Youth work and the police

Last night Lateline (ABC1) had a story about young people in care and the risk that they would end up in the legal system. One of the issues they highlighted was the tendency for police to be called for relatively trivial matters.

When I did my PhD about 10 years ago (Nonviolence and youth work practice in Australia), one of the findings that surprised me the most was how often the police were called by youth workers as part of behaviour management strategies. I conducted in-depth interviews with15 youth workers and 20 youth. During the interviews I didn’t notice how often the police were discussed, and it was only when I analysed the interviews that I realised that the use of police was a major behaviour management strategy.

Here’s what I wrote in my dissertation.

The Police

Another more coercive strategy for managing behaviour was the threat or actual use of the police. Police were used in three ways: as a threat, as back up for youth workers or as a consequence. The actual or potential threat of calling the police was surprisingly common. Even approaches that on one level were relatively non-coercive sometimes involved the potential for police involvement. If coaxing young people to stop negative behaviour, focusing on their positive behaviour and encouraging them did not work, Amanda suggested that youth workers should call the police. Miranda discussed a situation where a young male who had not been to the youth centre before dropped in with some beer. She adopted a non-confrontational approach, asking him to leave because of the alcohol and inviting him back the next day. When he refused to leave she eventually said, “Look, I’ll have to call the police, I don’t want to do that, there’s no need to do that, all you need to do is leave.” Although she wanted to adopt a non-coercive approach, behind it lay the threat of police involvement. The threat of calling the police was mostly used when young people refused to leave a youth service.

The police were sometimes used as back up for sole workers or in potentially dangerous situations such as incidents involving weapons, physical attacks or the potential for significant violence. Sole workers also called the police when there was no actual violence, or even immediate threat of violence, but young people refused to leave a service or were drunk.

Robyn: One incident that comes to mind where a young woman and her partner came in to our service and they were exceedingly intoxicated. I think they started just falling into things and things were getting broken and then it got a bit escalated and they began to intentionally smash things – mostly glass – and so there was quite a lot of blood because they kept cutting themselves. But their state was such that there was no possible way to have a rational discussion with them… It was a question of, other people who were in the building getting them away from where the action was happening so they didn’t get hit by flying glass. And calling the police, because I didn’t have the ability to deal with it as a single person in the building, single adult in the building, and really leaving it in the hands of the police.

As well as calling the police to respond to a situation, youth workers sometimes used the police to press charges against young people as a consequence of their behaviour. The most notable examples were the situations [discussed below] where, instead of evicting young people from accommodation services, the police were asked to charge them with an offence.

Despite numerous reports highlighting tensions between marginalised young people and the police (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1989; Standing Committee on Community Affairs 1995), only one of the young people and none of the youth workers, expressed concern about using the police.

Jane: If you involve the police, it basically, a lot of the time in a lot of specific areas, would ruin anything you finally worked towards. ‘Cos a lot of young people don’t trust the police.

Other examples

There were were a number of other examples where police were used:

Ross: What we did was we were really up front with young people and said, “Your tenure here [in an accommodation service] is secure. What you chose to do with that is up to you, but bear in mind that these are the consequences if you decide to hurt another young person, or hurt the building…” We followed through on those consequences which was, “OK you’ve totally demolished our hallway, we have to call the police. I will sit with you, however, while the police are here, and I will sit with you while you are charged for malicious damage to property, and then we’ll come back and we will have dinner.” And so young people really started to learn that. They didn’t trust that at first… It really required everybody to be working from the same philosophy. And I was really staggered by the decreases in violence, as young people actually started to hear, “All right, they’re not going to just, you know, reject me immediately. They’re going to continue to support me, and that’s because of who I am not because of what I do.”

Megan: It was an incident where a kid who was angry, really, really angry, came running up the stairs. I knew him, he was screaming and ranting and raving, and I was like trying to verbally calm him down and try to figure out what was going on. And then he just sort of lost it. Picked up the bin, started throwing the bin; picked up the table, started throwing the table. So obviously my immediate concern was to get all the other young people away from him, and to make sure that they were safe. So I moved all of them, tried to move all the obstacles and then he just sort of lost it and started swinging. And he swung at one of the kids, and then he, and I’m not even sure whether it was a swing at me or it was a swing at whoever, but basically (laughs) he almost got me. And I put him in a lock and put him down, face down on the pool table. And I was like, “Oh my God,” and he was like, “Oh my God,” and we were both like that. And so I kept him, and I just kept talking to him while I still had him in the lock, and said, “Look, I can’t let you go until I know we’re safe, we’re all going to be safe.” And he was ranting and raving, and sure enough he calmed down. I let him up and was guiding him towards going down the stairs… Then two of the other young boys sprouted up, “You just got done by a chick, you just got done by a chick” and that was on for young and old. He flung around, the eyes were red, he was glaring and this time he was going for me. And I basically had to do some maneuvers and keep him flat down on the table again, and told the other workers to go and to call the police.

