Nearly 50 children who frequently come into contact with police spoke to researchers for Tuesday's 'Children's Voices' report, giving a mixed picture of their experiences.
All the children had contact with the force through safeguarding, meaning that they spent time with police for their own safety after going missing or being involved in a difficult or dangerous family situation.
Most who took part in the research for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) believed that the police are biased against young people and do not treat them fairly.
“The police just separate [families]. They go to social services and just split up families; that’s all they do””
Forty-five kids aged 7-19 revealed their feelings about the police.
HMIC highlighted the "variability" of children's experience with officers, saying that it varied even within different police forces.
In some negative examples, like those below, kids told of being "terrified" of the police, feeling judged based on their age and clothing, and not trusting officers to believe their version of events.
“I think if they saw like a gang with like all tracksuits and hoods up and stuff, I think they’d see them more as being naughty than like a bunch of other people just sitting in a park playing or something””
“It wouldn’t be straight away like ‘Hi police officer, can I tell you something?’ It definitely wouldn’t be like that. It would be like tell a friend, and a friend will tell them. Or tell a youth worker and the youth worker will tell them””
“I think kids are more scared of the police now, not like think the police are there to keep them safe””
“They could be a nice person under all that uniform, but when they’ve got the uniform on and they’re standing there with handcuffs and shit, it’s like, things just run through your head. You’re thinking ‘crap, they’re coming for me’ or ‘they’re gonna arrest me’ or ‘they’re gonna hit me’. For me, it’s gonna be like ‘shit, escape plan, jump out the window’”
“[Interviewer: You said to me that mummy told you a lot of things. Did the police explain or try to explain anything to you?] "They [the police] didn’t explain anything to me””
“Do not patronise young people, we are not deaf and dumb””
“Some of them just have like grudges against young people, like, I don't know how to explain it…[they think] that we’re all criminals””
“Because of our age it is highly unlikely that an adult police officer will listen to what we have to say when we are children””
“It is how they treat two genders as well, they treat girls differently to boys which is really clear to see… Girls, they’ll be ‘Well you shouldn't really do this. Is it because you’re with the wrong people? Is it because you’re with your boyfriend?’ or whatever. So they try to help girls more than boys. But with boys they're like ‘You shouldn’t be doing this. You need to go home now, we’re taking you home’”
“They prejudge about how you’re going to act…And they don’t know who we are, so they shouldn’t judge us at all"”
“When I was young, I’ve seen them arrest my dad, my mum, my auntie in front of me and everything, and I’ve seen them section my mum and everything, so I don’t really like them."”
“I don’t really like the police so I prefer to avoid them as much as possible… They’re just horrible people, some of them. I’ve experienced them and some of them are really horrible"”
“Some people don’t feel comfortable ringing the police about something like that, because they feel like if they get the police involved it’ll make things worse””
“It’s like, you want me to tell you something and then you sit there talking to me like a piece of shit. I’m not going to tell you ought if you’re sitting there talking to me like a piece of shit am I?””
“The [second] woman, I mostly saw her at home only. She didn’t really speak to me, she mostly just spoke to my mum. When I tried to show her a portrait that I did all by myself she didn’t give me any attention””
“Because of the way he was with me, we were having a laugh, he were like asking where I were and all this, we were having a laugh and joke, getting along. Whereas another time, there were these women police officers, they’ve obviously been out all night looking for me and…they picked me up, I were just like two minutes away from me house and they asked me to get in police car, so I was sat in police car…I didn’t like the way she talked to me. They were like ‘we’ve been out all night looking for you’ all this and that. So I'm just like ‘whatever’ because I just didn’t like the way she talked to me””
However, the report also details a different set of stories in which children were deeply grateful for the empathy they experienced from the police.
They told of compassion, which made them feel valued and safe - and one even spoke warmly of a police officer who 'cuddled' her - further highlighting highlighting the ambivalent nature of the research.
Unsurprisingly, most children were more likely to seek help from officers if they had positive experiences in the past, such as those in the quotes below:
“Even when I’m with my mum sometimes I don’t feel safe… but the police have all their equipment and stuff… they have the Taser and cuffs and they’re able to arrest someone, and they have the ability to arrest someone””
“[She was] really polite and so calming and because I got really upset about it, she was just like cuddling me, telling me that it was all gonna be ok"”
“I got in contact with the police straight after it happened and they was there for me right from the beginning... If I had any problems they told me to ring up straightaway and they’d sit there and talk to me all night, if I really had to. And if I didn’t feel safe they’d come back and they’d help me out. One of the things my dad’s always said is, police are wrong… don’t talk to them, don’t let them help you and that’s what I was getting drilled into my head. But ever since that happened I’m now thinking better of the police"”
“The police do an excellent job in keeping young people safe. They helped me find a safe place to stay and without them I never would have been here now. They have helped me understand that what happened was not my fault and that I was not to blame””
“She was actually really nice. She took her time to write everything and then she was like, I’m really sorry but I’m going to have to rush quickly…I think it was really helpful that she did stay, because it shows she cares about the person she was dealing with already, she didn’t want to like leave and feel the person or patient or whatever… kind of rejected"”
“They talk very softly and they show that they’re being quite understanding to you””
“She was super kind…she got me chocolate sweets. She said if you get a bit too shy you can just leave and go back to class – because I was super shy then…she was different to the policeman because the policeman said ‘please stay because we need you to help us’””
“Yeah, [I had good support] when I was in police protection like that man, like he…Like it feels nice to have like a person around you and I thought, ‘Oh great, I’m stuck in a police station with loads of police’ but when I met him he was like, it was like he wasn’t a police officer to me, like a good experience that I had and how nice he was being. It was like he wasn’t a police officer to me””
The children who took part in the study also offered some advice for how officers could win their trust:
“Always listen to them never judge. Offer male and female officers. If they say they are going to do something do it. If they don’t young people feel they are in trouble. They always make you feel you have done something wrong””
“They should communicate with like different people in the community…and make them feel like they can respect the police and talk to them””
A second report from HMIC into police response to missing children found "little action" is taken to find some potentially vulnerable kids, and police have a lack of understanding of why they go missing or are not where they are expected to be."
Inadequate police data means it is "impossible" to know how many children in England go missing or what risks they face - meaning young people cannot be protected, the report said.
Though the researchers also praised "excellent, empathetic and effective" work around missing children, they stressed "immediate improvement" is needed.