It’s not often that you would find a policeman in casual clothes being ordered to turn out his pockets by a black teenage boy dressed in a hoodie and baggy jeans – and rarer still to see the policeman meekly complying. But at Sedgehill school in Lewisham such scenes are soon to be a regular event.
The exercise is typical of a programme called Critical Encounters, devised five years ago by Second Wave Youth Arts Centre in Deptford and the Territorial Support Group, which explores the impact of stop and search on community relations.
The project, which according to new research could potentially help combat terrorism, has recently expanded to become a school outreach programme, made up of Second Wavers and police officers. Thursday (February 4) will see the team return to Sedgehill as part of an ongoing after-school event set to run six times a year.
Creston Hamilton, 19, is one of the six youth workers hosting the workshops at Sedgehill. He was among the first group of young people to take part in Critical Encounters.
“I used to stereotype police officers. From my own experiences, and with interactions that I’ve seen and my peers, I had it in my head that I disliked the police.”
The teenager says he came to the workshops intending to confront officers about incidents he’d witnessed. “The first meeting was a bit tense. I thought they had their own agenda. But with the different icebreakers, we shared our views about why we saw the police in a certain way and how they saw us. At the end of the day, we are all individuals, just in different uniforms.”
Kloe Dean, 20, is also a youth worker on the Sedgehill project. She is involved in training young people to take part in the drama production Swagga, a story about a young man embroiled in gang culture, which accompanies the workshops.
“The police at the Second Wave workshop were treated like us young people. If they want to be treated like human beings, they have to be able to talk to us, to get respect and visa versa.”
It seems the good vibes are reciprocal. Sergeant Jon Biddle, from TSG4, comments: “This has been groundbreaking work and taken us out of our comfort zones. What we found in role reversal work was often the same thing that made a bad day for a young person was similar for police officers. It was an opportunity for us to really get to know young people in our community and develop as police officers.”
Stop and search is a burning issue for young people at the centre, not least because of its associations with the so-called ‘sus’ laws which precipitated violent race riots in Lewisham and Brixton in 1981 before being scrapped the same year. Stop and search powers deployed under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act continue to spark controversy, as critics claim it only serves to exacerbate tensions in the community, especially Islamophobia.
But ongoing research suggests the broken communications that lead to clashes can be bridged via community partnership work with police. Dr Basia Spalek who leads the Communities, Securities and Social Justice Grouping at Birmingham University is looking to Second Wave for inspiration. Research has included interviews with religious leaders and young people in London and Birmingham.
“One of the surprising things we found was that community groups and police are willing to engage with each other.” Trust is pivotal to this, she says. “Police have to be very clear they are seeking partners and not informants and partners can walk away at any time.”
At Second Wave, both police and young people swap roles in an impartial environment where there will be no repercussions. Both sides have to feel safe, says Phil Turner, development officer at Second Wave. “When we take our workshops to Sedgehill it’s really important that this relationship of trust has been established beforehand, so it can work in another setting.”
Although Second Wave is more focused on tackling street crime, parallels can be drawn with religious extremism. Ms Spalek says: “There might be an interesting comparison to be made between work with gun and knife crime. It’s the same level of marginalization that leads young people to become involved in crime as well as religious extremism.”
The secret is having a creative approach in engaging young people. “Second Wave is interesting because it is trying to access people through Swagga,” Ms Spalek says. “There are a whole range of people who come under the term ‘radical,’ it’s a bit like people who turn to crime. It’s easier to prevent someone young from getting into crime than it would be working with a prisoner.”
At Second Wave, young people learn why the police conduct stop and search, and are taught the correct procedures. In turn, their parents gain more confidence in the system.
Mr Turner says: “Young people all over the world face similar problems with the police. It’s the feeling that the community is vulnerable, groups feel marginalized because there is not enough communication and the police have to be accountable for their actions. Our work here is to break down those barriers and create a sense of positive responsibility for everyone.”