PCC Blog 47

Some young people, we know, are as troubled as they are troublesome, as sinned against as sinning.

The police know very well that officers need to understand that the young people they come across can be at one and the same time both a victim and an offender. Otherwise opportunities may be missed to make interventions that will make a difference to the way a young life works out in the future. We don’t want to criminalise the young if we can possibly avoid it.

Seeing the vulnerability and not just the offending was one of the points made last week by David Urpeth, one of the South Yorkshire coroners, at the conclusion of the inquest into the death by stabbing of Sam Baker. Sam died during a street fight at the age of 15 – a brief life in which he had come to the notice of numerous agencies innumerable times. He had gone missing from home, missing from school and had become involved in violence and drugs. But despite this, the coroner believed, his ‘serious safeguarding needs’ had not been fully recognised.

That was in 2018 and it made me look at what had changed. Were we in a better place now for picking up the signs when young people start to get into difficulties?

I think we are. To take one example. Since Sam died we have seen established in each district – Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield – Multi Agency Child Exploitation (MACE) meetings. The MACE is not led by the police but by a senior manager from the local authority children’s services. All relevant agencies are represented, including the police. The MACE seeks to stop child exploitation and the serious risk of vulnerable young people being groomed and recruited by organised gangs. It meets weekly.

Each agency represented – youth offending team, probation, police, health, education, drug and alcohol services, local authority, and so – can flag up concerns they have for particular children who have come to their notice. Some children are known by several agencies and it is important to establish which will take the lead otherwise each may think the other is doing what is needed. In addition, it prevents the young people being overwhelmed by encounters with multiple agencies. The MACE decides what intervention is needed and who is best positioned to take matters forward. The interventions may include the need to disrupt the involvement in the young person’s life of, say, a criminal gang.

As I talked about the work of the MACE meetings last week, I was concerned about one area where we may need to do more – an unintended consequences of the academisation of schools.

Academies are independent of the local authority and this makes it harder to know what is happening to those young people who are not expelled but leave an academy and go ‘off roll’ – as when a parent decides to home educate. Who are the ‘off-rollers’? Where are they? What education are they now receiving? Who is keeping tabs on them?

The importance of friends

I have been reading a book by a psychologist about friendships. If he is right, the social support network that friendships bring is vital for our health. We recover better from, for instance, heart attacks and strokes if we have friends. This is also true of our mental health.

But we can only sustain so many close friendships. Many of us will have up to 150 people we know and might class as ‘friends in general’, but within that there will be smaller groups, including some family members, and most critically of all, about 15 people who are our inner sympathy group. About 60% of our social effort will be needed to keep the bonds within this group in good order.

We have now had a year in which many of the usual occasions that enable us to maintain those social bonds have been closed down. Zooming is a poor substitute. We can, therefore, expect an impact on people’s mental health.

We knew before the pandemic that police officers were having to deal more and more with people in mental health crises. We must assume that will not get any better if social support systems have been so disrupted. We must also assume that the threat to mental health applies to all – including police officers and their families, including ourselves. Well-being has to feature large on all our risk registers going forward.

Gaining public trust

It is always a bit risky for a police force to invite one of the television channels to film aspects of their work. The police do not have editorial control and cannot, therefore, determine the perspective the documentary makers choose to take, or the off-the-cuff comments from officers that may be captured. But last year, South Yorkshire police invited the programme 999: What’s Your Emergency? to film the force’s response to 999 calls. So far four of nine planned programmes have been aired.

My impression is that as a result, the public has widened it’s understanding of what the police are called upon to do and by and large this has been well-received.

Just under 2 million people watched each episode of whom, interestingly, 17% were young people. The themes have ranged from bullying and anti-social behaviour to sexual offending and how people get involved in crime.

One of the stories featured an older man called Nick. He told how, after the death of his son, he had moved to live in one cramped room in a multi-occupancy house, where the kitchen and toilet were shared. He found it hard going. His self-confidence had gone, he was fearful about getting the coronavirus and so rarely ventured out. Police had become involved because of a break-in and their compassionate approach to him clearly struck a chord with the public. A crowd-funding page was set up during the programme and people donated £2500 to help him improve his accommodation.

When we talk about policing by consent, this is what we mean. Police officers behaving as we would want to behave in similar situations.

Finally ……

I said last week that from time to time I have asked police officers, mainly detectives, which TV series about the police they thought was most like ‘real life’. They all began by saying, ‘None of them’, but when pressed gave me a series. I said I would tell you this week which one was referenced most. Did you guess right?

It was Scott and Bailey.

I knew it wouldn’t be Midsomer Murders.

I hope you are staying safe and well.