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Are scruffy youth so scary?

The child curfew scheme in Hamilton, Scotland, was supposed to make both adults and children feel safe from crime. Yet it seems to have made all age groups more afraid of each other.

Stuart Waiton

Topics Politics

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A recent report found that crime in Strathclyde, Scotland had fallen to its lowest level for 25 years. Strathclyde has brought in initiative after initiative targeting what one policeman called ‘scruffy youth’, with hundreds of thousands of young people stopped and searched on the streets every other month.

You are more likely to find a CCTV camera up a back alley than you are to find a rolling drunk. Yet people living in the Strathclyde region continue to believe that crime has increased. There are also more police on the streets of Strathclyde than ever before. But people believe there are fewer police than when New Labour came into office. Why?

In Strathclyde, certainly, it seems that initiatives designed to reduce people’s fear of crime have had the opposite effect, by helping to reinforce the idea that we are all at risk from our neighbours – or at least from the antisocial ‘yobs’ who hang about the streets.

The curfew scheme in the Strathclyde town, Hamilton is a case in point. Officially named the Child Safety Initiative, this gave the police powers to take home anybody under the age of 16 who was found on the streets ‘after dark without a good reason to be out’.

The initiative’s stated intention was to make all sections of the community safer and, by so doing, help rebuild the targeted committees. Adults and the elderly in particular were to be made safe from gangs of yobs who made adults afraid to walk the streets at night. Children were also to be made safer – safer from their irresponsible parents who allowed them to stay out late at night. And teenagers themselves were to be made safer – both from other more violent teenagers and also from their own peers, who put pressure on them to drink, take drugs and even commit crimes.

Hillhouse, a working-class estate in Hamilton, was one of the areas were the Child Safety Initiative, or curfew, was introduced. But rather than reducing fear of crime and bringing people together, the curfew has elevated the existing fears that different groups on the estate have of one another, and widened the divisions between them.

The Child Safety Initiative rested on a very broad definition about what is, and what is not, criminal behaviour. Mothers letting their children stay out late may be seen as irresponsible by some, but it never used to be seen as a crime. Teenagers being a nuisance may be annoying, but that never used to be a crime. Some teen violence used to be seen as criminal, but not all.

When the police published their own research after a six-month trial period, a key justification for the Child Safety Initiative was immediately put to question, as they discovered that adults on the estate did not believe that it was a problem for young children to stay out late. In addition, one of the researchers admitted that there was no evidence as to whether the children in Hillhouse were safer because of the curfew, or not. This was largely because there was no evidence – in relation to accidents, traffic or crime incidents affecting children – that children in the area had been unsafe in the first place.

The curfew impacted on the targeted areas in many different ways, but in no way did it help to develop relations between people within the community. While some adults in Hillhouse felt safer, more were now conscious of supposedly dangerous areas within the estate. Those who did feel safer felt this way largely because the ‘scruffy youths’ had been moved off the streets. But what happens when the kids return?

One pensioner, George, felt safer because the group of kids who hung about his street had been moved away. They had never done anything to George, but he was always worried about ‘what could happen’. George’s images of these young people has not been challenged – indeed, his suspicions about them have simply been confirmed. After all, why else would you need a curfew?

In situations like these, it seems that adults have lost confidence in their own ability to regulate the behaviour of young people, and that role has been handed over to the police. The ‘strange young people’ who George fears will remain strangers; and when the police have gone and the teenagers return, George will be surer than ever that he should not talk to these kids himself, but should phone the police instead.

The police recognises that this fear of young people is often out of proportion to any real danger that adults, especially elderly adults, face from young people. Yet rather than challenging this fear, and encouraging adults to have a more relaxed attitude to teenagers, schemes like the Child Safety Initiative do the opposite.

Numerous children’s charities voiced the concern that the heavy-handed policing in Hillhouse would lead to a backlash from teenagers who came into contact with the police. However, while these young people were personally frustrated about being moved by the police and a slight majority opposed the curfew, overall they were in favour of more policing of other young people.

Most were satisfied with the level of policing in the area or wanted more, and when asked about whether the police should be phoned if a young person was seen drinking in the street, a significant majority believed they should be. The attitudes many of these young people had developed were both cautious and illiberal.

The introduction of the curfew had confirmed, for many young people living outside Hillhouse, that Hillhouse is ‘a bad area’. Those inside Hillhouse had become more aware of the ‘bad bits’ on their estate. Rather than becoming streetwise and learning to deal with other people on their estate, it seems that young people – especially young men – are like the elderly adults living there, being encouraged to relate to the ‘other’ kids via the police.

These teenagers don’t fear public space in the same way that adults sometimes do (although a third of those questioned said they got a lift to their friend’s house at night because of concerns about safety). But they have come to expect a level of policing and monitoring (CCTV, street drinking bans, stop-and-search policies, and so on) that past generations would not even have imagined.

The development of this attitude among teenagers has meant that, like adults who refuse to deal with young people, teenagers have become more wary of contact with each other. The druggies and the drinkers remain nameless, and the prejudices about the other kids on the estate are reinforced.

In an attempt to address the fears that adults have of teenagers, and that teenagers have of each other, one council in Lanarkshire has developed see-through youth shelters. These shelters, like the curfew, are supposed to make adults feel safer by encouraging teenagers to congregate away from people’s houses. They will also, it is claimed, make teenagers safer – as these see-through shelters will allow the police to keep an eye on the young people, and make sure they do not harm one another.

Through initiatives like the curfew and youth shelters, the very nature of public space is being redefined to mean a safe space – safe from other people. In Hillhouse, for many young people, safety is being prioritised way ahead of freedom. One 15-year old explained that ‘It’s my right to phone the police if I want to’.

Whatever the rationale behind new crime and safety initiatives like the Hillhouse curfew, the main impact of these schemes is to create a greater distance between people within communities, and to institutionalise their fear of each other.

Rather than finding new ways to protect us from one another, policy makers should consider giving us the space and freedom to deal with our peers and neighbours ourselves. Without this space, this freedom, we will see the creation of a truly antisocial society, where nobody knows your name – and you don’t want to know theirs.

Stuart Waiton is the author of Scared of the Kids: Curfews, Crime and the Regulation of Young People, Sheffield Hallam University Press, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)), and a contributor to Teenage Sex: What Should Schools Teach Children?, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

Read on:

spiked-proposals: Youth and community, by Stuart Waiton

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Topics Politics

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