You are here: Heating or eating? Poverty is driving crime and the policing makes it worse

Young adults call for radical police reform focused on tackling poverty, trauma, and structural racism.

New research finds that young adults, aged 18-25, who live in the most deprived parts of the country, feel robbed of any optimism about their future, because of frequent and traumatic encounters with the police. Young adults want police to identify and effectively respond to their health and human needs, to avoid them being drawn into a lifetime of crisis and crime.

The accounts of 100 people with lived experience of repeat contact with the police, found that:

  • They were in dire poverty, and most had to choose between heating or eating.
  • They did not trust police or other services and felt hopeless about their life chances.
  • They were known to the police from a very young age because they were victims of crime, such as child neglect, abuse, or exploitation; however, safeguarding concerns and support disappeared on their 18th birthday.
  • Mental health crises ended up being dealt with by the police because of a lack of mental health services.
  • They felt targeted by the police due to high crime rates in their local area and being labelled as ‘thugs’ for not being able to find a job.
  • Despite the best intention of police officers, every encounter young adults had with the police caused trauma and increased the perceived and real inequalities they face.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill entered parliament this week and justice charities are already raising concerns that the proposals do not prioritise a public health approach to vulnerable people caught up in the system, despite public support for that approach. It does not promise investment in the effective diversion schemes that are needed to divert these young adults into support, rather than arresting them.

At the same time, an increasing number of police services are calling for standardised training on social determinants of crime such as trauma, poverty and inequalities, so that 20,000 new police recruits can work effectively to prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system and divert low-level and non-violent offenders into appropriate support.

Pavan Dhaliwal, Chief Executive of Revolving Doors Agency said:

“The current policing strategies and tactics are failing young adults who face severe social exclusion. Too often, policing focuses on the individual victim or perpetrator and fails to see the social and economic determinants that make that young person more likely to be a victim of crime, have poorer health outcomes, have police contact or enter the criminal justice system.

“It is concerning that every police contact, regardless of context and the officers’ best intentions, have the potential to further traumatise a young person and reinforce perceived and real inequalities. The government must urgently invest in community provision and reduce their reliance on police services to deliver crisis and welfare responses.

“The revolving door is avoidable. We need to invest in diversion services that provide the long-term mental health support for young adults, help them access education, training and employment and release their full potential.”

Andy Rhodes, Chief Constable of Lancashire Police said:

“We should start by making trauma training mandatory. It is not good enough to understand how a person arrived at the place they are today; we also need to use this insight to make better more compassionate decisions. Decisions that are better for them, for victims and for communities.

“The young people I spent my early police career catching and convicting are now adults and I now know their stories because I have met many of them. Childhoods loaded with Adverse Experiences and all too often physical and sexual abuse. When I ask them, what would have stopped them offending, they hardly ever mention arrest, custody and imprisonment. Quite often their turning point came as a result of one conversation with a frontline professional who believed in them, helped them access treatment, safe housing, peer support and a job. The things many of us take for granted.”

The Knot - Lived experience perspectives on policing trauma, poverty and inequalities

This research, based on the perspectives of young adults who have committed repeated low-level offences, explores guiding principles for trauma and poverty responsive policing.

This briefing brings together evidence from 100 young adults with personal experience of the ‘revolving door’. Their repeated contact with the criminal justice system is driven by multiple unmet needs. These include mental ill-health, problematic substance use, homelessness, and domestic abuse.

For young adults caught in the tangle of poverty, trauma and structural inequalities, every encounter with the police appears to exacerbate trauma and inequalities. These young people are likely to distrust police and other services and may avoid support, believing that no one will understand or be trustworthy. They often feel hopeless about their life circumstances or chances of recovery.

The briefing makes recommendations about how policing strategies should acknowledge the prevalence of trauma among young adults who commit repeat, low-level responses. These strategies must address disparities in how the police use force and exercise discretion. They must also include a review of operational policing tactics and police custody environments to see how they could be improved to reduce trauma.