Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On Police patrol

Jane Kennedy (Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree) and I have been out with the Kensington New Deal area Police team on a special "youth issues" patrol.

I wrote to the police asking if we could all go out together to look at some of the problems local people have told us about youth anti-social behaviour, particularly on a Friday night in certain hotspots.

The police agreed it was a good idea, so they brought their list of target areas and I brought mine (and they were practically identical) and we spent three or four hours one recent Friday night in the big yellow van with a team of local police, visiting all those places on patrol.

Jane had met the local Inspector and Sergeant very recently to talk about some other issues - ASBO breaches and prostitution to name but two - and the police asked if she would like to come too - she would!

Jane has been on lots of patrols before over the years, particularly when she was a Minister in Northern Ireland whereas it was my first time. We were both really looking forward to it though, experienced or not. I was hoping for a flack jacket but it wasn't to be.

They picked us up after our respective surgeries on Laurel Road and we drove into some of the hotspots I have talked about before in this blog, in leaflets and letters and at public meetings. We went into Minto Close several times during the course of the evening, the police say reports of anti-social behaviour have reduced considerably since they targetted it for extra patrol attention. We drove right out on to the Gilead Street waste ground and I got my first sight of the powerful torch that sits on the roof of the van, manipulated by the front seat passenger to shine into all the dark corners.

We drove along Holt Road and into the Cotswold/Ling/Brae area, discussing the holes in the reservoir fence which the kids have made to escape through when challenged. It had been brought to my attention by a local resident at a recent surgery but also by the police themselves at a meeting following a particular incident with a crowd as large as forty strong. As an escape route, it was obviously causing anti-social behaviour so if it has been repaired following my request then it is a great example of police, community and councillors working together. If it has not been repaired yet then I will be very disappointed, I am up that way later in the week and will have a look.

We got out of the van and walked through to Jubilee Drive, checking out the path along the side of the new school where the Clean Team are planning to flatten the hump in the ground that kids hide behind at night. Then we got back in the van which had come round to meet us and had a patrol round Kenny Fields, it was quiet so we took the chance to hear more about the ASBOs issued to 11 youths on the estate and how effective that was proving.

As we drove past Phythian Park the lamp showed lads running away in the dark across the park. Most of the team jumped out and ran after the lads, hurdling the fence, while we drove round in the van to the rear entrance of the park. Two or three lads were caught and we spent some time at the side of the park, while the police talked to them and filled in stop and search forms. This was a chance for Jane and I to see the onboard computer system in operation. One of the lads thought he might have an outstanding warrant, so they checked his details, he was okay though so they let him go, they were all guilty only of running away as far as I could see. An occupational hazard for the police I would think. They did recover some alcohol left in the park though and it went in the bag for later disposal - they usually pour it away down the drain apparently.

While the police interviewed these young men our presence was attracting the attention of local people some of whom came to their doors to see what was happening so Jane and I took the opportunity to go and chat to some of them and put their minds at rest. I picked up a bit of casework too.

As we were now on the Phythian estate we had a thorough drive round, going into every close, it has been a problem area lately and the Inspector had promised increased patrolling so it was on his list as well as mine. It was all quiet, apparently, recent episodes aside, it is one of the quietest estates in the neighbourhood ordinarily. That will be the result of the wonderful work the residents did some years ago, working with the agencies to design out crime by taking away the entries and extending gardens, extra lighting, moving access points. A great success.

We also had a slow drive round Butler Crescent, another place on both of our lists for attention. We were talking about the problems with speeding cars, usually stolen, using the place as a race-track. The police have increased patrols there in an effort to deter them but what it really needs is traffic calming and soon.

Parks were a bit of a theme, we also drove into and all round Newsham Park, Birchfield Park and Botanic Park on our patrol.

Botanic Park is not really in my ward but is part of the police's area and is a big problem with lots of kids hanging round drinking and damaging things. We went first to the entrance on Wavertree Road, there was a gang of kids sitting there quiet quietly, they didnt run away and chatted very pleasantly with the police as they filled in about 8 more stop and search forms. More about these later. We were there about fifteen minutes, the police said afterwards that they were all nice kids. We did confiscate a bottle of Lambrini and that went in the bag in the van too.

