'Scotland is far from being fixed' - interview with John Carnochan

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 10 May 2018 in Inside Politics

EXCLUSIVE: John Carnochan, the former godfather of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit, has some uncomfortable messages for politicians and crime fighters hoping to emulate his success

John Carnochan - David Anderson/Holyrood

Former police chief John Carnochan had no time for excuses when Glasgow was the murder capital of Europe – and his intolerance of defeatists has not faded in his retirement.

When he joined Strathclyde Police as deputy head of CID in 2002, murder rates in the region were approaching unprecedented levels and embattled chief constable Willie Rae implored him to do something about it.

His solution was nothing short of revolutionary. Carnochan could have organised showcase raids and dispatched mounted police with batons to try to terrify the gangs into submission, as police in other major metropolitan centres around the world do, but instead he did something few people had dared to do – he tried to understand them.

His Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) set up the CIRV – the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence – which brought together education, health services, careers advice, social services and diversionary projects to find out what motivates young men to turn to violent crime and try to change their behaviour.

Violent offending halved amongst those who signed up. In the space of five years, serious crimes of violence had also dropped by almost half. 

Homicides in Scotland are now nearly 50 per cent lower than they were in 2007 – but there is still no room for complacency.

“There is a danger people think Scotland is fixed – it is far from being fixed,” Carnochan told Holyrood at his home in the heart of the Lanarkshire countryside.

Politicians and crime fighters beat a path from London to Carnochan’s door when the murder rate in the UK capital outstripped that of New York in the first three months of 2018.

Calmer heads prevailed, advising that this could be a temporary blip and urged patience in awaiting end-of-year figures, pointing out that the homicide rate per 100,000 population stood at 1.2 in London and 3.4 in New York in the whole of 2017.

In Glasgow, around two people are killed for every 100,000 in the city – demonstrating that statistically, you are still around twice as likely to be killed in Scotland’s biggest city than in London.

But Glasgow is still a damn sight safer than it used to be, which is why Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came to Carnochan and his former VRU colleagues for help to ameliorate London’s concerning homicide figures.

“They seemed a little startled by the scale of it,” says Carnochan, suggesting the London delegation came looking for a magic tartan bullet rather than a complex and potentially uncomfortable multi-agency response.

“Everybody knows why violence is rising in London – it’s the gangs, the cocaine, masculinity, lack of policing, everyone has an answer,” he says, derisively.

“I said to them, you need to get past the crime figures. Stop talking about knife crime and talk about violence, and try to understand the patterns.

“It’s great that crime in Scotland is at an all-time low, but one of the things that we drove home was the crime figures are only a small measure – and not a great one at that – of the levels of violence.

“In Scotland, we found that only one third to one half of people in accident and emergency as a result of violence report it to the police. So, if we had 500 reported attempted murders, the actual figure would be between 750 and 1,000. If we had 1,500 reported serious assaults, it was actually between 2,500 and 3,000.

“The ones that didn’t report it to us had resolved to deal with the matter themselves, which led to more violence.

“Homicides is a known number, but we don’t know the levels and patterns of violence behind that, so my message to them was – look at the levels of teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, alcohol use, in that area because it’s not just about the gangs.

“I suggested starting at a borough level, like Lambeth or Camden, where lots of great community work is going on, and you will find the gaps that you can home in on.

“I don’t think they were happy to hear that stop and search is an integral part of stopping knife crime.”

Politicians in England and Wales, like Scotland, have faced criticism for the police’s liberal use of stop and search from civil liberties groups and politicians, who say it victimises communities and generates a suspicion of the police.

Carnochan agrees that stop and search in Scotland was too widespread and lacked the necessary focus.

“The stop and search that Police Scotland were doing was just wrong,” he says.

“It was misinterpreted and driven by targets to bring eight police forces together. It hit the target but missed the point, which cheapens the currency because stop and search is a very effective method to stop violence, particularly with weapons. It’s essential.”

Carnochan describes himself as “an optimistic cynic” – keen to dream the dream but scathing of plutocrats, bean counters and naysayers who say his own brand of justice is too complicated or too expensive to work on an international scale.

“The most corrosive gangs I’ve encountered are the gangs in politics, health, police and social work,” he says.

“They’re all on their separate platforms and if they don’t work together, they will work against one another.”

His model of preventative justice by treating violence as a public health issue doesn’t sit well with the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ approach to justice espoused by those most often found on the political right.

Inviting a former knifeman out for a game of pool to talk about his troubled childhood instead of throwing him in jail is presented by some as ‘soft justice’.

Carnochan said: “There is still this prevalent ideology that every person is responsible for what they do and when they do something wrong, they must be punished.

“Scotland still has one of the highest prison populations in Europe, but crime is at an all-time low. Is that because we put so many people in prison? I’m not sure it is.

“We have one of the highest suicide rates in Europe and we’re not making much of an impact on that.

“The answer depends on which media outlet you speak to. You will be attacked for promoting stop and search, while someone else will say we’re not doing it enough, and it divides people.

“In the VRU we told the story of ‘David’, a wee boy with a violent father whose mum was an alcoholic. When he is 15 and a half he kills a man and goes to jail.

“I would present a timeline and ask, ‘When did we stop treating David as a young boy who needed help and intervention, and started treating him as a man who needed punished?’

“It’s a real challenge because it will be different for everybody.

“Some people thought we were trying to justify the defence of ‘It’s no’ ma fault, I had a bad upbringing’.

“When we started talking about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), it wasn’t to justify David’s behaviour, it was about understanding David’s behaviour, so that maybe we could stop it happening again.

“The science is really profound about the dramatic effect that early years incidents have throughout our lives, and it can be fixed by, for example, having a significant adult in your life who can buffer some of those experiences.

