Police academy: how forces are on the front line of early intervention

8 November 2017

Derren Hayes, editor of Children & Young People Now, talks to two police leaders about their investment in an early intervention approach. This article was originally published by CYPN in their November 2017 issue.

Around half of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have taken part in an initiative to develop new ways of working with children and young people displaying early signs of offending or wider behavioural problems. Since September 2015, 24 senior police officers from 20 constabularies have participated in the Early Intervention Academy for police leaders.

The academy, run by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), has worked with police leaders to better understand the factors driving changes in demand for police services and how working holistically with vulnerable children and families as part of a multi-agency approach can help them steer a path away from crime, and in doing so reduce demand.

Here, two of the police leaders to take part explain how their forces have developed early help approaches.

Early intervention hub brings police and social care together in Northamptonshire
Chief inspector Mark Evans, early intervention lead, Northamptonshire Police

Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACE) by Liverpool John Moore’s University showed that mental health issues, experiencing domestic abuse and living with offenders were all significant in the pre-offending history of first-time entrants to the criminal justice system, and the 18- to 24-year-olds on the list of local priority offenders.

What struck us was a significant number of these frequent offenders were already known to children’s social care.

The fact that a third of young offenders were a victim of something first also challenged our thinking – no longer can we speak in terms of being robust around one group and supportive of the other; it’s the same people in many instances.

Our aim is to mitigate the negative impact of ACEs, assist young people in building resilience and to offer support to their families. Key to achieving this is the establishment of a pilot Early Intervention Partnership Hub.

There, police officers and community support officers work alongside early help co-ordinators, adult social care, housing and the anti-social behaviour unit.

A local domestic abuse charity is also involved, as this is the area of highest demand for police and other agencies.

The aim is to follow up reports of child concern submitted by frontline police officers, and by schools, and to take action where such cases do not meet the threshold for early help.

The hub is focused largely on primary school pupils, the vast majority of whom are below the age of criminal responsibility.

It intervenes as issues emerge in order to avoid invoking exclusion policies as our research shows that school exclusion consistently crops up as a characteristic of offenders. Families are worked with until they are ready to disengage, or a single agency is identified as being best placed to take on the case.

The force is only just beginning to explore alternative ways of addressing offending behaviour in young people.

It recognises, however, that young offenders are products of their family circumstances, and that addressing such circumstances before the child reaches the age of criminal responsibility will avoid burdening them with the consequences of a criminal record.

For those young people who do commit crime, the force is working in close partnership with Northamptonshire youth offending service to ensure that diversions to address specific offending behaviour are offered before resorting to criminal sanctions.

Early Intervention in Northamptonshire is not solely about reducing youth offending; it is about pooling resources to reduce demand across all public sector agencies.

Local authority, health, housing, schools and third sector organisations have all signed the information sharing agreement, and are participating in police-led initiatives, overseen by a multiagency early intervention governance board.

It is too soon to measure the “economic” impact of the hub, which only started working with all 47 schools in the pilot area in September.

But it is clear there has been a sea change in inter-agency working, a willingness to share data, ideas and expertise, and to address low-level issues that would otherwise be ignored until the family concerned required support from acute services.

Police co-located with Troubled Families teams in Lancashire
Chief inspector Derry Crorken, early action lead, Lancashire Police

Development of Lancashire Constabulary’s early action and prevention strategy began in 2015 when we began working with the Early Intervention Academy for police leaders.

We realised that we needed to take a different approach to crime reduction because we were struggling to keep pace with rising demand – between 2010 and 2014, there was an 11 per cent increase in public safety and welfare incidents – and the changing nature of crime.

In Lancashire, there has always been good links between police and schools, youth work and youth offending services. But we recognised we needed to take greater account of how childhood experiences and particularly parental problems impacted on young people’s behaviour.

When a young person comes on our radar, we look at the family in the round, so we can understand how parental issues are affecting the child and what we need to do to tackle these. To help the multiagency response, our early action staff are co-located with Troubled Families teams across the county, taking account of the specific needs of different communities.

Our approach was to shift resources from neighbourhood policing into our early action unit: staff numbers were raised from 91 to 131 – 75 of whom are dedicated police constables. We also recruited nine specialist mental health nurses to reflect the fact that one in five reported incidents are now mental health-related.

However, the investment was not just about recruiting more staff – we also realised there needed to be a culture change in the skillset of our staff. For this work, you need people with emotional intelligence and have the resilience to work with vulnerable families and children. It’s not going to be the right role for officers who want to drive fast cars.

Recruitment focused on identifying people with compassion and empathy, with senior officers selected on their understanding of how social problems affect criminal activity and how to best work with vulnerable people to change behaviour.

All new early action staff received three weeks of additional training on prevention policing, including spending a week with a service or project that works with vulnerable groups. This meant that when staff came back as a group to present their findings, they were learning about 40 different experiences.

This built up their knowledge of vulnerable groups and the issues they face, and enabled them to explore and recognise their own unconscious bias to these issues.

Early action and prevention is one of six key aims of the Lancashire Public Service Reform Board. Our work directly contributes to that. It means there is a collective public service with all agencies working towards making people’s lives happier, healthier and more productive.

We have a joint outcomes framework that sets out a series of measures we hope to achieve, such as a reduction in taking children into care, that will reduce demand on all services.

For example, by working closely with vulnerable people who regularly called the police, we have managed to reduce call levels by 26 per cent.

We could quantify that financially, but, most importantly, the work we have done has made the lives of those people better.

The case for early help

EIF says there are five key reasons for policing to focus on early help:

  1. Vulnerability-related demand on policing is increasing. Incidents linked to risky behaviour, mental health crises and domestic violence now account for 80 per cent of all calls for services. Many of these are repeat incidents, pointing to a failure to address the root causes of a problem. Simply reacting to these problems when they reach crisis point is no longer sustainable for the police.
  2. Early intervention has real potential to reduce demand on policing. Many early intervention programmes now have robust evidence of impact on crime, anti-social behaviour and mental health.
  3. The police need to work differently because austerity has hit other services hard. It’s no longer the case that if the police ignore something, another agency will pick it up – many are retrenching back to their core statutory obligations.
  4. Early intervention offers an alternative to a “referral culture”. The police make more referrals to children’s social care than any other agency. Most of these referrals result in no further action.
  5. Neighbourhood officers and police community support officers have an opportunity to be able to intervene early and address the root causes of problems. They frequently encounter children and young people who may be struggling and are very able to identify those who need help. With the right training and support, with protected time in their communities, and with priority given to early intervention within performance and promotion processes, they can be a huge asset to the “early intervention workforce”.