Coming along the side of the park afterwards with the van light shining on it, we saw a large group of kids scattering away from a gathering in the centre and we walked over there. There was all sorts of alcohol, mainly vodka and orange and plastic cups, also some Stella cans - the haul was getting bigger. Apparently vodka is the alcohol of choice now for most underage kids in the area. This frightens me as it is a hard spirit which will do a hell of a lot more damage to their health than the cheap sweet cider we used to drink when I was an underage drinker in parks!
We didnt catch any of the kids though.

While we were on that side of the police patrol area we stopped so that the police could do a "walk through" of a local pub in Edge Hill, they have been targetting, checking for drugs and making sure people knew they were about. When they got back in the van they told us that the young male PC who was on their team temporarily, as part of his training, had been wolf whistled and manhandled by some girls who thought he was a stripper-gram, we teased him mercilessly for the rest of the night, he did say he might have to go back at the end of his shift!

We also had a drive down Royston Street to have a look at a recently abandoned caravan (the kind you hitch on to the back of your car and take on holiday) that was full to the roof with old tyres. The police were very concerned that it was a fire hazard which could be fantastically dangerous if it was set alight, but they had had no success in persuading environmental services to take it away and it was not one of the types of vehicles they had authority to remove themselves. I promised to get on to it myself. (I did and I also let Cllr Sidorczuk know about it, as it was in his patch rather than mine and we try not to get involved in other people's wards if possible. It has now been removed.)

We had a good parade up and down Edge Lane, Kensington, Prescot Road, Wavertree High Street, all the main roads where kids hang round outside takeaways and off-licences and at bus stops. We stopped lots of times so that the police could chat to the kids and see what they were up to, I was amazed by how many they knew by name. We did take one boy home who we had already checked out earlier in the evening and who was now quite drunk on vodka. His Mum sent him straight to bed when they handed him over. He was a nice lad, doing well in school and with caring parents, hopefully he will have had a bit of a shock and will get his act together now.

I also had the chance to see the VPN in operation when a suspect car parked in a strange place was checked out, but it was fine, it belonged to a local shopkeeper.

A few things stood out as we reflected on the evening.

Firstly was the inordinate amount of time the police had to spend filling in stop and search forms, or whatever they are called. You have to ask not just for personal details but itemise every item of clothing someone is wearing, their ethnic background, all sorts of things and it is a long thin form which is unsupported so it flops about and there is nothing to rest on. The text is tiny and most of the writing has to be done in the dark. Jane was concerned by this bureaucracy and vowed to bring it up with the police minister. It is clearly a hindrance to the policing work as they have to spend time standing round filling them in even when it is clear that the people they have stopped are innocent of any wrongdoing. This stops them getting back out on the street. I can see that it is important that the police are held to account over any possible racist behaviour in terms of the people they choose to stop, but not to the extent that it gets in the way of active policing by delaying them for so long so often during the shift.

I was concerned that most of the kids we saw were not doing anything wrong other than drinking under-age, actually I dont think that is a crime is it? Isn't the crime buying the stuff under age? Anyway, they were just hanging round chatting in the main part yet the police have to spend a lot of time moving them from one place to another so as to satisfy the needs of local people who are rightly intimidated by them. I wish there was a middle way though. The kids need the adults to provide them with alternative diversionary activities if they dont want them to hang round on street corners and in parks! Obviously if they are causing criminal damage as they hang about they do need to be sorted out, but some of the kids we saw were just desperately in need of somewhere where they could safely be together. Yet another plug for youth service provision please.

The only other concern I had was that for instance we spent at least half an hour at Botanic Park in one place or another but because it was dark and the van lights were off while we went about our business, the local residents would not have known we were there. What is the point if high visibility policing if it is not in fact visible? I have tasked the police team with thinking how they can better advertise their presence so that people know they are on patrol at night and can feel reassured.

Otherwise I came away with the overall impression that the police are doing a good job following the priorities of the community, tackling anti-social behaviour, working with all the other agencies to manage youth crime down and that the kids are mainly decent but bored.

There were no emergencies, we finished the shift at 11pm so probably the big stuff happens later than that. I did ask what would have happened if we had been alerted to a serious crime occuring, the answer was that if no other patrols were available or near enough, we would have been let off at the side of the street and the police would have taken off to deal with it.

We had a great evening, very interesting, we all learnt a lot and I would include the police in that, real partnership working in action.

Thanks for having us (and when can I do it again?)

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