Assessing dangerousness – a risky business
When I joined the probation service in the early 1950s there did not seem to be any major preoccupation with what might have been described as ‘dangerousness’. This may have been because there were fewer offenders under supervision that merited description as ‘dangerous’. It was also probably the case that there was no pervasive sense of living in what has become known today as a ‘risk-averse’ or ‘risk-obsessed’ society which operates at so many levels. In those far-off days we certainly placed ourselves in situations that would not be tolerated today by the health and safety authorities. We thought nothing of visiting unaccompanied homes where there was a history of violence. In a rural area such as Bedfordshire, where I worked, it was necessary to hold what were then referred to as ‘reporting centres’ in order to maintain contact with offenders on their own. These centres were held in a variety of venues such as vestries, village halls or official county offices such as health centres. These were not difficult to cope with during light evenings, but during autumn and winter evenings it was a rather different proposition. During my time in Bedfordshire, and later on in my career, I have sometimes been asked if I had ever been assaulted during the exercise of my duties. I only came near to it once and that involved being seriously threatened by an inebriated visitor to the probation office where I was the only officer on duty. When I eventually managed to make contact with the local police I was none too pleased to be told, ‘Oh, he’s still with you, is he; we’ve had him here for most of the afternoon and told him to go and see you to see if you could give him a handout.’ Co-operation was all very well, but this was stretching it somewhat! In recent years, I have been in situations where mentally disordered offenders have shown a history of unpredictable violence as a result of their delusions or hallucinations. I recall the occasion when I was asked – as a Mental Health Commissioner – to see
a Broadmoor patient to investigate a complaint he had made. The nursing staff insisted that they wait outside the interviewing room, but were immediately available if the situation ‘deteriorated’. They told me to ‘press the buzzer’ under the desk if he started smiling at me because this almost always presaged violence on his part. Apparently he had previously assaulted a very experienced forensic psychiatrist while he was on remand in prison. He had knocked him to the floor and when the prison staff came to the doctor’s rescue the offender, with a big smile on his face, said, ‘I was only trying to help him to his feet because he had fallen over!’ (see Prins, 2010, Chapter 3).