New initiative: Partners in crime... prevention

A project that pairs police with young people vulnerable to the lure of gang culture has won high-profile praise
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The Independent Online

On a bitterly cold, north London evening, a man and an 11-year-old boy are racing up the steps of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. Again and again, they charge up the stairs, pivot at the top and run down again. Exhausted, they retire to a sushi bar, where Rob teaches Ollie the difference between a salmon maki and tuna nigiri.

It might be a typical scene involving a father and son, but Rob is a police superintendent and Ollie is a potential gang member. Their meeting is part of an initiative that sees serving officers acting as mentors to troubled children aged five to 11. The scheme, run by the Chance UK charity for 13 years, is seen as a cheap, successful way to counter the growth of gang culture in Britain.

Because of the tough environment in which he is growing up, Ollie, like so many of his peers in Islington, could easily come to regard officers such as Supt Jones as "the enemy". Instead, he is learning there is more to policing than simple law enforcement.

Chance UK began working with the Metropolitan Police in London after it was approached by one of its former volunteer mentors, Mark Bird, who had just been appointed deputy police commander in Hackney. Today, the Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank set up by the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, will urge ministers to consider rolling out similar projects across the country.

According to Supt Bird, children as young as seven are used by gangs to carry weapons, because they are too young to be stopped and searched. In Hackney alone, he knows of 23 gangs that are linked to drugs, violence and knife crime, and have a ready stream of "wannabe" gangsters waiting to join. He says: "What I tried to do with the boy I mentored was to instil him with some sense of self-worth and show him there were other avenues, because I could see he was on the fringes of gang culture. This was a boy who had rarely been out of Hackney, never been on a Tube and hadn't ever seen the sea."

Gracia McGrath, Chance UK's chief executive, says its work in Hackney is about "trying to change perceptions". "Many youngsters referred to us grow up in families or neighbourhoods where police are the enemy," she explains. "If we are successful, we change not only the child's perception of police but also the family's. And for the officers, who will have seen children like the ones we work with forever getting into trouble, there can be a change of perception too."

The boy: 'He doesn't look like a policeman'

Ollie, 11, lives with his mother and three siblings in a flat in Islington, north London

"Rob wasn't what I was expecting when I first met him. He doesn't look like a policeman. I'd said that I didn't mind if my mentor was a man or a woman but they had to know about football. Rob is a West Ham fan, but I support Liverpool. I want to be a footballer when I grow up.

"Rob comes to meet me at home every Monday evening. I try to get my homework done before we go out. We do all sorts of things, like going to the cinema or ice skating. I was much better at ice skating than Rob was. Perhaps I fell over more than he did but it was because I was doing harder things. He just held on to the side.

"Rob is teaching me the words police operators use for letters of the alphabet – like "Lima" for "L" and "Foxtrot" for "F". One of my favourites games is one we play on the bus: spotting people, waiting till they get off and then asking each other questions about what they looked like to see who remembers best. Rob says I've got a good memory. When I get home after our meetings, I tell Mum all about it. My older brother's a bit jealous. He says he wants a mentor too. I look forward to seeing Rob more than anything. I like having him to myself, going out with him on my own. I like being with adults and he's a good person to be with. He's nice and kind and I can talk to him. He's promised that one day he'll take me to the police station where he works."

The mentor: 'I've been trying to encourage him to resist peer pressure'

Superintendent Robert Jones, 35, is the head of CID for the Metropolitan Police in Hackney, east London

"The first I heard about mentoring was when James, from Chance UK, came to the police station where I am based and gave a talk to the senior managers. I've always believed that, as a policeman, I need to really get to know the community I work in. This felt like a good opportunity to do that. Now, because Ollie is so outgoing, I'll find myself walking up the Caledonian Road with him and being introduced to all sorts of people.

"So far, our weekly meetings have been on cold, dark evenings and, because Ollie is such an outdoor boy, it can be a challenge to think of things we can do and keep warm. Chance UK has strict rules about how much you can spend when you go out. We have a budget of £30 a month, so we sit down together and plan. If we want to go to the cinema, that's expensive. So the next week, we'll do something like look at books in a bookshop or go to an internet café and look up things on a computer. I'm trying gently to show Ollie that being indoors can be fun too. Often, we'll eat together. He wants to eat healthy food, so I introduced him to sushi and he loved it.

"He is generally very open-minded and curious. As we are doing things, we talk. He probably talks more than me, sometimes about things that are worrying or frustrating him. I've been trying to encourage him in particular to be strong in the face of peer influence, which is something that has got him into trouble in the past.

"The time I spend with him is my free time, though we are allowed to take time off for this type of mentoring when we are on duty. But I wouldn't want anyone to think any of us are doing this because we see it as an easy option. We are all doing it for positive reasons. A lot of my job is about either confrontation or administration. What I like about being a mentor is that I can spend time on building a relationship. I'm loving it."