This story tells of an episode that occurred in a tiny village in Brittany. It is here, in Tréguennec, that we now spend much of the year and where we witnessed a series of events that brought feelings of pride and shame in equal measure. Although the episode is now over, thoughts about it resurface each time the man at its centre – I’ll call him Jean – walks past our house with his new dog.
As a community, Tréguennec is very French. It has around 300 inhabitants of whom most have lived there, or thereabouts, since childhood. It has a village school, a public playground, a town hall, a gardener/odd-job man and a clerk, and all are overseen by an elected Mayor supported by eleven councillors.
Jean, who lives alone, was made redundant in his fifties. Broke and hungry and with his water and electricity cut off, he started to steal food, first from houses in the village then from those further afield. During his last burglary he was caught on camera. He was identified and ‘arrested’ by the police who, on discovering his circumstances, took him to the Mayor and requested that the council deal with the issue and oversee his rehabilitation.
The Mayor, a thoughtful, kind and social-minded man immediately convened a committee. With money from the mayoral budget, financial and general support from social services, help and advice on how to obtain money from various state-funded schemes, and his household services re-connected, Jean’s life was soon made bearable and his thieving stopped. Then, with the Mayor’s help, Jean found a dog who he was soon taking on walks around the village and in the surrounding countryside. By now recovery was essentially complete.
When I learnt this story I felt very proud, in every way our community appeared exemplary. However, this warm feeling soon changed to one of shame when I learned more of the background to Jean’s arrest and how, as a community, we had actually failed him for years.
The effect of his redundancy was made worse when, soon afterwards, his mother, to whom he was close and upon whom he had heavily relied for everyday support, died. Without her and without a wage packet and seemingly incapable of obtaining state aid on his own, his debts mounted and his services were cut off. His circumstances were made worse, first by his fear of bailiffs – knocks at the door by social services went unanswered, and secondly by the loss of his ‘first’ dog, a longstanding and close companion.
In desperation, Jean started by stealing jams, later it was tinned foods generally; never anything else. People in the village knew who was stealing the food and more than one householder reported it to the police, but for years there was no serious attempt to help. Our close-knit community turned its back and, were it not for the intervention of the Mayor, his committee and social services, Jean might well have died.
Jean’s experience has taught me a lesson. When I originally heard that, by dint of the officer’s discretion, the proper legal procedures had been bypassed, I was angry. Jean had repeatedly burgled, two people at least had complained to the police and, burglary in France, as in the UK, is a criminal offence. Surely the courts should have been involved.
My anger reflected the position I have held for over twenty years – allowing such discretion was anathema. This view was based on three principles. First, a bedrock of the legal system is that those committing an offence should be judged and sentenced by an open process in a public court. Second, there is a risk of bias if an officer’s discretion is swayed by the offender’s skin colour, gender, class or influence. Third, discretion may fossilise bad law. If officers protect offenders from an aspect of the law that is misguided and so the breach is never heard in court, that law may never be challenged or changed.
I now see things differently. In Jean’s case, going through the formal legal channels would have involved delay and might have resulted in a fine and possibly imprisonment, all with no guarantee of success. In a small, close-knit community, how much more humane and effective was the intervention forged by the officer and our Mayor.
When it comes to police discretion, I have made a volte-face. In exceptional circumstances and where there are sensitive and competent officers, discretion is a valuable commodity. Jean too has made a volte-face and I imagine that it was not by chance that he called his new dog ‘Volte’. Some in the village say that it is his regularly walks with Volte, rather than the other support, that eventually pulled Jean through.
For help in writing this blog I would like to thank Carolyn, Charlotte, Claude, Annie P, Vivien and Rohan.