Jenny Willott MP writes… Young people and policing: the opportunity of Crime Commissioner elections

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With the November elections for Police and Crime Commissioners rapidly approaching, candidates across the country are starting to outline how they intend to improve public safety in the areas they want to represent. Successful candidates will have to set out a five year police and crime plan to determine local policing priorities.

One issue I think is vital for candidates to address is how to engage properly with young people. Back in 2006, when I was our Shadow Minister for Youth Affairs, young people often spoke to me about their lack of confidence in the police. Today, I still have the same conversations with young people.

Under Labour, the police chased targets not criminals. In a tick-box approach to public safety, young people represent the low-hanging fruit and were too often specifically targeted by police for their ease of arrest. This led to too many young people feeling harassed and victimised by the police.

Now that the Coalition government has brought this culture of targets to an end, police forces are turning their attention towards keeping the public safe and improving community relations, and as a result we can expect the treatment of young people by the police to improve.

There is no doubt that relations between young people and the police need to be improved further but this will take time. Some forces, like our own police force in South Wales are already leading the way. During last summer’s riots, when police from South Wales headed to London to help, their instinct was to go into the troubled estates and organise games of football with young people rather than to arrive in riot gear. This approach has been shown to work and is something from which forces across the country can learn.

The Police and Crime Commissioners strike me as a great place to start building on the progress made in recent years and making improving relationships between police and young people a key priority. As the gatekeepers to our criminal justice system, the police have a unique opportunity to listen to young people and build positive relationships with them.

As Lib Dems we have always been committed to a local approach to policing where police listen to and work with everyone in their community. The Liberal Democrat policing paper, published earlier this year, made it clear that PCCs must not just listen to the loudest and most articulate voices. They must also listen to calmer or more marginalised voices: those of victims, minorities and young people. And yes, this includes young people who have themselves been in trouble with the police – who, however unpopular with some, are often amongst the most vulnerable in our society.

The Howard League for Penal Reform is putting a lot of effort into using the introduction of PCCs to improve the relationship between police and young people. The charity’s “U R Boss” project works with young people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system, and the issue that these young people raise most frequently is their negative experiences with the police. The Howard League is therefore calling on PCC candidates to pledge to run a clean campaign which avoids using disparaging language about young people – and, if elected, that they will consult with young people, including those with direct experience of the criminal justice system, when developing their police and crime plan.

I am hopeful that introduction of PCCs could prove a great opportunity to bring the police and young people together and make everyone in our communities safer.

Jenny Willott MP will be taking part in the Howard League’s fringe event at Liberal Democrat conference on ‘Police and young people: Can the Liberal Democrats lead the way for change?’ The event is taking place on Tuesday 25th September at 6.15pm in the Sandringham room, The Hilton Metropole Hotel (outside the secure zone).

* Jenny Willott was the Lib Dem MP for Cardiff Central and chaired the working group on working age social security policy in 2016.

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