We can now elect police officers: but will anyone bother?

Let’s not waste this opportunity.

It is now less than a month until the first police and crime commissioners are elected across the country. The policing minister Damien Green has described this as “the most significant democratic reform of policing in our lifetime”, and yet there is a real danger that hardly anybody, especially young people like me, will turn out to vote. Indeed, yesterday saw former Metropolitan Police Chief Sir Ian Blair urge us to boycott the election, telling Sky News “I actually hope people don’t vote because that is the only way we are going to stop this”.

Sir Ian is wrong: the Home Secretary has repeatedly stated that the elections will be legitimate whatever the turnout. The reforms are going ahead. However, there is a real danger that he will get at least part of his wish. The Electoral Reform Society recently estimated that only 18.5 per cent of the electorate will brave the November chill and head to the polls. Surveys suggest that 82 per cent don’t know who their candidates are, and the figures are probably even higher for us traditionally apathetic young people. An informal poll of friends in my home constituency of Essex drew nothing but blank expressions, and polite but uninterested questions as to what a ‘police and crime commissioner’ actually was.

This is a concern, because we are precisely the age group that should be paying the most attention to the election of PCCs. As research by the Transition to Adulthood Alliance shows, young people (16-24) are disproportionately likely to come into contact with the police, and are massively overrepresented in the criminal justice system – we make up 10 per cent of the population but one-third of those commencing a community sentence, one-third on the probation caseload and almost one-third of those sentenced to prison each year. We are also the most likely age group to be a victim of crime; 31.8 per cent of young people were victims of a crime in 2011.

The decisions PCCs will make will therefore have a disproportionate impact on us. The introduction of PCCs, however, also provides us with a huge opportunity to have our voices heard directly. PCCs have a duty to engage with the whole community, and hold the local chief constable to account on their behalf. They can set strategic priorities, and shine a light on poor practice in policing locally. This election is a chance to raise those issues around policing and crime that matter most to young people.

Despite the apathy about PCC elections, many young people have strong feelings towards the police, whether this is to do with the policing of protests or feeling marginalized and bullied by the police presence in their community. Young people involved in the riots, interviewed as part of the Guardian and LSE report, commonly cited anger at the police as a cause of their behaviour.  

Stop and search is one such issue highlighted in the riots report. These powers were used more than a million times by police in 2009/10, with a crime detection rate of just 9 per cent. We are more likely than any other age group to be stopped, while it is well known that black and ethnic minority groups in particular are disproportionately stopped. Organizations such as StopWatch are already lobbying candidates on these issues, and young people should take this opportunity, and use their vote, to push for a change in the way we are policed.

Other issues that are likely to have a disproportionate effect on young people are already being discussed. Candidates are issuing their manifestos and taking to social media to share their thoughts on issues such as zero-tolerance policing, anti-social behaviour and the policing of town centres at night. Candidates are already talking about us, even if we are largely not listening yet. Last year’s riots, as well as pervading negative perceptions of young people as "yobs" and "hoodies", make us a hot topic for some PCCs, particularly those who want to sound "tough on crime".

A boycott will not change these perceptions. It is vital that we do not let this national conversation on policing and crime become yet another case of politicians talking about us, but not with us. Young people need to grasp this opportunity to engage, register and vote, and get involved – move the debate beyond its current stale focus on turnout and implementation and have a say in how we are policed. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

The old days are over: a policeman in 1913. Photograph: Getty Images

Shane Britton is the research and policy officer of youth charity Revolving Doors.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.