Police video juvenile crimes for parents

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The Independent Online
A new type of hi-tech police officer is prowling the streets of an English town in a crusade against juvenile law-breakers. Here comes ... Videocop!

Police in Gosport, Hampshire, are secretly filming juvenile crime with video cameras so they can play the tapes back to parents, as part of an initiative to check juvenile crime.

The scheme has drawn a mixed reaction. Some people favour the project as a way to cut crime, while others see a threat to civil liberties in the idea of Big Brother Watching You ... and then snitching to your parents.

The project is the first in the country and during April, when it began, police took footage of youngsters drinking under age, scrawling graffiti and hurling stones on to busy roads. Six parents viewed the tapes last week.

One of them, Denise Ballard, told the Independent that her daughter Amy, aged 15, had been caught with a group of friends writing on a library window. Mrs Ballard said her daughter promptly came home and told her the police had filmed the incident.

"We sat and watched the video with her and the police. They weren't doing anything much really. In the area they were in, there's nothing for kids to do anyway. I couldn't actually see them writing, it was a bit foggy," Mrs Ballard said.

She sympathised with the intention, however. "When you see the damage done, this should deter the children the next time."

In a separate incident involving stone-throwing, another set of parents realised their child had told them only half the story once they saw the video.

Only one parent refused to come to the police station to view the tapes, said Superintendent Martyn Powell. "There is very little we can do if this happens, since this is a voluntary initiative," he said. "When parents come here, it automatically shows concern and they are more than half the way to solving the problem."

A dozen of the 102 police officers in Gosport sub-division have been trained to operate the camcorders, and they are sent out daily to trouble spots.

PC John Hemsworth, the community beat officer, said: "We find a place where we can film secretly. Afterwards we come out and tell them, 'Look, this is what we have'. The Chinese whispers about us have spread, but many of them don't know what to expect."

Filming depends on the gravity of the incident. A crime such as burglary would be stopped rather than recorded, said Chief Inspector Michael Mitchell. "We hope the tapes will help parents to begin taking responsibility. We thought parents will want to know what their children are up to, and will want to come on board and help us stop it."

If a youngster shows signs of an alcohol problem, police will put parents in touch with professional agencies.

The scheme has been warmly welcomed in some quarters. Peter Coles, Hampshire's county education officer, said: "It can show youngsters how stupid they look. The tapes can make it obvious graphically that their deeds look ridiculous."

But Nigel Heath, honorary secretary of the Hampshire Federation of Parent Teacher Associations, who has four teenage children, commented: "If it smacks of Big Brother, it will not be a deterrent.

"I understand that police clamping down on under-age drinking is necessary, but it is mainly the parents' responsibility. It is up to parents to teach children the safe use of alcohol."

His step-daughter Cally Searle, 15, sees things differently. She said: "Some of my friends commit these crimes and they will protest that they are not doing anything wrong. If they are shown how it causes damage, they may stop. A lot of juveniles give the rest of us, who don't do anything wrong, a bad name."

Moira Swann, Hampshire Youth Justice Services manager, warned that the police needed a sensitive approach. "It seems a bit extreme really. The methodology is confrontational."

While supporting the attempt to involve parents, Ms Swann added: "If it's about catching people out and challenging people instead of working together, I'm not sure it will work. Unfortunately parents could be alienated when hi-tech equipment is used."

Alan Cox, a Southsea resident and member of the Hampshire PTA federation, also expressed reservations. He said: "It's quite a good idea, but it could very easily become a sort of police state. I'd go along with it if it's used to catch real criminals but I'd hate to think harmless fun was being cracked down."

David Smith, professor of criminology and co-author of Psychosocial Disorders in Young People with Sir Michael Rutter, is another sceptic.

He said: "It is an extraordinary idea but will be a superficial intervention. Most parents of children involved in this sort of behaviour are already aware of it. Those with effective parenting styles might respond positively, but they may not be involved with this problem.

"For those parents who do not care, it will simply re-emphasise their inability to deal with their children."

The Police Federation and other forces are watching the experiment to see whether it should be widely adopted.