THE BLOG

Fighting, Sexting and Anti-social Behaviour - Should the Police Respond Differently to Children?

30/11/2015 09:32 GMT | Updated 29/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Children and young people misbehave. It's a simple fact of life. But when the police are called should these acts - many of them experimental and impulsive - always form a part of a young person's criminal record, holding them back in adulthood every time a job application requires a background check?

Take, for example, a 12-year old boy at school who gets involved in a playground fight and then is found with a small penknife in his pocket afterwards. The police are called and the boy is charged with violent behaviour but police don't know he is a child who is deeply troubled due to being bullied by his friends and abused by parents.

The problem is, under Home Office rules on recording crimes, there is an expectation that every crime has an outcome. The Police have two alternatives, record an incident as having 'no further action', or to record an outcome that results in the young person having a long-term criminal record or being placed on a crime database. There is no option which recognises the police force's decision to refer the matter onto another welfare agency for support and intervention - for example for behaviour counselling. Of course police should always take criminal behaviour seriously - but they need the flexibility to respond in different ways.

This is just one of a series of reforms put forward by MPs and peers in 'Building Trust - one year on'. The report is being published 12 months after an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children (APPGC) found the relationship between the police and young people is often founded on mutual mistrust.

Some groups of children and young people are at particular risk of being drawn into the criminal justice system under current arrangements, with children in care - who are up to three times more likely to be convicted or cautioned - being a prime example. Last year, 47 children's homes in one police force area generated 3,500 calls to the police. Home Office rules stipulate that these call-outs must be dealt with and recorded as crimes, even if similar situations would be treated as private matters in schools or family homes.

The report shows that significant progress has been made in the last 12-months, not least through the introduction of a national strategy by police chiefs to improve the policing of children. Similarly, 17-year-olds are now classified as juveniles when in custody - affording them most of the same rights as children - and legislation will soon be introduced so that no child can be detained in police cells under the Mental Health Act.

However gaps remain that mean children's interactions with the police can be negative, creating a pattern of mistrust that persists into adulthood.

One obvious solution seems is to improve community policing. After all, the police are ideally placed to identify children at risk and intervene before problems escalate. Yet despite the protection of the police budget announced in the spending review, too often community policing initiatives - such as the Safer Schools Partnership which embeds police officers within schools - have been the first to feel the brunt of budget cuts.

It's time to rethink how the police respond and relate to children. What our work at the APPGC shows is that by treating under-18s as children, being mindful of their needs and vulnerabilities, we can prevent children from being needlessly drawn into the criminal justice system and allow them to grow up with a more positive attitude to the police. But the police can't bring about these changes alone, especially if their hands are tied by inflexible regulations and the lack of a clear vision for sustaining outreach work with children and young people.

Tim Loughton is the Conservative MP for East Worthing & Shoreham, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, and a former children's minister