Youth workers: Soft cops after all!?


At the weekend, on the Friday and Saturday nights of such concern to New Labour, youth workers and the police will be found hand in hand on the streets, monitoring the ‘negative’ activities of young people. I’m not sure how widespread this phenomenon is, but to my knowledge it is happening in at least two North-West authorities and down in the Metropolis. I’d like to say that I’m astonished by this union of the State’s ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ policepersons, but my display of stunned surprise would be less than convincing. However I am very interested in your views on how we’ve moved to finding such ‘joined-up policing’ ordinary and acceptable: all the more so given the recent hue and cry about police brutality and murder at the G20 Summit – see my rambling rant ‘Policing the Crisis’ in April.

Back in the early 70’s I can remember the local bobby being on the youth club management committee, but as the decade wore on matters became less cosy. Escalating social unrest increased levels of distrust between young people and the police. As youth were increasingly moved on from their gathering places, as a combative punk movement grew, there was a tacit agreement that the police were not welcome in our youth clubs. By the early 80’s suspicion had deepened further, fuelled in the inner cities by the use of  Stop and Search [SUS] to harass black young people and the  consequent uprisings in such places as Brixton and Toxteth. In Manchester a major controversy broke out over the police setting up their own youth clubs. As I remember  the Youth Service published a policy document explicitly refusing police access (without a warrant) to its facilities. In Leicester where I worked from 82 to 84 relationships between black and Asian projects and the police were fraught with tension. Inevitably police repression during the Miners’ Strike deepened the chasm between youth and the ‘armed bodies of men’ in the coalfields. Up in Derbyshire, where I’d moved, the Police Liaison Committees were abandoned by the Council for a number of years as a gesture of support to the working class communities brutalised by the occupation. In the youth centres of Bolsover and Shirebrook the police were personae non grata.

From there though my memory becomes less sharp as the antagonism lost perhaps its edge. Thus, back in Wigan in the 90’s, there was a joint desire from the Council and the Police Authority to rehabilitate a working relationship. When the Youth Service was savagely cut as a result of rate-capping, the Police were in the forefront of criticising the loss of jobs and closure of youth centres. In the aftermath I found myself forming a relationship with the Inspector for Community Affairs, by now an influential member of the Services for Young People Committee. Yet with all its contradictions there remained an agreement that we should not become too close: that youth workers must be understood as acting on the side of young people. As a concrete example, there was much concern at the time about identified ‘hot spots’ where young people were alleged to be causing trouble. The pressure was to divert youth workers to these troublesome bus shelters and street corners. In countering this we sought funding for and created a team of Youth Mediators, who were as independent as possible both of the Police and the Youth Service. Their task was to make the first intervention into a so-called ‘hot spot’, charged with the task of interviewing and mediating between all those concerned. In this process of mediation it was stressed that the youth workers and police had different and often conflicting perspectives. The initiative was beset with dilemmas, but its underlying rationale was to maintain a distance between the youth workers and the police, even when the latter were dressed in the garb of community constables.

As for the present situation, within which the Police on the one hand run Safer Neighbourhood football and netball projects, whilst instigating ‘harass the hoodies’ schemes on the other, what are the views of youth workers about their relationship with their uniformed ‘partners’. This question is made all the more pertinent when even the media sympathetic to the New Labour project in its infancy mourn a decade of authoritarianism and hypocrisy – see Larry Elliott in the Guardian. It is becoming common-place to suggest that New Labour has lost its moral compass. This is misplaced. New Labour never possessed a principled political perspective.  Following years in the wilderness, its raison d’etre was to be in power, to possess power for its own sake. And this is where there are those within Youth Work, who need to take a breath about what they’ve been up to.  In accommodating to New Labour’s oh-so weary blaming of the victims, in cosying up to the forces of law and order, haven’t they lost their ethical compass? Are they revealed to  be no more than cops in jeans and trainers?

Published in: on May 12, 2009 at 10:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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  1. I have heard that Hackney Youth Service is working alongside the police in areas of the borough to take young people home if they are judged to be out too late on a Friday or Saturday night. Apparently the detached youth workers (from the Youth Service) and the police will operate separately but in communication, the youth workers going to each group first to ‘persuade’ them to move on, followed by police who will escort them home if they haven’t been successfully persuaded.

    On another Hackney estate, the youth service is running a once a week project where young people are searched by neighbourhood wardens before being allowed in.

  2. The Hackney example above seems particularly disconcerting and suggests a complete blurring of the line between the police and youth workers. Personally I don’t have a problem at all working with the police if they want to provide issue-based work on certain topics (and, crucially, if the young people are happy with their presence) but it should not be the job of youth workers to pass information on to police or help them do their job. I say this not out of any anti-police feeling but as I feel it is an abdication of the basic values of youth work.

    From where I work (where things don’t appear as bad as elsewhere in the country) the primary cause appears to be the extent to which it “looks good” to have close relationships with bodies such as the police or local council because it provides evidence of “partnership working”, something that is often taken as automatically positive and beneficial regardless of the likely outcomes or the nature of the partnership. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to challenge the relationship between the police and youth workers when there is the fear that raising these types of questions can put you in a less positive position for funding. In addition, I feel (in my more pessimistic moments) that there’s a large proportion of youth work staff who just don’t see there being a conflict of interests at all and aren’t all that interested in the “political side” of youth work. To them, there’s no difference between working with the police, the fire service, the NHS or the guy who takes the DJ workshops.

  3. Hi
    The lowest common demoninator means anyone can work with young people including the police – why shouldn`t they provide activities ?
    We work in a market place after all !
    Derbyshire has entered the market and willingly taken £1,000`s to divert young people from the horrors of drinking alcohol in their communities. The police identify young people, confiscate the alcohol and transport them to a youth centre for re-education. The hand-over is amicable but, for me, the line is less blurred. Youth workers achieve the partnership tick box, the prized vunerable young people tick box and any other tick box that keeps the funding coming in to keep us in the market for work.
    As for the political conscience of youth workers it remains pretty much conservative and willing to do what ever it takes or they are told to do. Dissent is no defence ! The market requires a flexible workforce with few, if any, morals, principles, politics.
    The can do`s will outweigh the can do NOTS !
    There are no places a service will not go if it means economic survival. But what about youth workers where are they willing not to go ? Soft policing, weekend working imposed, more school holiday work,(shifting the flexibility of the working week). Reminds me of an old advert about a credit card Access your flexible friend.
    Why should we be at the behest of Civil servants in Whitehall and their expenses fiddling masters ?
    Do young people want to be youth worked whilst enjoying themselves ? Or is it the frightened pseudo middle class who dare not face the ruffians ?
    If the moral panics around our future workers/leaders are so much worse than ever before then how come they are not rioting on the streets ?

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