And older people, including the police, need to be encouraged to respect the honesty and commitment offered by these young people.’ [Ann Considine, Director of Second Wave, 2010] Effective policing is not possible without the active co-operation of young people. Their full involvement in local decision-making is a key feature in making our neighbourhoods safe. But the police cannot build a process of youth participation without the support of community-based organisations. And the only basis for this collaboration is trust. We can increase the capacity for trust by working together, tentatively at first and then gradually with greater confidence.
At Second Wave, we have worked closely for six years with many police officers, community leaders, and representatives of the local authority to create a flexible programme - entitled Critical Encounters - aimed at improving this vital relationship between young people and the police in Lewisham, SE London. Our experience demonstrates that a youth-centred approach to the issues of community safety is capable of producing practice-based solutions. But this method can only be established through well-informed and sustainable ways of working with young people. Questions of responsibility and leadership underpin every aspect of this process.
Our starting point is the fact that the vast majority of young people are law-abiding citizens. They do not constitute a threat to the safety and stability of our communities. Indeed, they are far more often the victims of crime than the perpetrators. As James Forman Jr has remarked, young people have ‘a profound stake in keeping their neighbourhoods (and themselves) safe’*. Collectively, we need to strengthen this commitment to safety and stability in the daily lives of young people.
Sadly, as Forman also notes, the powerful image of urban youth as a threat to public order carries tremendous implications for the methods by which our inner-cities are policed. He identifies as particularly damaging the ‘warrior model’ of law-enforcement, which reinforces this sense of enmity but also reduces confidence in community policing. Youth-centred organisations are capable of giving an appropriate structure to the engagement of young people in local decision-making. By this method, effective action can be expressed as the exercise of collective responsibility. But work of this kind is difficult and implies different ways of thinking about young people. It involves supporting their efforts to engage consistently with the tougher realities of their lives and social environment.
When young people cannot rely on the police, they find their own ways of attempting to protect themselves – perhaps by associating in groups or gangs, by carrying weapons, or by gaining status on the streets through risk-taking behaviour. The stakes are high, and the process of repairing an acute breakdown of trust has to begin somewhere and somehow. A particular area of concern in our work has been the use of Stop and Search powers. This aspect of policing has far-reaching repercussions - not only for young people but also for the safety and confidence of the wider community. The confrontational nature of Stop and Search intensifies pressure on the street. Historically, the disproportionate use of this power has generated a legacy of mistrust from one generation to the next.
At Second Wave, we work from first-hand youth experience and the narratives of inner-city life. We organise regular workshops for police officers led by young volunteers and informed by the creative intelligence of these young people. Police officers always attend in casual plain clothes, not in uniform. Our method involves working across boundaries, challenging assumptions on both sides, and building honest relationships. Drama-based techniques and role-play scenarios provide the focal points for discussion. Six years ago we invited the police into Second Wave – a creative space ‘owned’ by young people. Both sides knew they were taking a significant risk. The confidence felt by young people in this situation contrasted with the vulnerability felt by police officers (who volunteered to attend). When this was acknowledged, it helped to normalise the power relationship between them. During a series of regular workshops, communication was equalised (they perceived each other ‘as human beings’), bridges were built, and their interactions gradually became more reliable.
When defensiveness on both sides was reduced, the workshop participants began to share experiences and value different perspectives. A prevailing sense of mutual suspicion was gradually replaced by a process of ongoing dialogue, learning and co-operation.
In subsequent years, this work has steadily reached further into the community. Increased levels of trust have strengthened the practice of policing on the street and, in particular, the quality of interaction in Stop and Search encounters. In Lewisham, the advice of local young people is now accepted and taken seriously on issues of neighbourhood safety. Although violent crime remains a problem for young people in our area, the value of their involvement in addressing this problem is fully acknowledged as a community asset.