Policing in partnership
Monday, August 20, 2012
Neil Puffett goes out to meet Inspector Andy Briers of the Metropolitan Police
Andy Briers says his colleagues in the police force call him left-wing. He jokes that this must mean that he is somewhere in the political middle ground among the general population. But while his sense of humour is somewhat dry, he is brimming with ideas for ways in which the police can improve their dealings with children and young people.
Sitting in the rear interview room of the police station in Brixton, south London, Briers speaks at length about how the policing of young people has evolved and his hopes for the future. He advocates a progressive approach, focusing on the causes of crime, diversion methods and working in partnership with other agencies to support young people. He says police are gradually changing their outlook, but concedes that there is still room for improvement.
“Sometimes you can go into a house to deal with antisocial behaviour, such as children throwing stones, and you may see eight children running around and a dog defecating in the corner,” he says.
“We should be forgetting about the stones, and thinking instead that there are child protection problems here. We must deal with the problems in front of us because that is the reason kids are throwing stones over the fence. In the past we have been too quick to say that’s not my job, I’m a policeman. But people are wiser now and understand if you remedy some of those problems, other things get sorted too.”
Shift in approach
Briers has been a central figure in the shift away from a purely punitive approach to dealing with children and young people who are involved in crime.
He started his career as a physical education teacher, but decided to move into the police force after just one school term, when he realised he did not want to spend the rest of his life “walking around in shorts”.
Briers studied a master’s degree in community policing and truancy, before moving onto a PhD exploring the issues of youth crime, school-based policing and police interaction with young people. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, which enabled him to spend six months in the US with Colorado State University and Lakewood Police undertaking his field studies.
On returning to the UK, he was invited to a reception at Downing Street by the Street Crime Action Group and spoke with Prime Minister Tony Blair about the role that police could play in schools.
It was “good timing” Briers says, because he was subsequently asked to help set up the Safer School Partnerships initiative with government, the Youth Justice Board and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Briers was charged with developing training for the programme and was sent out to work with police forces across the country, coaching groups of officers on how to work in schools.
He believes the scheme has dramatically changed the relationship between police and children.
“Ten years ago, you didn’t go into schools as a rule – you needed to arrange an appointment,” he says. “You had 1,200 vulnerable people all together in one place but no contact with the police. Now police officers are in and out of primary and secondary schools every day of the week. The attitude towards police officers among staff, parents and the local community and children has changed beyond recognition.”
It is the concept of joint working with other agencies that Briers has developed further in recent years. He took some “time out” from policing to do charity work with the Oasis Trust – developing multi-agency hubs within schools providing pupils with access to school-based doctors’ surgeries, after-school activities and youth clubs.
When he returned to the force, he continued in this vein, working with youth engagement teams of police officers and youth workers conducting home visits to young Londoners on the cusp of offending. The teams would provide young people with alternatives including employment opportunities, rehousing and extra-curricular pursuits.
“The big issue for me is giving children the opportunity to do things – it is about keeping them active, safe and engaged,” he says. “We are not trying to take over work with children but are looking to signpost them to other agencies.”
To this end, Briers argues that police across the country are now working to help local voluntary and community groups that target the most hard-to-reach young people, by supporting them with funding or other support where possible.
Pimped riot van
An example of this work is a partnership with urban youth charity XLP, he says. The police donated a riot van, which was then “pimped” and turned into a music centre to go into estates.
He cites another partnership with the charity MAC-UK, run by Dr Charlie Alcock, which is working to improve support for young people with mental health issues.
“We need to know how we can refer and signpost,” Briers says. “I don’t want 2,000 cops running after-school football clubs. It’s about identifying the groups we need to be engaging with, matching them up with the right agencies and sharing information. Police aren’t always the best placed to work alongside children, but we know what the tried and tested services are.”
Police are also working with Chance UK, specifically to support girls under the age of 12 whose siblings are known gang members. “If you have an older sibling in a gang it can be the case that it is not long before you are in a gang,” he says. “So we appointed mentors to work with 25 young girls that were identified by agencies including the police.”
Contrary to concerns raised in the wake of last summer’s riots about the relationship between police and communities, Briers says things have improved dramatically in the past decade.
He says police are more “open and visible” and “take complaints and issues seriously”. But he does believe that there should be specialist training for those police working directly with young people, in order to improve the relationship further. His call has already received the backing of the National Youth Agency and youth justice campaigners.
“I would like to see a specialist course or training for schools officers and safer neighbourhood officers who deal with young people,” he says. “If you are a police officer in a school of 1,200 children, you need certain skills. Children bring all their issues and problems into schools so you need a good understanding of issues such as female genital mutilation, child protection, and trafficking. These things are happening day in, day out – we need to spot the signs. Specialist training would attract more officers; they would see it as a good career path.”
He is also keen for restorative justice to be used increasingly to deal with lower level offending. He says a lot of officers are now being trained in restorative approaches, something that gives them valuable options when dealing with minor offences.
“I would like to see more reparation work done with young people,” he explains. “Not scrubbing graffiti but meaningful reparation work that involves the young person – restorative justice could be a part.”
Although now working as an inspector in Brixton, and no longer having a specific role in relation to children and young people, Briers says he has raised the issue of police training with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan Howe, and is keen to work in a more specialised role relating to children and young people in the future.
“Coming down hard on kids isn’t going to deal with the problem. It’s about working in partnership with other agencies to give children opportunities,” he says. “If they don’t play ball – and there are a minority of kids like that – then we have the enforcement option, but that’s the last resort. It is not the way we want to be going. I don’t believe any children are completely lost – that is the attitude we have to have.”
Andy Briers CV
- Born in north London, Briers studied teaching at the West London Institute, which later merged with Brunel University in the mid-1990s
- He started his policing career in Holloway, before moving to Haringey in 2001
- By this point he had completed a master’s degree and obtained a Fulbright scholarship to study in Denver, Colorado for six months towards his PhD
- In 2002 he helped set up, and later headed, the national Safer Schools Partnership initiative
- In 2005 he took a year away from policing, working for charity The Oasis Trust in developing multi-agency hubs in schools, before returning to policing in Haringey
- Last year he was promoted to Inspector, based in Brixton