The source of ignition

01 November 2017

Former detective John Carnochan OBE reveals where his belief in early intervention began, its importance now, and the progress made in shifting the agenda.

After his well-received presentation at the Unite-CPHVA Annual Professional Conference 2017, Community Practitioner caught up with John Carnochan, a former detective chief superintendent at Strathclyde Police and now senior fellow at the WAVE (Worldwide Alternatives to ViolencE) Trust.

John has a way of speaking that cuts through the noise and makes you sit up and listen.

As the detective leading Scotland’s fight against violent crime, he famously said that he would rather have 1000 more health visitors than 1000 more police officers.

A decade has passed since then, but he is no less emphatic in his belief in early years intervention: ‘We’re getting 500 new health visitors [in Scotland], but it ought to be 1000. That applies even more now – just look around you at what’s happening with mental health.’

He adds: ‘What a health visitor does is establish relationships with the people doing the most important job in our community and society – particularly mums, but dads
as well. 

‘Every politician talks about how childhood is so important, about how we can protect children – but we can’t help children unless we help parents, so what health visitors do is absolutely critical. It’s that influence on mums and dads, that relationship. It’s someone there at the right time saying “I’ll help you through this”.’

Is John concerned to hear that health visitor numbers are falling in England? ‘The most important question is always why we want to do it. If the answer is to save money, then that’s the wrong reason. If you want to set up the UK’s future, it’s by investing in something for 10, 20 years down the line.’


The prevention move

During 40 years in the police force, John dedicated his working life, and since then his ‘retirement’, to tackling violence – though it’s been from two very different perspectives.

In fact it was only after three decades working in Glasgow, then branded the violence capital of western Europe, that John shifted his focus from fighting fires to searching for the source of ignition. He hasn’t looked back since.

John was tasked by then chief constable at Strathclyde Police, Sir Willie Rae, to come up with a homicide reduction strategy. John and his colleague, Karyn McCluskey, concluded that ‘the homicide is happenstance. It was about the violence – we need to do something about that.’

In 2005, John and Karyn set up the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), and began casting their net wide to pull in knowledge and expertise from a range of disciplines.

‘We started working with public health people, educationalists, economists – people who I would never bump into in my job,’ explains John. ‘We started to look at doing things differently. 

‘We didn’t have a plan or a strategy, we didn’t have a goal except we knew we didn’t want to be where we were, with that level of violence – we wanted to change that.’

Coming across the work of Vincent Felitti, a pioneer in research into the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on adult outcomes, was a lightbulb moment.

‘It just made sense,’ says John. ‘It’s not about the language of “hard on crime” or “soft on crime” – that punitive response. We needed to start thinking about prevention in the same way health thinks about prevention; what would that look like?’

Over the past 12 years, the VRU has answered that question. In April 2006 it assumed a Scotland-wide role, bringing in a range of initiatives that helped cut levels of violent crime year after year.

With its fundamental tenet that ‘violence is preventable – not inevitable’, it changed the agenda, addressing the root causes of violence and treating it as much as a public health problem as a justice problem.

John was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal in 2007 for distinguished police service, and in 2010 was made a fellow through distinction of the Faculty of Public Health. An OBE followed in 2013. 

Even after his retirement from the police in 2014, he has continued to work in this area as an independent consultant and adviser on violence prevention.


‘It’s relationships, stupid’

Now, more than ever, John believes getting it right for children is paramount – and the key to that is human relationships.

‘There’s that phrase from Bill Clinton’s campaign, “it’s the economy, stupid”,’ says John. ‘But it ain’t. We’re humans first, so it’s relationships, stupid. Health visitors are already doing that – it’s their bread and butter. In establishing relationships with parents, they are supporting change, and in doing that they are helping to change other relationships – between mums and babies, fathers and children, and a mother’s relationship with herself.’

Is he frustrated that after so long beating the drum for early intervention, it isn’t higher up the public agenda?

‘It takes a long time,’ John says. ‘It’s fine to have strategies and diagrams and policies, but at the end of the day it’s attitudes. As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Unless you change the culture, you can have as many strategies as you like, but it won’t work.’


Where are we now?

‘Wales is leading the way in terms of policy around ACEs,’ says John. ‘They have an ACE hub, and we have one set up in Scotland now – there are really good things happening.’

The risk if we don’t get it right is hard to overstate, says John: ‘It will get worse: more people going to prison, more crime, antisocial behaviour, alcohol, drugs. If we don’t take the opportunity to invest, then we are just going to make it more expensive down the road.

‘In Scotland it costs £41,000 a year to keep someone in prison – that would get you a nurse. Let’s keep 50 people out of jail and get 50 nurses in schools, or 100 people out of jail and get 50 health visitors as well.

‘When I said that I’d rather have 1000 more health visitors than police officers I made a joke as well. I said if you have 1000 extra police officers you’d need more prisons, more criminal justice social workers, more lawyers – and if you have more lawyers you’d need more BMW dealerships.

‘It’s about where you want to put your money – as simple as that.’

All about John

  • Served, until February 2013, as detective chief superintendent with Strathclyde Police.
  • Works as an independent consultant and adviser on violence prevention, effective partnership working and leadership. 
  • Is senior fellow at the WAVE Trust, which tackles the root causes of damaging family cycles.
  • Also serves as a trustee on the board of the Children’s Parliament, a member of the executive board of Alcohol Focus Scotland and a friend of the Poverty Truth Commission.
  • Helps the Tapestry Partnership develop its programme to improve the life chances of children and young people.
  • Assists the Hunter Foundation in developing a UK-wide project in partnership with BBC Children in Need to improve the outcomes for children on the edge of care.
  • Lives in Carluke in the Clyde Valley with his wife Anita. He has two daughters, one of whom is a police detective inspector, and a five-month-old granddaughter.
  • Relaxes by playing golf and walking, especially in the Scottish Highlands and the Cotswolds.


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