Our findings from the Let’s Talk series of workshops over the two years so far have revealed several themes that have repeatedly emerged from workshops.
The main two themes are that (1) people are worried about knife crime, and want to do something about it, but (2) the way police are dealing with the problem is not effective and antagonises the people they are supposed to be protecting.
- Both adults and children are gravely concerned about what appears to be escalating violence and unacceptable levels of risk to public safety on the streets. In some households gangs have more authority than the police and (Sherifa’s quote on gangs demanding parents let their children out) and in some neighbourhoods fear of retribution can cause people to withhold evidence for crimes. As a result, criminals have the upper hand and streets are unsafe.
People are unhappy living in a situation where a child, aged 10, asks “Why is it not safe to be a child in Southwark?” In our workshops one thing consistently called for by participants was “longer and harsher sentences” and, in the last two Forums of 2020, even calls for the death penalty. Communities are supportive of the work police are doing, but not in how it is being carried out, and are unimpressed by its effectiveness.
- The relationship between the public and the police is crucial for effective crime prevention. At the same time it desperately needs improving: “there’s a huge amount of mistrust between young people and police, so for me I think the relationships need to be worked on. It’s not just a matter of putting more police on the street” (Steph Bent, Bethwin Adventure Playground).
“I think the relationship with the police and the journey that’s been going on is something really important. And is there something about the fact that now there’s way more awareness of how the police have been in the past and still now in some cases institutionally racist, and there’s loads of social media, there’s a lot of footage worldwide showing the brutality of the police. And … is it something to do with there being more awareness of that? which is obviously a positive thing and you would hope would lead to change, so are we somewhere on a journey where potentially, like there’s a huge rift between communities and the police and understandably so, can we now get to a place where if the police can show us that they’ve changed, or are going to change, where that respect can come back, but in a different way” (Louise Dickinson, Blue Elephant Theatre)
So whereas we have already seen, communities and people are worried about knife crime to the point where it influences daily decisions about whether to go to a youth club or visit friends, ie to participate in society, the government agency responsible for dealing with the problem is seen as ineffective, is not trusted, and in some ways contributes to the problem.
Memories of institutional racism and police attitudes in the past are still alive today and are being perpetuated albeit in a slightly changed form: “In the ‘80s, you lot don’t even know when the ‘80s was, so just think about how long ago that was right, and everyone was being searched, and that started riots in Brixton, then it started riots in Tottenham, so they started to approach it a little bit different maybe, after all the riot stuff, then it calms down again, then the next generation kicks in like you say. It comes back up again; you lot think you’re the only ones who’ve been victimised, but if you speak to your families it will be the same turnout. You could have been pulled up because you was a skinhead back in the day. You could have been pulled up because you was a rasta back in the day. Do you get what I mean? And that’s the comparison: one’s a mad skinhead person with all tats, you’re going to get pulled up. One’s a black person with dreads, you’re going to get pulled up; automatically you’re smoking weed, right? If you’ve got a skinhead and you’ve got tats, automatically you’re a racist. These are the stereotypes innit? But now your generations, you all wear the same stuff. You all talk the same way. So the stop and search for me now is a little bit crazy. And it must be a minefield for you guys to try and break down who’s in the same uniform.” (Donna Wallace, BEDE Youth Adventure Project)
The fact that young people wear a “uniform” does not give license to police to treat them with contempt, and there is no reason why police can’t be nice.
Past records of racial stereotyping are being perpetuated on the streets today. Students of a majority-black school told of being picked out because of colour: “That’s why we need like, different races to step up for us, because we already stepped up enough. And we’re still not getting to where we wanted to be. So we need more, like other races to help us out. Because you guys know personally that we’re innocent people.”
Children at Bede, the nearly all-white youth club in Bermondsey, when asked if they would be stopped more if they were with a black person, responded “100%”.
The perception of being singled out because of colour has led people to feel they are in a “them and us” situation as regards the police, where police are not to be trusted. Whilst children believe stop and search to be necessary, the way it is conducted undermines trust and the general work of the police. “Stop and search is a big thing … (For) a lot of black children it’s like everywhere on social media and stuff. A lot of black children getting stopped and searched. …. and I feel like people our age and children that are involved in knife crime are seeing police as enemies because they’re not like wanting to get help from them to stop knife crime because the police are seen as like enemies and they don’t even help and instead of containing it they’re spreading it everywhere” (Student at Walworth Academy)
The ubiquity of social media means that police actions both past and present are made available to all and are accessed and circulated by many. Memories of past aggressions embed in families and communities, causing resentment and anger.
The Police have a lot of work to do to restore trust and confidence.
This is where the young Southwark teenagers now training Met recruits in Stop & Search, stereotyping, bias and racism, are opening up the possibility of positive and sustainable change.