Last night, I had the pleasure of doing something I hadn’t done in years. I went and did a “police talk” for a Cubs pack. Back in the day, as a neighbourhood officer, I used to do this kind of thing all the time but with promotions and role changes it is an opportunity which hasn’t presented itself all that often.
It was always one of my favourite things to do as a beat constable. I enjoyed it so much that I even trained as an official Schools Liaison officer and I would spend as much time as duties allowed getting into classrooms and spending time with the kids.
There were several advantages to this for me. Firstly, it allowed me to get to know who all the children were and vice versa. This made life considerably easier outside of school. I could talk the kids by name; I was a familiar face to them and it enabled the free flow of information and conversation.
It allowed me the chance to set standards. Whilst the lessons and inputs I delivered were usually focussed on safety messages and such like I was able to discuss acceptable and sensible behaviour. If I were to see errant children on my rounds then the subsequent chat we had could refer back to those lessons and they were able to recount to me what had been discussed. The rules of the classroom extended into the real world.
Working, as I did, on an estate where the police weren’t everybody’s favourite people it also allowed me the chance to break down any impressions which may have been passed down from generation to generation without previous challenge. “That copper who came to our school was okay – maybe they aren’t all bastards after all.”
The bottom line is that I was able to deliver important safety and social lessons but I was able to build relationships.
And they were relationships which lasted.
Going back 12 years or so ago there was a lad in his teens who was part of a problem family and who seemed to be destined to head down the same path. If any name was going to appear on the top of the ASBO candidate list it would be his – for the purposes of this blog let us call him “Kieron.” My dialogue with him and his family was almost daily. But it reached a point where we had an understanding. He knew damn well that I was going to be all over him if he crossed the line but all this did was curb his behaviour to annoying rather than criminal.
On one occasion some incident had kicked off and he was the main suspect. My colleagues had turned up and there followed the traditional starburst and footchase whereupon some of the group had gone to ground. As it turned out, the attending officers didn’t know he was the main suspect but as soon as I heard the description over the radio I knew. I made my way to the scene to help out and went to the area where the pursuing officer had lost him.
I got out of the car. “Kieron!” I yelled. Silence. I waited a moment or two.
“KIERON! I know it’s you and I know you’re here.”
Twenty seconds later his head appeared from the top of the trees had climbed up.
“I’ll come down for you but no-one else!” he shouted. He had recognised my voice.
“Kieron, get down and stop being a prat.”*
(* this sentence may be slightly edited)
He came down and I arrested him. Job done.
Flash forward 10 years. I am now an Inspector working a late shift. Over the radio I hear a call for assistance in the custody unit. One of the detainees was threatening to kick off big time if anyone tried to take him out of the cell for interview. As I made my down to help out someone put his name over the air and a wry smile crossed my face.
I entered the custody unit to see three of my finest (and biggest) stood in the doorway of the cell. From my vantage point I could hear all kinds of things coming from that little room – particularly about what would happen if they did try and take him out for interview. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to go.
The custody sergeant approached me.
“This ones a bit handy, Guv.” (for he was Ex-Met) “Kick-Boxer and built like a brick shit-house.”
I checked the name and wandered towards the cell door. Before he saw me I saw him and there, in the cell, was a considerably bigger, fitter and stronger Kieron. He was in for some driving offences but had decided at the roadside to be belligerent and make it impossible for the officer to deal with by any other way than arrest.
He was still mouthing off when I tapped my colleagues on the shoulders.
“Excuse me fellas. Let me try”
He wasn’t looking at me when I first spoke to him.
“Kieron, are you going to carry on like this or is this going to be like the time I got you down from that tree?”
His mouth genuinely dropped open “Mr Constable!”
I smiled. He smiled and – much to the utter bemusement of my colleagues – I walked towards him and we hugged.
