''We don't use the atom bomb first," said Michael Craik, Northumbria Police's deputy chief constable. His words were not a retreat from a planned attack on an unseen enemy, but his measured response on how the communities of England's northernmost force should be policed today. There are better ways to build trust, he insisted, and they involve the co-operation of a public that knows it has a role to play in the justice system run by the police. Already, the police have been collaborating with "new enforcers" - a variety of agencies such as local authorities and groups from the not-for-profit and private sectors, which are working alongside the police to tackle social and environmental nuisance and antisocial behaviour.
This NS/Fellows' Associates round table focused on the role of the new enforcers. The fourth of six debates being held around Britain on the theme of community justice, the event took place in Sunderland, and gathered a range of professionals with experience of working with the community. They debated how new ideas of law enforcement can be deployed successfully to foster public trust and support.
Craik's message was born out of experience gained with the Metropolitan Police on the streets of London. It was there, in Brixton, that the tinderbox reaction of community alienation occurred more than two decades ago. He was happy to comment on the riots of 1981, and on those in the early 1990s closer to where he now calls home - the tough Meadow Well estate in North Shields. There was "not a lot of consent" between the police and the community in multicultural Brixton, he admitted.
Experience has brought valuable lessons, including vocal support for a greater mixed-agency approach. Although Craik acknowledges that there is much still to be done, he believes that policing is now more sophisticated, and that heavy-handedness "can have consequences on the community and not just on us". "It's just being sensible not to use that approach," he said.
It is the close-knit community, bound together by generations, that points to the benefits of engagement. Overzealous policing against an individual in areas where many people are related, claimed Craik, would not build trust but would "impact on a hundred, and not just one". He said it was better to use a "graded response", and reflected: "We will write a letter to the parents and investigate any arguments that are special to the needs of the community." But he warned that if care is not taken locally, "we'll be told centrally what to do".
Hilary Armstrong, Labour MP for North-West Durham and government Chief Whip, asked all present to come and sample the "anxiety" of many of her constituents over the collapse of recognised boundaries of behaviour.
"It impoverishes communities in terms of what they can do," she said, and explained that boundaries have to be "set by local communities" if people are to feel empowered. "You can do national surveys, but they will not necessarily reflect the issues of individual communities." Armstrong also emphasised the need for communities to engage responsible children who will, for example, support their local theatre group, as much as those who support "drinking cider at night on street corners".
In response, Richard Garside, founder and director of the Crime and Society Foundation, questioned parents' roles in their children's behaviour: "If you have kids out on the streets late at night, then you have to ask what's going on at home." He guessed that they must feel better being out on the streets. However, Garside also disliked the idea of law-abiding young people, socialising on the streets, being given penalty notices "if they are doing things that they do when they are young". "To encourage a more vibrant and plural democracy," he insisted, "we need proper dialogue with young people and we need to take what they say seriously."
According to Marian Harrison - the regional director of Encams, an environmental charity that runs, among other things, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign - a rift has grown between adults and the young. This gap has led to an unhelpful generational conflict. If an older person merely hears of the bad behaviour of certain ten-year-olds in the neighbourhood, that older person now "has less tolerance for them", she explained.
Ged Fitzgerald, chief executive of Sunderland City Council, agreed that many older people were often scared of youngsters for no valid reason. The agencies acting as "new enforcers" have to demonstrate to people living "ordinary lives in ordinary communities", some of whom are in fear of going out at night, that their voice is being heard. He argued that co-operation between agencies was a key to success. Change could come at national level through a large degree of flexibility, he said, but it was all about "trying to get the balance right" locally.
The Newcastle-based barrister Graham Duff said that sometimes the only option was direct action to target and remove an individual troublemaker. Citing a case involving Sunderland car-park attendants, he said: "They were being terrorised by one person on a mountain bike. It was a nightmare for them to turn up for work when this lad was around. I remember when we banned him from the car parks, they were very happy."
Pensioners also needed fast action, he stressed. "If you're 85, you can't wait for another generation of well-brought-up children to arrive."
Julie Elliot, northern regional organiser for the general workers' union GMB, maintained that problems of youth disorder needed "joined-up thinking". This would allow young troublemakers to recognise the problems caused by their behaviour and ensure they were not just moved from street to street, taking the problem with them. Fitzgerald echoed this argument, saying that the plethora of new enforcers had not been seen in a joined-up way.
Peter Francis, principal lecturer in the division of sociology and criminology at the University of Northumbria, said that balancing resources was vital to the success of the new enforcers. "Look at the north-east," he said. "We've had great results in just ten years - proof that the best enforcers are communities and their traditions."
Ian Clennell, head of education welfare services at Newcastle City Council, claimed there was no protocol for sharing information among the new enforcers in the city. "We're always talking about working together, but does it actually happen?" he asked. "Some schools, for example, don't want the problem kids. So shouldn't we be looking at the needs of the kids, the schools and those of the local community?"
Clennell believed that improvements depended on the allocation of resources: "It's not always about throwing money into something." For Craik, not even 800 new recruits would necessarily be the right way to allocate resources, if more sophisticated policing methods were available. "If the intelligence is half as good as it should be", he said, it will tell us where we should be directing resources.
Harrison insisted that the multi-agency approach was working in neighbouring North Tyneside, where the situation, though not perfect, was gradually "getting better". Giving the police a vote of confidence, Fitzgerald said that street-level intelligence provided to the council was making a difference. He believed it showed the benefits of creating trust between agencies, which led to the same troublemaking families being identified. "This is one small example and one small step," he enthused.
For Harrison, the way in which the public is engaged is essential. She described how an ethnic-minority group in Newcastle replied "no" to the question: "Do you have a problem with public transport?" "But we got to know them, and they didn't have a problem because they were too afraid to use it," she said. "We need local knowledge, not just stats."
And Armstrong insisted: "This whole agenda has come from the bottom, by listening to our communities."
Democracy, the MP said, is "all about trying to find a way to live together".
Jenni Murray (Facilitator) Television and radio broadcaster
Hilary Armstrong MP, North-West Durham; Chief Whip
Ian Clennell Head of education welfare services, Newcastle City Council
Michael Craik Deputy chief constable, Northumbria Police
Graham Duff Trinity Chambers, Newcastle and Teeside
Julie Elliot Northern regional organiser, GMB (General, Municipal and Boilermakers' union)
Ged FitzgeraldChief executive, Sunderland City Council
Peter Francis Principal lecturer, sociology and criminology, Northumbria University
Richard Garside Founder and director, Crime and Society Foundation
Marian Harrison Regional director, Encams
Chris Stone Chief executive, Northgate Information Solutions