Behaviour management

I think that behaviour management was the most significant issue to come out of the research. Even though youth workers were often working with young people with quite challenging behaviour, they were rarely trained in behaviour management and didn’t seem to be comfortable with the language of behaviour management.

My research explored the implications of a philosophy of nonviolence for youth workers and one of my arguments was that it was important to use non-coercive forms of behaviour management. I developed a model of nonviolent youth work practice one component of which was “Promote a positive environment and respond to behaviour nonviolently”. Here is what I wrote about this area.

The focus groups raised a number of issues in relation to the best way of articulating an approach to managing behaviour. There was particular concern about the term behaviour management. In the in-depth interviews only Ross had used these words, and then only after he had been asked about it as a term. His response indicated that some care was needed: “That implies power straight away, you know, ‘I’m going to manage your behaviour.’” In the focus groups, participants varied in their reactions to the term and, if they did not use it, how they described what they did. Like Ross, some of them reacted negatively to behaviour management as a term. They felt it had connotations associated with control and behaviour modification.

Rebecca: I think it sounds like that someone is in control of somebody else, and to me that’s not comfortable.

Claire: And it doesn’t imply any negotiation or anything. As you say, it’s more of a controlling thing, “We’re going to manage your behaviour.” Its not like we’re going to work together.

Others did not react as negatively equating it with terms such as time management.

Jacki: I don’t see it as a controlling thing. Management doesn’t, to me, feel controlling. It’s about managing something, whether it’s good or bad. I don’t see it as a negative… And when you’re putting it in something like this, I don’t know what else you could call it, because that is what you’re talking about, managing a behaviour, managing a situation, managing something. It’s not saying controlling a behaviour, controlling a situation… You manage your service, you manage your daily budget, so management to me doesn’t feel like a negative or control.

The participants who did not like the term behaviour management had difficulties proposing a better term. Many of the suggestions related only to one part of managing behaviour. For example, participants spoke about charters or agreements but these are about setting agreed standards of behaviour and do not refer to the full range of strategies used by youth workers. Another participant suggested, “it’s responding to challenging behaviour,” but this did not include strategies aimed at preventing problem behaviour. Ellen argued that the term also needed to focus not just on problem behaviour but also on positive behaviour.

Ellen: It refers to not only dealing with problematic behaviour but tapping into positive behaviour, or you know helpful behaviour. I think it covers a lot of things… I see it as an umbrella for both positive and negative stuff. Whatever terminology you use. Because people often limit it to responding to problematic behaviour, then I think its been given negative connotations and I think it’s why we don’t hear that language with youth workers, well most youth work agencies.

Some participants preferred the term managing behaviour and believed that the negative connotations were not as great but others still thought that the word managing still had “an element of control in it” and that they would leave it out. Following the focus groups both behaviour management and managing behaviour were avoided in the model but, as no alternative had been identified, were used in discussion of the model.

During the in-depth interviews, the discussion had focused on preventing and responding to problems. As Ellen indicated, however, managing behaviour also included a focus on promoting positive behaviour. In the final model use non-coercive behaviour management strategies was modified so that it became promote a positive environment and respond to behaviour nonviolently. Promote a positive environment was based on the in-depth interviews that had demonstrated the importance of creating such an environment. Promote was selected rather than create because some aspects of a positive environment, such as nonviolent behaviour by young people, could be promoted but not created by youth workers. Respond to behaviour nonviolently related to the way in which youth workers responded to behaviour, particularly negative behaviour, although it could also include responses to positive behaviour. The term nonviolently was used rather than non-coercive because, as Diane suggested, it was more consistent with the focus of the research and the model.

The focus groups reinforced the importance of further consideration being given to ways in which youth workers could manage behaviour nonviolently. The participants believed there were many dilemmas and grey areas. While opposing physical intervention in most cases, some of them believed that there were occasions where it was necessary for youth workers to intervene.

