not sent to prison for theft but placed on a community service order because the probation service persuaded the judge he was not a violent man. Just as his order was coming to an end, no doubt with all concerned anticipating recording it as a success, he befriended a 78-year-old widow living in the Chelmsley Wood area of Birmingham, and battered her to death with a crowbar. The recommendation against detention, like many others, was based on the naïve belief that the absence of previous convictions for violent crimes meant that the offender was non-violent. But the probation service has no special skills to make such predictions, and furthermore its own records make it clear that offenders, especially those allowed to stay in the community and build long criminal histories, commit both low-level and serious violent and sexual crimes.
We do not have to rely on anecdotal evidence. Repeated analysis by the government shows this pattern is common among criminals. One Home Office study of 397 murderers found almost 60 per cent had previously committed property offences.
What is more, the further offending patterns of those sent to prison, and those placed back in the community under probation supervision, are highly correlated (0.88); in other words, almost identical. This undermines the assumption made every day in British courts that some persistent criminals pose a lesser threat to the public than others, and can therefore be dealt with by means of a community order, rather than prison. The evidence leaves no room for doubt on this issue. They are indistinguishable one from the other in terms of the threat they pose to the public. This argues for a fundamental change in sentencing policy, which our justice system stubbornly refuses to consider.
Singapore long ago grasped this reality and as a result has one of the best crime control records in the world. First and second time offenders are dealt with leniently, where possible. Further offending beyond this point is met with increasingly draconian penalties. In addition to punishing the offence, this has been remarkably effective at reducing criminal persistence. Their imprisonment rate is 14 times greater than ours while their violent crime rate is but a 20th of that in England and Wales. Such figures speak for themselves.
What is disturbing is that the police were prepared to keep Monk on the force. His dismissal would have been justified even if he had not gone on to kill Dalian Atkinson. How many offences would there have to be on his record before they refused him entry to the police force? What sort of person do they want as recruits?
The question gains traction in the wake of the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March this year by another serving police officer, Wayne Couzens. Six years before he committed these crimes, he had been investigated for indecent exposure by Kent police. Despite being identified as the suspect in this case, he was not arrested and the police took no further action, and he continued to serve as a policeman in the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. In 2021, he exposed himself to two members of staff in a McDonald’s restaurant in Swanley, Kent. The victims reported the incident to the police and CCTV cameras identified his car. The matter was not treated with any urgency, and he was allowed to continue working. Seventy-two hours later he committed the crimes for which he now faces the possibility of a whole life sentence.
To regard some offences, such as shoplifting and indecent exposure as minor, and given a low priority, or ignored altogether, is a dangerous practice. The public have every right to expect the police to know that so-called low-level offending is frequently associated with other more serious crime. Had they acted on this basis, both Monk’s and Couzens’s later criminal behaviour might have been prevented. Apart from this, and important in its own right, to have dismissed Monks and Couzens was the right thing to do, and it would have helped maintain public confidence in police standards at a time when this is under serious threat.