Scottish Violence Reduction Unit

Choices: A personal reflection by Brenda Bradley, Police Inspector at the SVRU

Scotland has been in lockdown for over 10 weeks now, that’s 10 weeks of our ‘normal’ way of life having been restricted, particularly in terms of social interaction and activities. We have been confined to our homes with the consequences of breaking lockdown repeated like a mantra – Stay home – Stay Safe – Save lives. Our own lives included.

Covid-19 is an invisible attacker with its impact ranging from mild to fatal, with plans to manage and control its reach to ensure a continuation of ‘life as we know it’.

What has really struck me about Covid-19 are the consequences of it, especially the consequences which are not visible until it’s too late. By this I mean if we all chose to breach lockdown and disregard the health advice around washing our hands and socially distancing, then we wouldn’t be able to see the damage we’re doing by infecting others – we would cause others and ourselves, serious consequences.

Before lockdown I spoke with a number of long-term prisoners about their time in prison and the impact it has had on them. One comment which stuck with me was around surroundings:

You could live in a 5-Star hotel with all the luxuries, but if you couldn’t leave that hotel or do what you wanted, it would soon feel like a prison“.

None of us, including me, could possibly have foreseen at that time just how relevant this observation was, as just a few weeks afterwards all of us were essentially, “locked up”. Whilst there’s many differences between being confined to a spacious home with access to a garden and being in a small property with no access to any outdoor space, and for victims in coercive or violent relationships being locked down with an abusive partner, social isolation will make that even more challenging.

My role at the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit involves looking beyond what is apparent to find what is hidden or obscured. People get drawn into violence for a number of reasons and I see that not all of them are deliberate. I have seen from my work that some perpetrators of violence have lacked understanding about the implications and effects their actions will have on others. However, at first glance it may appear a simple choice between making a good or a poor decision, but what if in some cases, choices are limited to,

“I had two options, either end up dead or end up in jail”.

I know that during lockdown, most of us have had more choices than these and that having choices is something the majority of us here in the UK take for granted. But there are others for whom choices seem, or are limited to, life or death. Stay at home during lockdown to reduce the risk of passing the virus on, or break lockdown and deal with the invisible consequences you cannot see.

Now that lockdown has established itself in our psyches and societally another aspect is emerging… That of ‘disconnect’ and ‘other’. One of the prisoners I spoke with talked about how they felt prison enabled them to recover from addiction and being involved in violence:

Something or someone that people would ignore and step over in the street“.

Daily, we saw people begging on our streets with shelters tentatively placed in abandoned shop doorways which many of us will have looked at but didn’t “see”. A lot of us would walk away from these situations as we may not have been able to deal with it and I think this concept of ‘other’ has now crept into our trips to the supermarket or walking down the street for our daily exercise. We will catch each other’s eye with a vague suspicion or ignore each other entirely – no eye contact, no connection, no interaction… we walk around each other to avoid completely.

In contrast we came out and ‘clapped for carers’ each Thursday evening – the health and care staff, key workers, supermarket staff – those keeping the invisible infrastructure going – gas, electricity, sewers… Invisible, but absolutely necessary to ensure life can continue in a form of normality.

Lockdown is being lifted in phased stages, but I wonder about the long-term impact of this situation. Whilst it will be a readjustment process for all of us, will society also change? Will we look at the consequences of our actions? Will we continue to step back and give people space? Will we stop stockpiling essential items to ensure there is enough for all? And how will we re-connect and stop treating each other as something to be avoided?

These seem obvious choices that do not require even a second thought, but choices are not created equally including for some of those perpetrating violence. Whilst this might reflect how we can sometimes view the perpetrators of violence, when someone wants to break away from the cycle of violence and from negative and offending behaviours, they face challenges – exclusion, consideration and seeking help and support to see there are indeed more than two choices for both them and their families. It is easy to say, “Surely if they can see they hurt people they wouldn’t pick up a weapon or act violently?” but that is borne from having choices. When you have experienced repeated trauma, violence and always having to be on guard, it changes your thought processes in ways that are alien to those of us who do have choices – as foreign as it has been for the majority of us to get our heads around lockdown.

For me, there seems to be parallels between some people not understanding the danger in not washing their hands and socially distancing, as much as there is in some people not understanding or being able to see the consequences of being caught up in cycles of violence. It may seem obvious to you, or I, but it is not always that obvious or as simple for others.

The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit works with everyone in a community as we believe in breaking the cycle of violence and in doing so, stopping a circle becoming a cyclone.

You will read this and have your own views on prison, punishment, violence and offending. Many will even argue that choices are not as stark or as limited for some people as I have written. Equally, you may not feel that way and some of this may resonate.

Right now, lockdown is extremely challenging, but I wonder if we can change things going forward – for everyone? And if we work together to generate positive outcomes for individuals and their communities, then society will be better?

I want to finish this with a final quote from my discussions with the prisoners. I had asked “How can I prevent interviewing the next version of you? The answer seemed simple:

“Let people actually know that they are loved and are lovely because I think that’s where it starts. Everybody has got something – everybody deserves to be loved and everybody deserves to have a life and not just exist. We all deserve to be loved regardless of how people have made us feel.”

Niven Rennie

Director

Telephone: 01786 896785          Email: violence.reduction@scotland.pnn.police.uk

Niven has more than 30 years of operational policing experience in the United Kingdom. He joined Strathclyde Police in 1985 serving throughout the west of Scotland in a variety of ranks and positions before progressing to the rank of Chief Superintendent. Niven previously held the role of President of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents where he represented the interests of the operational leaders of policing in Scotland.

On leaving Police Scotland in 2016 Niven took up the position of Chief Executive Officer of South Ayrshire Escape from Homelessness (SeAscape).

Niven was appointed director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit in July 2018.