At the launch of a report on the relationship between police and young people for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children (APPG) last month, a young police officer told the group that his first experience with the police as a Black youth in London had not been positive and he had had to overcome a great deal of his own prejudices to see the positive role the force can play.
The report, researched and written by the National Children’s Bureau on behalf of the APPG, concludes an 18-month inquiry it held into the relationship between children and the police.
Its findings are stark. Poor communication, mutual lack of respect, and disregard for their distinct needs as children are all highlighted as prevalent features in the contact that police professionals have with children.
But there are shining examples across the country where early positive relationships can have a profound effect, particularly through police presence in schools.
Little more than 10 years ago, police presence in schools was characterised largely by call-outs and occasionally attending lessons or assemblies. However, their engagement with schools has changed, in part in response to the growing debate around pupil and teacher security.
The introduction of Safer School Partnerships (SSPs) in 2002, with dedicated central government funding, formalised a closer involvement between the police and the school community. It sees a police officer or police community support officer (PCSO) based in a school or group of schools in order to help keep pupils safe, reduce crime and improve behaviour.
The scheme was evaluated by the Youth Justice Board in 2005 as having had a positive impact on a range of factors, including truancy levels and the early identification of children at risk of criminalisation.
However, it no longer receives central government funding. As a result, many forces – already under pressure to make significant financial cuts – have had to reduce the number of school-based officers.
The APPG therefore recommends in its report that the Home Office examines how all police forces could deliver SSPs in recognition of their demonstrable impact. It also sets out a number of ways that schools can add value in delivering its recommendations.
The inquiry found pockets of good practice, with some children and young people involved in police initiatives through their schools, such as Voluntary Police Cadets, which also help to break down barriers and negative perceptions. The young officer who spoke to the group at the launch told us that it was his experience with the Cadets that had changed his attitude. These examples of positive engagement are, however, not found in all schools or communities and are being threatened by reductions in police budgets.
That very first experience of police contact is a crucial and formative one when it comes to the attitudes formed and taken not just into their own adult life but into future generations. Yet for a significant number, this experience is a negative one – as a victim or suspected offender. Once a negative encounter has occurred, it takes time and hard work to change ingrained attitudes, which are often passed on from one generation to the next.
While some schools are leading the way, we need to see all schools considering the role they might take in laying the foundation for good first police contact, creating and influencing lasting, positive attitudes now and for the classrooms of children and young people to come.
Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk