Where policing ends and universities begin

As managers of student services, we rely on effective joint-working with the police in complex cases – such as when a student is arrested for a serious crime, or when one student alleges they have been assaulted by another.  The work of the police in cases like this is not easy, or something I’ve ever wanted to take off their hands.  However, whether those of us in higher education are ready or not, we are seeing a shift of the boundary between police work and the realm of universities.

A few years ago, when a student – or, indeed, any non-student – was arrested and released on police bail, particularly for an offence such as domestic violence, it was common for the individual to have specific bail conditions imposed on them. Bail conditions might explicitly prohibit the person from having contact with the alleged victim of the crime or with witnesses, or bar the individual from going to certain places, such as the scene of the alleged crime.  

Such bail conditions are not, in themselves, particularly powerful tools.  A person who breaches them may be arrested again, often only to be released again on the same conditions – since breaching these conditions is not itself an offence.  However, in cases where the accused is a student, bail conditions serve a useful purpose for universities, by giving us something to point to and reiterate in our own dealings with the students involved.

Students on bail

Consider, for example, a student arrested for the alleged assault of another student living in the same hall of residence, perhaps the same flat, or studying on the same course.  When bail conditions specify the student is prohibited from returning to the residence, or from having contact with the alleged victim, our job, as a university, is primarily to reiterate these bail conditions and take practical changes necessary to help ensure everyone complies.  

Perhaps we need to move the student to another hall of residence.  Or perhaps the bail conditions are best adhered to if the student is removed from our accommodation altogether.  Police bail conditions give our own interventions a structure and clearer justification.  

Also, given we do not have access to all the information available to the police, bail conditions give a useful indication of the seriousness of the alleged crime.  They indicate to a university that the police consider it proportionate to restrict the movements or actions of the accused.

An end to conditions?

However, over the last few years, in the cases I have managed, it has become less common for those arrested and placed on police bail for serious crimes to have conditions imposed on them.  

This trend culminated earlier this year in the enactment of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 which makes it more difficult for the police to place someone on police bail, particularly for extended periods of time.  Bail conditions, which must be necessary and proportionate, have become a rare thing indeed.

I would not argue against these changes.  Powers to place someone on bail need to be capped.  High-profile cases – like that of Paul Gambaccini who had his police bail extended seven times over the course of a year, only to have his case dropped – show why the law needed to be changed.  However, as a sector, higher education now needs to adjust to the fact that along with these changes comes a transfer of effort and responsibility, from the police to universities.

Now, if a student is placed on police bail, the frequent absence of bail conditions means universities must rely on our own judgment on how we manage the situation.  

Duty of care

We clearly cannot assume guilt from the fact that a student has been accused of, or charged with, a crime.  Yet we owe a duty of care to anyone involved in the case and to the broader university community; we must what we can to manage any potential risks.  With very limited information, we must carry out risk assessments and judge whether to restrict the movements of the alleged perpetrator or suspend their studies.  

And we alone must answer for these judgments, facing complaints from students who are keen, as you might imagine, to bring in their solicitors to challenge any university restrictions imposed.

Our process of risk assessment is made more complex by the fact that the relationship between student and university is itself a knotty one.  

Students do not just attend classes on campus.  They live on our campuses alongside other students, they socialise in university and student union venues, they have access to university facilities 24/7.  

University campuses are also not straightforward environments when it comes to risk – with on-campus nurseries, students and visitors under 18 years old, sports facilities, public venues, dangerous equipment and substances, and broadly unrestricted IT systems and internet access.  

All of this makes risk management, when all we have is a potential criminal charge to base our assessment on, quite a challenge.  

Under investigation

What’s more, the police appear to have a new way to get around the new restrictions by placing a person ‘under investigation’ rather than on bail.  A person ‘under investigation’ will not necessarily be told that their case has been concluded, or when it is okay to speak with witnesses or others connected to the case.  Investigations might continue for months, sometimes longer, and the person ‘under investigation’ should not expect to receive updates from the police.  They may receive no communication at all.

From a university perspective, and to protect the rights of the individuals concerned, I hope the police will use their ability to place people ‘under investigation’ sparingly.  It is difficult enough to manage risks that a student who has been arrested might (and only might) pose to the rest of the university community.  If, rather than release a student on police bail, with or without conditions, the police instead decide to place them ‘under investigation’, our job of assessing the level of risk posed becomes trickier still.

There are many steps universities can take to manage these cases effectively.  Building a strong relationship with the local police force, having an effective data sharing agreement in place with the police, and basing dedicated university liaison police officers on campus are all key.  These steps make it easier for universities to access information about individual cases and judge the level of risk posed by an individual student.  

Campus co-ordination

It is also invaluable for a university to have a clear protocol for swiftly convening cross-university case conferences following the arrest of a student for a serious crime.  

After a student is arrested, different parts of the university – faculty, security, accommodation, student services, the press office, and the students’ union – will have a partial view of what has happened.  They may each have been interacting with the case, or with the students affected, in different ways and know aspects of what is going on; however, rarely does one individual or department have enough of an overview to act with certainty.  Cross-university case conferences ensure we quickly pool the information available to different departments and make timely collective decisions on what needs to happen next.

Clarity is what we crave in these cases.  It is what everyone wants, including the student accused.  If police bail restrictions are going to remain rare, let’s ensure police forces and universities are talking openly about other ways we can work together to manage the serious risks posed by a tiny minority of students to the rest of the university community.  

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