Matt: I think taking a weapon off a young person is a tricky area regardless and it should be left to professionals. However, it’s not always easy.
Jacki: Well if it’s in the best interests of a lot of young people –
Sam: You’ve got a duty of care…
Claire: The incidents where that has happened, there’s no opportunity where you could call the police or get a professional in there to do it, without someone getting really hurt before they got there. So it’s the moment and that’s when a decision has to be made.
Sam: And the best response I’ve had from the police is 20 minutes anyway.
Claire: Exactly. If they turn up. You’ve got youth workers, they should be able to do something.

The use of police, according to Alison, was always going to be an ethical dilemma but a number of participants could see situations where it was appropriate. Sam highlighted some of the dilemmas involved:

Sam: I had one incident where a fairly large, tall guy was quite aggro and going off and very threatening, and I said, “Call the police,” and that was when he started moving outside and settled down, he was still aggro. But when I spoke to him a few days later, I said, “What else could I have done in the situation? What would have calmed you.” And he said, “No calling the police was the best thing, ‘cos I’m 19 and so I’d be going away, so it was the best thing.” Whereas I had another situation just recently where a young people was going off, and heard that the worker had called the police, and that was when he went and assaulted a worker. “If you’re calling the police anyway, I’ll give you something —.”

Diane suggested that, depending on the police, it was not necessarily coercive and could be consistent with a philosophy of nonviolence. If youth workers were going to use the police, participants in the first focus group suggested it was important that, where possible, they built a relationship with them beforehand and discussed ways of intervening that were consistent with the aims of the youth service.

Exclusion from a youth service was also seen as a dilemma. As with the in-depth interviews, participants in the focus groups believed that exclusion from youth accommodation services was more serious than from youth recreation services. Rebecca worked in an accommodation service that also had a small drop-in centre for clients. She said that exclusion from accommodation services was “a real big one” and was dependent on ensuring there was somewhere else for the young person to go. Exclusion from the drop-in centre, however, occurred quite regularly. Ellen expressed concern that the context of the behaviour leading to exclusion was not always taken into account and that reflective practice was important.

Ellen: I think it’s interesting, the exclusion always seems to be, or for the most part seems to be, just based on the young person and their behaviour, and not about how they’ve been responded to. Like I get that sense, that there’s all this problematic behaviour that you’re being hit with, that you’ve now decided we’ve got to exclude him or her, or maybe we need to exclude. And it’s always the sum of that behaviour rather than that behaviour and, “Well, how have we responded so far and is there a different way we can respond? Are there certain circumstances that are exacerbating this behaviour or stimulating this behaviour.” So it’s always looking at the young people and their behaviour and grounds for exclusion… It was very easy for staff to say, “He’s a problem, he needs to go somewhere else.” To then start exploring with them, “Hang on, what are the problem behaviours? When do they occur? How are you responding to them? Have you responded to them in this range of ways?” And that they have to go through all that before they could be moved out.

Although the model does not provide clear principles for managing behaviour nonviolently, it is a starting point. The Community Service Commission (2001) highlights some of the challenges for youth workers in managing behaviour and demonstrates the need for further debate about appropriate strategies. Unlike youth work literature, there is a great deal of discussion of managing behaviour in education literature. There are many approaches to managing behaviour in the classroom, many of which are based on coercion and control (Charles, Barr & Senter 1999; Docking 1980; Kohn 1996; Rogers 1997). Some approaches, however, are based on meeting the needs of young people, building community and cooperation (see for example Glasser 1986, 1992; Kohn 1986, 1993, 1996; Porter 1994, 2000a, 2000b). These approaches are consistent with a philosophy of nonviolence as they operate from a position of power-with and offer useful guidance to youth workers. While such approaches may still occasionally necessitate the use of more coercive approaches, such as physical intervention, the use of police and exclusion as a punishment, such measures should be a last resort after youth workers have attempted to identify other strategies. It is possible that an important factor in determining whether or not interventions such as physical restraint are consistent with a philosophy and practice of nonviolence is the intent of the intervention. If the intent of the intervention is respectful, seeks to protect the individual from harm and provides the young person with the opportunity to change their behaviour, it may be consistent with a philosophy of nonviolence. If the focus of the intervention is on control or maintaining power-over, it is unlikely to be consistent.

Tomorrow I’ll post a summary of the model.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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