“That’s why I read books to my granddaughter, because it will set a precedent for the rest of her life, and if you look at children in care, they’re not there because of something that they have done, but something that has been done to them.

“They’re already traumatised when they go into care, and we traumatise them again because we don’t address the trauma. We think they’ll be fine just because we have removed them from the abuse.

“Something like half of the people in Barlinnie are care experienced. Why is that, and why are we not asking that question?

“Lots of care-experienced folk say, ‘I wish you’d left me at home and helped my mum’, but that is difficult to do because it requires two or three services to work together.”

Carnochan is also a fan of the Scottish Government’s appeal to set up safe injecting rooms in Glasgow to stem the rise in drugs deaths, which has seen Scotland become the drugs capital of Europe.

The SNP insists it will save lives but Prime Minister Theresa May has refused to countenance safe treatment rooms, insisting the best way to cut such deaths is to stop people taking drugs – simples.

“I’m against legalising drugs for profit, but would you rather someone died or would you rather we supported them?” says Carnochan.

“It’s back to the ideology of punishment versus support.”

Carnochan acknowledges that drug treatment rooms will also require buy-in from the public as well as the Prime Minister, as some communities will instinctively recoil from a facility which would see addicts queuing up to take drugs.

“The Beatson treats people for cancer and if someone said they wanted a Beatson clinic on their road, they wouldn’t have an issue with it, but if someone says, ‘Let’s have a drug treatment centre’, there are issues,” says Carnochan.

“I’m not making excuses for drug addicts. They can be a ‘you know what’ and they steal, but at the end of the day they’re still humans, they’re still our [concern] – do you just hope they go away?

“A recovering addict said to me, ‘People in society think drugs are the problem, but to us, drugs are the solution’.


“For some people, it’s lack of aspiration, hope and opportunity. Inequality is still the principal driver of violence across the world.

“That’s why ACEs are important because that gives us some indication of how people cope with trauma, and Scotland is leading the way on that with the ACEs’ hub.”

Carnochan wants to see a greater focus on ACEs in Scotland and has urged the Scottish Government to consider the Nordic model of childcare which sees mothers and fathers share paid parental leave for up to two years after the child is born.

Once again, he dismisses any notion that such a scheme would be too expensive to introduce in Scotland.

“If we value children, we must value parents,” he insists.

“Six hundred hours of childcare is fine but that’s not about children, that’s about getting mum back to work.

“Let’s put children in the focus and pay for mum and dad to share two years childcare.

“I have a friend who runs a business who says immediately, ‘There’s no way I could afford to do that’, and I have to say to him, ‘Stop going straight to the problem and dream the dream for just a minute’.

“If you want to build a Rolls Royce but think you can only afford a Lada, you’ll end up with a Lada or something even worse, but if you design the Rolls Royce and work back from there, you will see where you need to compromise.

“Sweden is two years, Finland is two years, we see all these things happening that we admire but we don’t seem to be able to say, ‘we can do that here’.

“We send some kids to school at age four but in Finland they don’t go to school until they’re seven. Until then they go to formal kindergarten where they play outside, fall out of trees, get muddy and cold, and they don’t sit any exams until they’re 15.

“Finland’s schools are amongst the best performing in the OECD.”

Carnochan is also a supporter of attempts to crack down on Scotland’s most harmful drug – alcohol – by introducing a minimum price per unit.

He is scathing about the five-year battle by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) to kill minimum pricing in the European courts, insisting it was all about profit.

“Minimum pricing is absolutely the right thing to do, even just to make people realise that alcohol is a problem and we need to do something about it,” he says.

“The SWA is least affected by it, but Scotland has set a precedent in the world that says alcohol should be considered in a public health context – which isn’t a good selling point if you’re trying to push whisky in markets like Brazil, India and developing countries.

“In my personal view, the SWA were fighting against the precedent, because it’s not going to cost them anything in Scotland.

“Minimum pricing basically means you will sell less and make more money, which is a great business model so why wouldn’t you do it? 

“Scotch whisky is huge around the world, and it must be difficult for politicians who want to support the industry – but they have to bear in mind that the industry is about making money.

“They don’t have a national identity. They’re Scottish because Scotch makes them money. If Welsh whisky made as much money, they would be Welsh.

“When they closed the factory in Kilmarnock, which had been there for decades, there was no emotional connection to this Scottish town in a deprived area – ‘It’s not making any money? Close it.’”

Carnochan retired shortly after the formation of Police Scotland and never served as a frontline officer in the single police force.

He has looked on with dismay at the power struggles that have emerged between Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority, and reports of bullying in the force, but rejects any notion that policing in Scotland is in crisis.

“Bullying is a form of violence that I do not accept, but there have always been leaders and individuals in all organisations – not just policing – who are bullish and sometimes they cross the line,” he says.

“I have worked for some people who were formidable, and if you didn’t do as you were told, they would let you know how unhappy they were about it.

“I only met Phil Gormley once and he seemed like a reasonable guy. 

“Iain Livingstone is a really good guy, very competent, very thoughtful, really intelligent and switched on, and I admire him as a police officer.

“Steve House was dogged, resolute and had no time for small talk. He was the right guy to create that force.

“In The Godfather, when the mafia went to the mattresses, they got rid of Tom Hagen and brought in a wartime consigliere. Steve House was a wartime consigliere: ‘No negotiating – get it done’.

“Iain Livingstone is a mixture of Tom Hagen and the wartime consigliere. I’ve never known him to shirk a decision, but he is also thoughtful and understands the long game – and I don’t think he is a bully by any stretch of the imagination.”

Carnochan’s love of gangster movies is appropriate for someone who has done so much to crack down on gangs by using the same maxim so beloved of the New York gangsters – ‘Respect the family’. 

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