After a couple of minutes of catching up and establishing what his problem was today I said that I would deal with it. But in return:
“This is my nick, these are my colleagues. You’ve never messed me about and I have always been straight with you. I expect you to treat them as you just treated me. So stop pratting about and let’s get on with it.” *
*NB – this sentence is HEAVILY edited
The rest was peaceful.
What this anecdote hopefully shows is the strength of relationship which can be developed, even with someone as problematic as Kieron, if you get there young enough.
Last nights talk to the Cubs was good natured fun. We split them into three groups and they took it in turn to do three activities. The first was a conversation about what the police do and “if there were no laws – what laws would you create and why?” The second activity asked them to look at pictures of people and write a detailed description. They were then shown another picture for only thirty seconds and had to then provide a written description from memory. The third activity was a line search through some nearby scrubland to help me recover the “stolen property” that had just been dumped.
The showstopper was the arrival of some of my colleagues from Ops who fortunately had time to turn up and spare half a hour with us. They brought some police cars and, more importantly, police dogs. We had just enough time to introduce the Cub Pack to the sniffer dog and the German Shepherd.
We even had enough time for a demonstration.
“Perhaps,” said the dog handler “the Boss might like to put on the bite sleeve and we can show everyone how he works.”
Well, the Boss did and, much to the delight of everyone was rudely bitten and shaken by the hairy land shark. It was my own fault for not doing what the dog handler told me and then calling him rude names.
(For anyone who is interested – yes – it does hurt through the bite sleeve, I had marks for ages and I wholeheartedly recommend not getting between the teeth of a police dog.)
But it was great. We all loved it – it was a great evening and at the end of it half the Cubs all wanted to join the police.
This got me thinking. There is much being said about the lack of diversity in the service and so a number of schemes have been introduced to try and change that. I am not sure any of them are working that well.
For me, the answer seems obvious. By the time you try and talk to school leavers it is quite likely that they will already have made some important decisions. Not only about the career path they want to take but also on how they view the police.
I haven’t been watching “The Met” because any TV programme on policing (fact or fiction) makes me angry. I am aware though that the most recent episode featured the death of a young man in London over a dispute about the selling of a bike. Something as trivial as that led to a boy being repeatedly stabbed. How bad have things got for this to be as common as it seems and for weapons of this kind to be carried and used as they are? Has life become that cheap?
I thought about the kids I spoke to last night – so full of questions and interest and ideas. So full of hope and energy and now most of them wanting to join the police when they grow up.
What will happen to them now – until they reach the age of those lads featured in that episode of “The Met” – and will the police have any further part to play in their lives?
As educators; as standard setters; as someone they can know and trust; as a symbol of what is right; as role models – as something they might one day like to aspire to be.
The police cannot act as parents or teachers but in many ways they can have an important role as both in the lives of young people.
Get into the schools, the youth clubs, the Cubs, the Scouts, the Brownies and Guides. Anywhere where young people are the police need to be. Talking, teaching, helping, steering.
My fear is that as Neighbourhood teams shrink then this kind of activity will disappear. It’s already happening as forces withdraw dedicated schools officers from their posts.
This is such a shame.
Getting to know people when they are young allows you to set an impression; to encourage and help mould them.
An early and then SUSTAINED relationship between the police and young people – in THEIR communities and environments could make such a difference. It could create an entirely different atmosphere, it could positively influence opinion and change minds. It could build trust and confidence in both directions. It could break down cultural barriers.
It could reduce weapons on the street. It could prevent tragic and pointless murders over the sale of a bicycle.
And you know what?
It could prove to be the most effective way of recruiting people from a wider range of diverse backgrounds than anything we have tried before.
Some say “we can’t wait that long – change is needed now” and I understand that. But this is a long term game and is likely to have far better results than short term initiatives. This could lead to permanent cultural change in both directions and people deciding far earlier that a career in the police is not the sole preserve of white males.
School visits – police work?
If they are maintained from Reception right up to A-level age – they could prove to be the greatest way to improve trust in the police and could turn out to be the best and most diverse recruitment tool ever invented.