In their shoes

1st November 2013 at 00:00

More than a decade has passed since specialist school liaison or "campus" police officers were introduced, and 55 officers are now involved with 65 schools across Scotland. Part of their remit is educational, delivering lessons about policing. But, more importantly, they engage in "pastoral policing", which is particularly important in communities where young people have negative opinions of the police, and where anti-social behaviour and violence is common.

Over the years, some have argued that the officers' presence in schools conveys that they are there to criminalise pupils. However, recent research by Glasgow Caledonian University's Liz Frondigoun found that many young people who had worked with campus officers developed increased trust and confidence in the police.

Over the past three years, I have worked closely with PC Mark Barrow, a campus officer at Drumchapel High School in Glasgow, beginning with a study of gang-related disorder in the local community. Many of the children I met spoke highly of Mark, yet were very negative about most other police officers. They felt Mark talked to them with respect and gave them helpful advice. He was seen as a positive role model.

The question that formed in my mind was an empirical one: how could I draw on Mark's work at Drumchapel to steer at-risk children away from anti-social behaviour, while generating wider social capital? Together, Mark and I created a set of practical workshops.

We worked closely with the local inspector, residents and youth workers to engage the children who participated in the workshops. We shared insights from interviews I had conducted in the community to illustrate the tensions between young people, beat officers and residents. The local inspector challenged their views of the police by stating that his biggest problem wasn't young people standing on street corners, but older people phoning up to complain about them.

The young people were surprised to hear local residents expressing empathy towards them and the challenges they face. In one memorable role-play session, they took on the role of the police and officers stepped into their shoes.

The children turned up for the sessions every week and their behaviour was impeccable. On the last evening, one of them tried on the local inspector's police uniform. Trust had been gained. And, by all accounts, involvement in anti-social behaviour fell over the period.

The real key to the initiative's success was Mark. The level of trust he established provided an incentive for them to attend the sessions, and enabled him to act as a bridge between the school, the youth club, the police and the community. My hope is that campus officers can become a fixture in every school.

Ross Deuchar is professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of the West of Scotland.

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