Blurring the Boundaries : Youth Workers as Soft Police or Vice-Versa?

This post was drafted a few weeks ago following the appearance of this piece in CYPN,

NYA says youth work training for police officers should be ‘more systemic’

I thought it was perhaps past its sell-by date, but discussions this week at a Steering Group around the proposed Institute of Youth Work focused on the slide to describing all manner of work with young people as youth work. In this context the following might have some resonance. And to say we have been asked to respond to NYA through the Education and Standards Training Committee as to our perspective on the notion of the Institute – more news to follow.

 

 

Rotherham Council has announced that two police constables have qualified with the council to become youth workers.

The officers will work in partnership with the council’s youth services department and in youth centres throughout the area.

The blurring of boundaries about what is meant by youth work and what constitutes a youth worker continues to worm its insidious way. When and where are our two constables youth workers? When and where are they coppers? Can they be both youth worker and copper at one and the same time? Funnily enough, despite the nowadays obligatory claim that the Rotherham initiative is trail-blazing, versions of these questions about the relationship between young people, youth work and policing are not new.

When I first came into the work in the early 1970’s the appropriate local bobby sat on the management committees for two of the centres, for which I became responsible. The post-war consensus that we were in it together was just about holding. By the end of the decade as unemployment rose and youth harassment became the norm we wouldn’t let the police across the threshold of our centres. In the mid-80’s my office was in the old primary school of Shirebrook, a Derbyshire mining village, violently invaded and occupied by Her Majesty’s constabulary, playing its crucial part in intimidating opposition to the rule of the market. In the aftermath young people and the community rejected involvement in the local Police Liaison Committees.  As struggle died down I found myself in the 90’s working with the Inspector of Community Affairs in Wigan around the spectre of  youth troubled ‘hot-spots’. We created a Youth Mediation project, employing a team of youth mediators, explicitly neither youth workers nor police, who refereed between young people, the local community and the local State. There was agreement. The roles of youth workers and police ought not to be confused. Youth workers ought to be on young people’s side. The police represented law and order, even when this law and order was demonstrably unjust. And, as an aside, I was a tutor on a year long part-time youth worker training course in 1978 with two constables as students. Their desire to be part-time youth workers was ridden with contradiction, but was not further confused by wanting to be hybrid Youth Police workers.

However, as you might know by now,  today’s Chief Executives suggest that these qualms are but the dilemmas of a past best forgotten.  Rolling out a ‘systemic’ programme of youth work training for police officers across the country is  simply a good thing. Time has moved on. All that stands between young people and a trust in the police is the emergence of a couple of  empathetic coppers. Forget Stop and Search, it’s now Stop and Smile. And their sensitivity will trickle down through the pores of the Police’s collective authoritarian psyche, even reaching its Metropolitan heart. Except that in the last few years some things don’t seem to have changed that much. Young people protesting against the end of EMA and the hike in tuition fees were kettled, frightened into feeling that resistance is career-ending. Whilst, by anyone’s account, last year’s riots were partially a consequence of the systematic hostility towards young people, especially black youth, displayed by these very forces of law and order.

None of this is to dismiss the important question of how the police interact with society, but this raises issues around race, gender, class, sexuality, disability as well as age. If we believe the police can be sensitised to the significance of these social and political divisions, the implication is that the whole workforce, not some scattering of token individuals, has to be on board. If we take race as an exemplar it is clear that this is an enormous task. The Metropolitan Police started race relations training in 1964. In 1984 following the Scarman investigation into the 1981 uprisings a revamped Community and Race Relations programme was put in place. Nevertheless the 1999 Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence declared that the Met was institutionally racist. Over a decade later the 2012 riots following yet another black death in custody signalled at the very least that awareness  training has its limitations.

None of which is to suggest we fold our arms and do nothing. It is though to suggest we proceed with caution and humility. On the contrary we are told by the NYA in a moment of some pretension that, as well as police officers, teachers and nurses could do with an injection of youth work skills. What might be these mysterious skills unbeknown to others?  “They [need to] understand some of the nature of adolescence, how to create a relationship with young people and the tensions of being an adolescent in 2012.” A deep breath is needed here. Of these three areas only one is about skills, namely creating relationships. The other two relating to how we understand adolescence are about theoretical explanations, be they psychological or sociological. None of these – Communication Skills, Developmental Psychology or the Sociology of Youth – are the property of youth work. In one form or another they are taught, for better or worse, across the people professions.

So, what’s going on here? Stemming perhaps from a certain collective inferiority complex,  this exaggerated desire to be indispensable to others  is a result of abandoning the very basis of our distinctiveness. If we have been, still are special, it is not do with some fantasy about our unique values, skills or methodologies. It is to do with meeting young people without the security blanket of compulsion or sanction. It is to do with meeting young people in a mutual exploration of what on earth is going on. This creative dialogue knows no pre-determined outcomes, carries no guarantees. It is this authentic uncertainty that distinguishes youth work from other forms of work with young people, which demand the pursuit of prescribed and imposed targets.  For the moment many within the youth ‘sector’ seem intent on brushing this crucial distinction deep under a carpet of conformism.  Evidently in their eyes any engagement with young people is open to being called youth work – even an encounter on the streets between a  young person and the police, provided the latter have done their youth work training!

 

 

 

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