British Rights Groups, Police Denounce Tory Crime Plan
LONDON — A BRITISH government campaign to clamp down on crime is coming under attack on two fronts.
Civil rights groups say a new police caution, the British version of the American Miranda rights, is three times longer than the one it replaces and will destroy a suspect's traditional right to silence.
Simultaneously, police are complaining that their law-enforcement role will be diluted by the creation of a ``citizens' army'' of neighborhood patrols.
At last year's Conservative Party conference, Home Secretary Michael Howard foreshadowed a comprehensive crackdown in the wake of alarming statistics showing a leap in the crime rate over the past decade. Since then he has likely satisfied much of the public that the government is taking a firm stand on crime. But now that the fine print is surfacing, civil rights groups and police are crying foul.
Secretary Howard drew sharp rebukes from senior lawyers and civil rights activists when he published details of a new police caution designed to make it more difficult for criminals to evade justice.
Adrian Zuckerman, a criminal law specialist at Oxford University, says the 60-word caution Howard plans to introduce next March will create confusion and enable criminals to escape punishment.
Sir John Smith, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, challenged a separate Howard plan to let members of Neighborhood Watch carry out regular patrols. He says unpaid special constables would impede police in their duties and expose themselves to danger.
Howard insists that both ideas must be implemented if crime levels are to be controlled, but the Labour Party opposition says the home secretary is panicking.
Alun Michael, the party's home affairs spokesman, says: ``The idea of citizens walking the streets at night in areas of high crime as a substitute for a police presence is very dangerous.''
Mr. Michael also dismisses the new police caution, which warns a person being interviewed by police that silence could be construed as an admission of guilt.
``That will obliterate an ancient right,'' Michael says. But Howard claims the measure will ``shift the balance of justice toward the victim and against the criminal.''
Since 1984, the number of reported crimes has doubled while the proportion of reported crimes solved has fallen from 41 percent to 26 percent.
Early this year, Howard, a lawyer by training, published a new criminal-justice bill containing a package of measures which, he said, would ``make it easier to catch, convict, and punish the guilty.''
As well as eliminating a suspect's right to refuse to answer questions under police interrogation, the new law would make it legal to lock up for lengthy periods children aged as young as 10.
Howard also wants parliamentary approval for the creation of a DNA ``genetic fingerprint'' register.
The new police caution Howard plans to enforce is three sentences long. The existing caution says: ``You do not have to say anything unless you wish to do so, but what you say may be given in evidence.''
The new wording is: ``You do not have to say anything. But if you do not mention now something which you later use in your defense, the court may decide that your failure to mention it now strengthens the case against you. A record will be made of anything you say and it may be given in evidence if you are brought to trial.''
The human rights organization Liberty assailed the expanded version as amounting to ``the complete abolition of the right to silence.''
Charter 88, a civil rights group that campaigns for constitutional reform, called it ``a violation of the fundamental right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.''
The Police Federation, representing lower-rank police officers, said constables might have problems trying to memorize the new caution.
Mr. Zuckerman, the criminal-law specialist, says lawyers for accused people could argue that the caution was too long and complex to be fully understood.
Howard appears determined to apply the new caution, but he will encounter stiff police opposition if he tries to press ahead with the ``citizens' army'' approach to neighborhood patrolling.
Britain already has 130,000 Neighborhood Watch schemes, but citizens are required only to be alert and report suspicious activities. The police have generally welcomed the approach, but they are concerned that assigning citizens a more active role in crime prevention would place them in jeopardy and impede law enforcement officers in their normal duties.
Sir John, the Association of Chief Police Officers president, says: ``People underestimate how difficult and dangerous a job patrolling is.''
He further warns that limited police resources could become overstretched if untrained people made dozens of unnecessary reports.
But for the Conservative government, which polls suggest is the least popular since 1945, there seems little option but to press ahead with the crackdown.
The Conservatives are traditionally a party of law and order. But Tony Blair, the new Labour Party leader, is threatening to make it a central issue in the campaign for the next general election.