can’t remember being told not to trust the police, but growing up I never did. A strong statement but perhaps not surprising when you learn I’m Black British and was brought up in Tottenham.
I was a curious (read: nosey) child, and snatches of adult conversation about police run-ins left a lasting impression. My dad has since shared many stories about the northbound bus stops at Seven Sisters station, a notorious stretch of High Road where no black male dared to wait because the odds of being stopped and searched in line with ‘sus’ – suspected person – laws were so high.
Years later, I found myself working in community engagement for a local London authority. No longer a homogenised ‘other’, the police had become a group I had to work with constructively to tackle issues such as anti-social behaviour and promoting community cohesion.
To do my job well I needed to regard each officer as an individual, to try and overcome my prejudices but also what I perceived to be theirs. In this I feel I succeeded. Nevertheless, my dad’s experiences and the relationships between the police and the community that nurtured me continued to hold some sway.
Community development work gave me an insight into the focus, dedication and time needed to build trust and positive relationships between local people and the authorities.
Although in this case I represented the council, I suspect this scenario is not dissimilar for the police. I wanted to explore the possibility that neighbourhood policing – distinct from law enforcement and crime prevention – has the potential to improve community-police relations and start chipping away at a deep-rooted sense of mistrust.
Could this approach be the way to understand ‘policing with consent’?
The foyer of Tottenham police station was quiet when I arrived. I was greeted politely by the officer on reception who informed the neighbourhood team of my arrival. After being escorted upstairs to the part of the station where the various neighbourhood-specific teams are based, I spent the next hour in open discussion with PC Joe Stirling and PC Jerry Grover, dedicated ward officers for Bruce Grove, and their boss at the time, Inspector Karl Rogers.
The neighbourhood bobby
The Bruce Grove ward officers cover the area north of the High Road to Lordship Lane, and between Bruce Grove and Philip Lane. They serve approx. 15,000 people and describe their role as connecting with the area and its residents, building confidence and fulfilling their crime prevention and investigation roles.
Community engagement is a critical part of their success; ward officers help settle disputes and support vulnerable people including the elderly, those with mental health issues and offenders.
They receive case referrals and pass on referrals of their own to the council, social services and local charities, emphasising that this is a substantial part of their role and does mean they need to be in the office at times to manage this effectively.
Other jobs they carry out on a regular basis include safety talks for residents on issues such as protecting personal property and burglary follow-up visits.
“We may not be [always] visible…but we are in places we weren’t before”
PCs Sterling and Grover emphasise that they are always out on foot. They cover 8-10 miles a day across the ward, and use their vehicle as little as possible. They say people appreciate their regular presence in the area, which means they trust and are able to share information with them.
The officers are keenly aware that some parts of the community have had little positive contact with the police, and tell me about their efforts to reach out to them, in part through their work with young people and rehabilitation services.
When I asked what the main issue they have to deal with is they tell me neighbour disputes – perhaps not a surprise to some of our readers!
In such cases, their job is to mediate and help people seek a resolution and avoid escalation.
This can involve facilitating meetings if both parties agree, and hopefully identifying a compromise. They would like to encourage people to come forward with issues like this so that they can help, and emphasise the value in reporting such incidents to the police.
Policing in Tottenham
I sensed that the ward officers I spoke both genuinely enjoy their jobs. They highlighted the unique multi-cultural environment we live in, the variety of tasks they face and that they feel positively received by residents.
But, they were also open about the challenges as they see them: high rates of crime, low levels of confidence (which they emphasised they are trying to address) and complicated historical issues. These combined make their job both ‘fascinating and distinctive’.
At this point, Inspector Rogers came and joined our conversation. He characterised Tottenham as ‘an evolving place’, highlighting the good relationships the police enjoy with ‘different incoming cultures’. He spoke very favourably about regeneration plans for the next 5-10 years and the transformative impact he predicts it will have on the area.
He highlighted the police’s Independent Advisory Group – a broad cross-section of community leaders and representatives from the Hasidic Jewish, Afro-Caribbean, Latin American and Asian communities. Their role is to advise the police on critical incidents and politically sensitive issues. There is an aim to set up a youth equivalent in the near future.
In terms of resources, Inspector Rogers pointed out that there are 32,000 police currently in Metropolitan Police Service – more than ever before. However there was no explicit answer in relation to how many of these resources were available for neighbourhood policing.
He acknowledged that the visible presence isn’t as great due to the need to prioritise critical issues, a greater emphasis on multi-agency approaches to ensure wellbeing and the doubling of resources allocated to counter-terrorism. Interestingly, he mentioned that he was about to take up a new role looking at confidence in policing across the borough. This could be a very positive initiative if adequate resource and authority is given to it.
A greater focus on the east of the borough – given the severe need – would also not go a-miss….
In explanation of high crime rates, Inspector Rogers clarified this is predominantly youth-led anti-social behaviour. He spoke of gangs that have started in Tottenham, now operating across London, that pose a significant problem and very well known.
“…that is the challenge for us, to keep the gangs apart, and stop everyone stabbing each other”
He went on to point out that the general population need not fear this type of crime as it was gangs against gangs. This was a difficult point in the interview for me. I felt the statement reinforced a separation between young people at risk and the rest of the community, when in fact ‘they’ could be our neighbours or our sons.
I raised the point that I found this analysis sad with Inspector Rogers. He was quick to acknowledge this, highlighting various programmes to help young people escape this lifestyle. We moved on.
Interestingly, the week before this interview I’d had the pleasure of meeting Leroy Logan MBE, founding member of the Black Police Officers Association, and one of the first black Caribbean recruits to the Metropolitan Police back in the early 80s. Before I heard him speak I couldn’t help wondering why anyone from a BME community would want to be a police officer, particularly back then. (My Tottenham genes were kicking in!)
He relayed an anecdote which totally threw me, describing how his father was brutally beaten up by the police and how this strengthened his resolve for black people to join the force, looking out for their communities from inside the institution. ‘If we didn’t do it, who would?’ It was powerful stuff and it opened my eyes. I can’t say policing is a career choice I’d make, but many people from all races and ethnicities do, and for honourable reasons.
I can’t help thinking that the neighbourhood teams in Tottenham could do with some more ethnically diverse faces in their ranks to help advance their aim – and the urgent necessity – of building trust within the community. The Bruce Grove Safer Neighbourhoods team members I spoke to were clearly focused on community engagement and I hope that they get the investment and support they need to ensure this approach yields results.
I’d like to thank PCs Joe Sterling and Jerry Grover, and Inspector Karl Rogers for participating in the interview.
Bruce Grove Safer Neighbourhoods team can be reached on 020 8345 0716. They hold regular ward panel meetings which are open to the public, so please do call them for more info.