It is not always easy for the police to engage with many of the young people from ethnic minority communities in South Yorkshire. There is often a mistrust between them, particularly the boys, and officers. But there is one personal development project that the police sponsor with the co-operation of schools in Rotherham and Sheffield that is very successful in bringing them together. It’s called Inspiring Youth.
The young people who choose to take part – in their own time – complete courses at three different levels. They are often from disadvantaged backgrounds who must improve their attendance and behaviour as well as completing folders that demonstrate what they have learnt and achieved. They also have an opportunity to make visits – to the courts, to see various police activities – the dogs and horses – and I usually meet some when they come to police force headquarters for presentations and lunch with the chief constable and myself.
There are rewards as well – such as trips arranged through our MPs to 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament in London, and to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
But the highlight of the year is the Awards evening when they come with their parents and brothers and sisters to receive their certificates. This is always a glittering affair and I remember many memorable occasions at St Paul’s Hotel in Sheffield. This year it was held in the grand marquee at the Niagara Sports and Social Club. I am usually asked to say a few words and to present some of the certificates.
The student who does best in the Level 1 part of the project also wins a shield that is presented to the school in recognition of their achievement and the school’s support.
Each year I am astonished at how beautifully turned out the young people are. The girls with African or Caribbean heritage have vibrantly colourful dresses. The young Muslim women wear immaculate long dresses and hijabs. All the boys seem to have the smartest of suits.
It is a mark of how successful the Inspiring Youth Project is that this year, as in others, in addition to the chief constable and myself the High Sheriff and a number of Deputy Lieutenants and the Leader of Sheffield City Council, Councillor Tom Hunt, felt they had to be there on a Friday evening to support the young people. Lord Blunkett sent a video message of support from the House of Lords.
The evening ends with a buffet.
The Inspiring Youth Project has been running for twenty years this year – which in itself is quite an achievement. It depends on good will – the good will of the Special Constables and other volunteers who organise it, and the schools. No other project known to me brings together the police and so many young people from so many different backgrounds. This year, of the seventy students who were present, 50% were from African Caribbean communities and 25% from Asian – with other communities represented in smaller numbers.
I wish you could have been there. Perhaps Look North or Calendar might like to tell us about it one year.
One day last week I spent a little time with two police officers who have central responsibility for the South Yorkshire police drones. I wanted to understand what the drone capabilities are and how they might contribute towards the better policing of our county. We now have a number of officers who are trained to operate them, with more being added all the time, and there are drones in each district as well as a central pool.
I was shown two. One was as light as a feather and could be held easily in one hand. The other was much bigger and heavier. It’s all about the size of the battery. The bigger drone could stay in the air for about forty minutes and would tell the operator when it needed to return to ground.
The point about the drone is that it is an eye in the sky for officers. The bigger drone was launched and went up several hundred feet until it was just a speck above us, almost invisible unless you knew where to look – and even then, not easy to spot. But the operator could manipulate the camera so that we could see on his control panel what was happening on the ground in any direction and for considerable distances.
He could also focus in on any object beneath and show, for example a parked police car and its registration plates with astonishing clarity.
It is not difficult to see some of the many uses to which drones can be put. Drones can be used to find missing people or to spot, unobtrusively, criminal behaviour taking place many miles away in the countryside. They can track someone making off in a vehicle or on foot. Drones also have a thermal imaging capacity so can operate at night to find people or to identify buildings where, for instance, cannabis cultivation is happening. In certain circumstances they obviate the need to call in a helicopter, saving time and money and not adding so much to the carbon footprint.
And the drone can spot any other drones operating in the same area.
The drone I was watching came back and I saw it land. The controller brought it to within a few feet above the ground and then it landed itself, perfectly and automatically.
I came away duly impressed. But a final comment by one of the operators did bring me up sharp. ‘Of course, we have to remember that criminal gangs will have drones as well.’ And I recalled seeing video footage at one of our prisons of a drone taking drugs over the prison wall, hovering with great accuracy until a particular prisoner came into the exercise yard and then releasing a small packet of drugs.
It is not enough to have the technology, we must also have the imagination to think how others might use it for criminal purposes – and then staying one step ahead.
Unpredictably dangerous dogs
Just over a year ago, in August 2022, I wrote a blog about dangerous dogs. (Blog114)
I noted that in the morning list of significant crimes and incidents I was receiving from South Yorkshire police, there was a steady rise in dog attacks – on other dogs, on strangers and on their owners and family members, including children. There were aggressive dogs of many types, but one breed in particular seemed to be more frequently referenced. I didn’t know its name at that time but noted that it resembled the American pit bull which had been banned following 15 fatalities between 1981 and 1991 all attributed to the breed.
As time went by I continued to notice the number of incidents and in May 2023 I wrote a further blog, identifying the XL Bully, and noting how often those who owned this type of dog insisted that they were ‘gentle’ and ‘loving’ and ‘great with kids’. (141) In a third blog in April I suggested that the problem with these dogs was compounded by the fact that many had been bought during the period of the Covid restrictions and as a result had not been socialised as puppies with other dogs or other people. They were the ‘lock-down puppies’. (148)
One of our local MPs, Ed Miliband. got in touch at this time because of incidents he had come across in his Doncaster constituency. I decided to write to the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners asking them to take up the matter of the XL Bully with the Home Secretary. This year in South Yorkshire, 25% of aggressive dog incidents have involved XL Bullys.
Since then the matter of XL Bullys has been seen as a national problem. As well as many reports of incidents, we have probably all now seen video footage of people being savaged by them. Last week we had a grim fatality when Ian Price was attacked by two suspected XL Bully dogs in Stonnall, Staffordshire. It was reported that he was trying to defend his elderly mother and the dogs had escaped through an open window in their owner’s house, which is near a school.
The Prime Minister has said that the breed will be added to the dangerous dogs list by the end of the year. It will then become illegal to breed, sell or acquire them, and those who already have them will have to register them and will only be allowed to take the dogs into public places if they are muzzled.
I have been contacted by organisations concerned with animal welfare who have told me that my concerns are mistaken: it is not the dog but the owner that is the problem. I don’t agree.
Empirically, I don’t know that it has been evidenced: have all incidents been examined to see if, in every case, there was poor training? Such empirical evidence as there is tells me something else. When I see the figures of dog incidents in South Yorkshire and the percentage of XL Bullys in them, it cannot just be about poor dog training. It is also about the breed.
The aggression and power of these dogs is part of their allure and we do not know what triggers that sudden turn from friendliness to savagery. Poor training simply compounds matters. I certainly wouldn’t want to live next door to one.