A senior police officer has condemned deep-seated prejudice for making it acceptable to label the UK Travelling community “inherently criminal”.
Speaking after the three killers of PC Andrew Harper were jailed for manslaughter, Janette McCormick, deputy chief constable at the College of Policing, said attention was required to tackle the inequality and job prospects facing Travellers.
The three men were jailed on Friday for a total of 42 years.
“There seems to be a deep-seated and accepted prejudice that demonises people from the community. You wouldn’t call any other ethnicity inherently criminal,” said McCormick, also the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.
Media reports on Saturday carried criticism of the travelling community, centred on the Four Houses Corner Travellers’ site in Burghfield Common, Berkshire, that the killers came from, and stated that Henry Long, 19, the leader of the gang, had admitted his grandfather and father were also thieves.
However, McCormick said it was important to note that the broader link between crime and UK Traveller communities was not conclusive. “There is no evidence to suggest we have a disproportionately high crime rate around Traveller sites,” she said.
The officer added: “The reality is within the communities you have huge disadvantages such as health, literacy, job prospects. Like any community where you have significant disadvantage, that can be correlated with crime. But you shouldn’t link to ethnicity, it’s the disadvantage we need to have the conversation about.”
Harper, 28, died as he attempted to apprehend the three teenagers who were trying to steal a quad bike. The officer became entangled in a tow rope attached to their Seat Toledo and was dragged at “breakneck” speed for more than a mile along country lanes. Long, who was driving the car towing a stolen quad bike, was jailed for 16 years, while his accomplices Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole were each given 13 years.
The UK’s Traveller movement spoke out to strongly condemn the actions of the three killers, as well as their alleged lack of remorse and laughter during the trial.
Pauline Anderson, chair of The Traveller Movement, said: “Those lads are out of the picture now. PC Harper’s family will never recover. Nor will their families.
“There’s so much shock and horror that this should happen – and to someone in the line of duty. The alleged lack of remorse is unforgivable.”
Other prominent figures in the Travelling community used even stronger language.
Thomas McCarthy, an Irish Traveller folk singer, said: “PC Harper was somebody’s son. I don’t care what background you have, if you rob someone, kill someone, you face the consequences like anybody else. They don’t represent our community.”
But the fact that the case has been exploited by some quarters to stir up longstanding negative stereotypes has worried experts.
Colin Clark, a sociology professor at the University of the West of Scotland who has studied the UK Travelling community, said: “Some of the reporting on the case has suggested that being born a Traveller is a kind of criminal apprenticeship and that racist assumption needs to be challenged.”
Chris Kidd, a social work student at Bournemouth University who has carried out research for his MA into prejudice against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, also said that perceptions within the police and settled communities around higher crime rates were without substance.
Kidd points to a 2016 study in one area of Romania, which demonstrated that areas with higher Roma populations had lower levels of crime. He added that stereotypes – such as the alleged theft of children by Travelling communities – were prevalent as long ago as the 19th century.
“Anti-Roma prejudice and stereotypes seem to constitute a pan-European phenomenon,” said Kidd.
Another cause of disquiet among the Travelling community is the Channel 4 Dispatches programme which was broadcast in April, and which looked at links between higher levels of crime and the location of some Traveller sites. The programme, about which the regulator, Ofcom, reportedly received thousands of complaints, remains available to watch, despite concerns from some police officers and academics over its accuracy.
Other issues include the recent consultation on criminalising trespass, which would give the police powers to confiscate the homes of those suspected of trespassing – a proposed change which would affect many homeless community members, who pull up on roadsides and in other places on a temporary basis.
“It is a bit disappointing that the only work within government is to criminalise trespass – I can see why community members feel that things are very attritional,” said McCormick.
Others lament some of the media coverage of the Harper trial for asserting that being born into nomadic communities equates to being born into criminality.
Chelsea McDonagh, a young postgraduate and activist from a Traveller background, says: “The most damaging part of this is the wider discourse, by both the media and politicians, that Travellers are not adequately controlled.
“There is absolutely no justification for what those three individuals did, but for journalists to say that our culture is the problem, that’s really grossly offensive.”
McDonagh was particularly affronted by calls for the wider community to be punished for the actions of Harper’s killers.
“Some voices are saying their families should be evicted. Why should they be punished for actions that are not their own? If you do bad, you are always a Traveller. But my ethnicity is not relevant when I’ve done something good.”
Two of Harper’s killers reportedly came from English Romani backgrounds, with the background of the third unknown. At the Berkshire site where Long was arrested, English Romanies and Irish Travellers live alongside each other.
There are a number of nomadic communities living in the UK – the three most populous being English Gypsies, Irish (and Scots and Welsh) Travellers, and more recently arrived Roma – making up the umbrella group often referred to as the GRT communities.
In addition, there are smaller communities, including Showpeople, associated for centuries with travelling shows, and boat-dwellers, as well as New Travellers, many of whom took to the road during the Thatcher era.
Clark said that, for some sections of the media, the idea that all Travellers were born criminals would continue to prevail.
“This idea that Travellers are born criminals due to genetics and culture goes back to the Holocaust.
“It’s depressing to read newspaper columnists who suggest ‘Traveller culture’ makes you a criminal at birth. It’s just not true.”
But Anderson conceded that they needed to investigate the factors that drove Long, Bowers and Cole to commit the dreadful crime.
“What were the clues in the journey that those young people made? Our community should be given the space to condemn the crime, but not to bear the responsibility for it as an ethnic group.
“Let’s look at the complexities of the causes of crime, the causal links between poverty and crime, let’s tackle that. We are asking for an understanding that we condemn this crime, that it was morally wrong.”
McCarthy added: “We want to fight to be part of society, but you get something like this and it pushes us back so far. ”
McDonagh, 24, said she wondered what lay in store for her generation.
“I have put my head above the parapet, but it takes a toll. We are working together collectively, and we are countering stereotypes, but our stories are not the ones people want to hear about.”