Stars of CCTV
Karin Goodwin goes out on patrol with the Youth Action Team, whose job it is to rid our streets of juvenile crime
Fifteen-year-old Natalie glowers with resentment as she watches plain-clothed PCs Adam Dyer and Andy Johnson of Leith’s Youth Action Team pouring the half bottle of vodka and litre of cider that she had been planning to share with friends down the drain.
‘I can’t believe you did that,’ she grimaces, folding her arms across her chest.
But Dyer and Johnson, who have come across the teenage girls and their carryout in a tucked away community garden off one of Leith’s quiet residential streets, are unrepentant. ‘You know we’re just trying to keep you out of trouble Natalie,’ Dyer tells her.
She demands to know how they know her name. ‘We had to take you home last Friday night after you’d been drinking?’ Dyer jogs her memory. ‘Surely you remember?’ A dawning embarrassment glimmers before her annoyance over-rides it. ‘Well, I’ll have a shit Friday night this week,’ she snaps.
The officers give up trying to engage her in friendly banter, and duck out of the archway leading to the garden and continue their rounds.
This may be a world away from the dark criminal underbelly of Detective Inspector Rebus’ Leith but the subject of youth crime is nonetheless one that interests his creator, Ian Rankin, who was keen for The List to investigate.
From petty offences such as vandalism and anti-social behaviour to assaults and knife attacks, the figures show that underage crime and persistent offending are on the rise, creating headlines and community concerns. Yet many would argue that too many young people are being written off as a result, labelled hoodies and hoodlums when they are just acting as teenagers always have.
The Youth Action Teams (YATs), a joint initiative between Lothian and Borders Police and Edinburgh City Council, aim to tackle vandalism, low-level crime and anti-social behaviour by building relationships with both young people and residents on their local beat. Three years after its launch, the initiative is bearing fruit, with some programmes having cut complaints by as much as half.
YAT officers gain the trust of teenagers through school visits and offer targeted activities including football and PlayStation tournaments for those particularly in need of ‘distraction’.
Some of these measures have worked well. Following recurrent calls from one group of residents about a rowdy group playing football on the street, damaging cars and causing disruption in the process, the team intervened and, in conjunction with Leith Academy, set up a regular kick-about using school facilities. Months have now passed and there have been no problems since.
But when complaints do come in, YAT officers are sent to the scene, allowing them to get to know both the young people responsible and residents affected.
The List has been invited on the plain-clothes patrol, which takes place every Friday and Saturday between 6-8pm, and is also a key part of the team’s duties. The team is on the lookout for young drinkers, who are not only more likely to cause a disturbance after a few too many alcopops, but who also pose a danger to themselves. ‘You look at these kids sometimes and they have no idea what’s going on or where they are,’ explains Johnson.
They are also out to target shopkeepers selling booze to under 18s. As we walk along one of Leith’s main thoroughfares they point out some shops that are known guilty parties. ‘And they’ve all been warned that they need to ask for ID,’ adds Johnson, ‘So there’s no excuse.’ Within the last few months they’ve secured a conviction for one shopkeeper, as well as confiscating well over 100 litres of alcohol from young people.
Sergeant Mark Rennie, who heads up the Safer Communities and Youth Action Team, explains why the approach works so well. ‘The most important thing for a YAT officer is that they build up trust and a rapport with the young people,’ he says. ‘They are then more likely to take advice and guidance from them than they would from an officer they don’t know.’
In Leith, he admits, the problem of youth crime isn’t as severe as in some parts of the city, but it’s still a significant issue for the community. ‘A generation ago you didn’t get so many young people drinking at that young age or committing as many crimes like vandalism so I don’t think that the change [in behaviour] is imagined. But I do think ideas about gang culture and hoodies can be exaggerated,’ he says.
‘Most of the calls we get are of an extremely minor nature. It’s kids loitering on corners, being loud, maybe throwing stones or drinking. That isn’t to say that a big rowdy group standing outside your house for weeks on end doesn’t become an issue. But the majority can be dealt with.’
But that still leaves a very sticky minority. There are around five persistent young offenders in Leith currently, aged between 13 and 16, who come to police attention week after week for ‘the whole gamut’ of crimes from vandalism to theft and assault.
One, who has just turned 16, has committed 170 offences in just two years. ‘His offences cover the full range of anti-social behaviour from thefts and dishonesty to vandalism, violence and intimidation,’ sighs Rennie. ‘He’s been involved in hate crime, stealing cars, throwing bikes off high landings in blocks of flats, urinating in lifts.’ The team has now applied for an Anti Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) for him (he broke previous Acceptable Behaviour Contracts) which will restrict his movement.
‘Usually there are a few hot spots that we just drive down to and take a look,’ explains Dyer. ‘Even if there’s nothing happening just now, when people see the van they know we’re out and about and even that is hopefully a bit of a deterrent.’
Soon Dyer pulls the van up alongside a police car that has stopped to apprehend three teenage girls that the YAT officers confiscated alcohol from in their earlier patrol. It seems they’ve managed to get hold of more. After a quick confab, the YATs are left to deal with it.
‘I thought you guys were going to be no trouble tonight,’ sighs Dryer, as the girls shriek in recognition. They are boisterous, full of good spirits but why are they still cruising the streets? The problem, claims 14-year-old Diane, is that ‘there’s nothing else to do’. She knows that the adults feel threatened by their behaviour but she’s not really sure why.
‘Some of them are alright, but most of them just think we’re wee arseholes,’ she shrugs. Sometimes they go to the under-18s clubs in town. ‘But they’re just shit,’ exclaims Ashley, who says that bringing teenagers from all over the city together causes fights.
Finally the girls calm down and the officers get back into the van. A report comes in over the radio of some youths throwing bricks at a ground floor resident’s window nearby. By the time the team gets to the address there’s no sign of the culprits, and the resident, scared of reprisals, doesn’t want the officers to visit. Instead they will phone to reassure him when they get back to the station.
While this complaint is a valid one, officers are also sensitive to the fact that locals are sometimes merely intimidated. ‘Things can get blown out of proportion,’ says Johnson. ‘The young people might not really be doing anything but the public perception these days is that a group of youths is no good.
‘If that is the case we are also quite happy to go and speak to the resident and tell them that really the kids are not doing any harm. Also we speak to the kids and try and get them to understand.’
Another burst of static from the radio heralds a call about a group causing a disturbance, probably drunk. When they hear the street name the officers groan. They know exactly who it is.
This time one of the groups of girls they ran into earlier has grown to include a couple of boys, and they are all shouting and screaming their lungs out.
‘If this doesn’t stop I’ll need to take you home,’ says Dyer as he gets out of the van, his tone now far less friendly. ‘I don’t want to have to come back and see you lot again. Keep it down. I’m serious.’
By the time they’re finished, Johnson ushering them down the street while Dyer follows in the van to make sure they disperse, more calls are coming in – stone throwing, vandalism, underage drunk and disorderlies are all standard Friday night fare. Glamorous it is not.
‘It might seem quite simple but this is what it will take to change things,’ says Dyer. He grimaces as he watches the teenagers disappear from view.
‘If we give up on these young people, they will just give up on us.’ In the van the radio crackles again – it’s time to take the next call.