A few years ago, as the result of some trouble with a group of young people on a particular estate in the town, my line manager and I were invited to meet the local police chief.
It was one of the most refreshing meetings with the police I have ever attended. He asked us “what do you think our policing policy on the estate should be?”. After we had picked ourselves up from the floor, we had a really fruitful discussion with him which resulted in a change of personnel on the estate and a complete change of approach from the officers who were assigned to cover the area. They respected our space and values, in particular our insistence on maintaining confidentiality – and began treating the young people with more respect too. As a result I well remember a few weeks later, the evening I turned up to the local police consultative meeting with 14 young people in tow – a bit of a shock for many of the community who were there to complain about those very young people!
When I started my youth work career relations with the police weren’t that good – I well remember an evening when a couple of police officers rushed into my town centre youth club claiming they were in hot pursuit, one of them sneering and pointing to his lapel when I complained. Or another occasion a police officer was complicit in returning a young woman to her family against her will and despite her father having threatened to kill her. That was one of the worst nights of my life, if you can’t trust the police in a crisis, who can you trust? But over the years, certainly in my experience, attitudes softened and the police began to see the value of youth work, often turning out to be among our greatest supporters. What didn’t always follow was them engaging with young people in a way that didn’t antagonise them and create more tension.
So the news that an inspector from the Metropolitan Police is calling for police to receive youth work training is indeed to be welcomed. It would be rather strange if I didn’t welcome it having argued successfully for this to be included as part of Lib Dem policy! An understanding of adolescence, of group dynamics, of anti-oppressive practice, of how to engage young people effectively, has to help, particularly in areas where relationships between young people and the police have seriously broken down. I would, however, caution that any such training recognises from the start that police officers aren’t youth workers. You can’t be pally one moment and acting as an enforcement agent the next, there need to be clear boundaries and a recognition that you may appreciate the value of a youth work approach but that doesn’t make you a youth worker.
I hope the funding will be found to enable this training to take place. However, I also hope that no-one sees this as a way to compensate for the decimation of youth services and the removal of youth workers from their equally important role on the streets and in communities.
As a member of the Lib Dem Crime Policy Working Group some years ago when the party was arguing for 10,000 additional police officers, two expert witnesses both argued it was in fact 10,000 additional detached youth workers we needed – as you can imagine I thumped the table in agreement! There has been a lot of anxiety about the potential for a repeat of last year’s riots, we should not forget that last year there were a lot more youth workers to call on. However well trained our police officers are in engaging with young people – when the chips are down, the best people to engage in youth work - are youth workers.