The Sheffield Star has been carrying stories from people who say they no longer feel safe in the city centre.
So I have been doing some personal research, helped by some who know the city centre rather better than most.
First, one Friday after 10.30pm, I walked from the Town Hall to West Street by way of Barkers Pool and Division Street. As it happened, hundreds of people were coming out of the City Hall at the end of a concert and all the streets, bars and restaurants were crowded. The mood was relaxed and cheerful. By chance, the Deputy Chief Constable was also out with officers testing the force’s response to the night time economy. It was good to feel the city centre returning to something like normal and I didn’t feel any less safe than in any previous years.
That was late evening. Then last week, in Fargate, in the middle of the day, I met Peter Butterworth and two police officers from the central team. Peter uses a mobility scooter to get around and comes into town each day to buy a newspaper. One of the police officers, Steve Hart, is an experienced Police and Community Support Officer (PCSO) and the other, Gareth Thomas, is about to become the inspector for the central team – so, like me, he was coming to learn.
Peter is a seasoned observer. He had been on the receiving end of some aggressive begging in the past, but he did not believe the centre was no longer a safe place. After all, he comes in every day. He thought the aggressive begging was less than it had been and attributed that in part to the fact that people had less spare change these days. The students were also less inclined to give for the same reason, though they were still an issue. ‘They are kind-hearted but naïve and don’t realise they are just feeding people’s (drug and alcohol) habits’, he said.
The PCSO begins his shift each day from Snig Hill police station at 6am. He tours the central area on a daily basis and knows almost every rough sleeper – between 8 and 10 each night – and those begging. Like Peter he said people should think more carefully about why people are begging. Food was available each day for those who were hungry – at the Cathedral’s Archer project, for example – and accommodation could be sorted. He too was unconvinced that there had been any significant change in recent months.
The inspector took careful note and said that with police officer numbers increasing, there should be more student officers available in coming months. We talked about where those officers might be deployed each day to give added re-assurance.
The truth is that all town and city centres attract some rough sleepers, shop-lifters and beggars, and probably always will. But what we have in Sheffield is by and large carefully monitored and managed. If you really want to know what persistent and aggressive begging feels like, go by Eurostar to Lille and walk from the station to the Grand Place, or take a stroll along Las Ramblas in Barcelona.
Intervene or not?
At some point over the next few months the reviews into the deaths of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes will be published. Star was 16 months old when she was murdered by her mother’s girlfriend, who was gaoled along with her mother for what was described in court as their cold and callous mistreatment of Star. Arthur was six when he died following months of pain and suffering at the hands of his father and stepmother.
We don’t have to be clairvoyant to know that the reviews will draw attention to the fact that each child was known to the authorities and there will almost certainly have been missed opportunities to intervene and save them. Sadly, this has become a common theme of many such Serious Case Reviews – as they were once called – now Safeguarding Practice Reviews. I wanted to know, therefore, what South Yorkshire police were doing to train officers and staff to be better at recognising those critical moments when they could and should intervene. Assistant Chief Constable Dan Thorpe suggested I join the training day Child Matters which all officers have been taking, including the senior command team. So I did.
The course has been prepared by SYP with assistance from the NSPCC, Unison, Diabetes UK, the Police Federation and other partners and is delivered by two experienced police officers, DCI Emma Cheney and DS Kathy Coulter, and a forensic paediatric psychiatrist, Dr Jodie Howarth-Beal. It was a full day – 8.30am to 4.30pm – intense and harrowing.
As well as some theoretical work about child development, much of the day was spent understanding how to recognise the signs that a child is being neglected, abused or mistreated. This is important for officers to understand since they are often going into people’s homes for one reason or another – not necessarily to check for child neglect – and need to be able to spot signs quickly and accurately and then to act with confidence. But the presenters were also keen to stress that being observant is a matter for all of us, whether police or not. (We were joined on the course by people from the NHS and SY Fire and Rescue.)
The most impactful part of the day was when we spent time looking at some actual body worn video footage from SYP officers who had entered properties and found children who were at risk. Many myths were swept away – such as the idea that professional or middle class parents could not be guilty of child neglect or that no parents were ever capable of hating their own children.
Unlike social workers, police have a power that enables them to enter a property and a power to take children to a place of safety. (A social worker can apply to the court for an Emergency Protection Order, but that could take days.) These are serious and intrusive powers and the point of the day was to enable officers to make a correct judgement about what they were seeing. Were these chaotic parents who could be helped to lead more structured lives with their children? Or was something far more serious happening that needed the children to be removed altogether? In which case they needed evidence that would stand up in court.
We were also encouraged to try to see the world as the vulnerable child sees it. Children who are being neglected have nothing with which to compare how they are treated by their parents. This is ‘normal’ life for them. They will naturally be distressed if parted from their parents, even if those parents are showing them little love or affection. On the other hand, where children were putting up their hands and asking an officer to hold and cuddle them, that too was significant.
We also learnt to understand how devious some parents and step parents could be in hiding the truth about what was really happening. Officers had to develop and deepen their skills of what is called professional curiosity.
Is the course having an impact? It is still early days, but I notice that the number of child neglect cases the force deals with has risen from about 10 per month before the course began to about 140 per month now – which speaks for itself. I also note that 17 other police forces are interested in it.
I came away from the day greatly encouraged that our police are all doing this training. I realise full well that the judgements we ask them to make are far from easy; but for the sake of our children they are calls they have to make. Because it is possible that no one else will.
The Open Kitchen
Wherever I go in South Yorkshire I try to encourage young people and those who work with. Last week I attended a dinner at the Open Kitchen restaurant, Church Street – part of Barnsley College. The restaurant provides catering students with a chance to gain work experience.
Guests were greeted and served by smartly dressed and very polite students and the food was superb.
If you find yourself in Barnsley, I hope you will call in. Lunch is served from 12 noon to 1.15 (01226216365) and coffee and cakes are available 8am to 3pm, Monday to Friday. You won’t regret it and you’ll want to call again.
Stay safe and well.