UK street preachers spread anti-crime gospel

More than 10,000 volunteers patrol streets spreading religious messages, and police say they have helped reduce crime.

Street Pastors talk to young people in Sutton, London. Credit: Adam Bonner and Nat Gillett
The UK has seen one of the sharpest drops in street crime in Western Europe [Adam Bonner, Nat Gillett/Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom – With her blue jacket and baseball cap – and armed with a prayer as well as a walkie-talkie – Audrey Golding is on her first patrol with London’s growing army of “Street Pastors” carrying out what she sees as God’s mission on Britain’s boozy byways.

She is one of at least 11,000 volunteers in the Christian organisation who patrol towns and cities across the country at weekends to bring practical help – and, at times, a spiritual message – to young people out partying late at night.

“When my oldest son decided that he was an atheist I was so angry that I prayed for angels,” says Golding, a former teacher. “But then I realised, we can be angels. That is why I am here.”

Experts believe that the type of faith-based citizen participation that Golding embodies is making a significant contribution to a dramatic fall in rates of violent crime in the UK, as part of a wider strategy of “smart” policing.

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, representing forces throughout the UK, said: “Volunteer roles continue to support the police across the country and help us in delivering a better service to the public. Faith based citizen patrols, such as Street Pastors, have made a significant difference by helping people and keeping them safe.”

Crime decline

Two landmark reports have indicated rates of murder and violence are falling more rapidly in Britain than anywhere else in Western Europe, and identified a major decline in the number of people hospitalised after violent incidents.

The figures come despite falling numbers of police officers and amid tough economic times – prompting a search for explanations that has focused on partnerships between the police and community groups such as the faith-based Street Pastors.

In its first “United Kingdom Peace Index”, the New York-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) measured levels of violent crime between 2003 and 2012.

Its UK report is an offshoot of its well-established Global Peace Index that measures levels of “peacefulness” in societies according to variables such as levels of violent crime, homicides and violent demonstrations – as well as perceptions of criminality.

The institute identified a “substantial and sustained reduction in direct violence in the UK”, with a homicide rate that has halved since 2003 and a reduction from 1,255 to 933 in violent crimes per 100,000 people.

Although the UK homicide rate is now at its lowest level since 1978, violent assault in Britain remains much higher than the OECD average and it is still one the least peaceful countries in Europe, ranking behind Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Poland.

The institute argues that declining levels of violent crime can yield a substantial economic dividend: the cost of dealing with violence in the UK and lost production resulting from it amounts to £12bn ($19.3bn) annually – the equivalent of nearly eight per cent of GDP.

Economic benefits

“The UKPI clearly indicates that the UK has become substantially more peaceful in the past decade, but it also shows that further improvements in peace would generate billions of pounds in extra economic activity,” Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman of IEP, told Al Jazeera.

In a separate study, Cardiff University reported that the number of people treated in hospital in England and Wales after violent incidents dropped by 14 percent in 2012 from the year previous.

“These findings are important because they show that England and Wales became safer, that people can be less worried about being harmed, and that the cost of violence to the National Health Service and to communities is coming down,” said Professor Jonathan Shepherd, director of the university’s Violence and Society Research Group.

The IEP believes that a substantial improvement in police practices is among the most likely explanations for declining violence – even though budget cuts have slashed police numbers in the UK by 5.5 percent over the past five years.

Commentators also point to an ageing population, the introduction of a minimum wage, declining alcohol use – and the growing popularity of community patrols by organisations such as the Street Pastors.

Launched by the Ascension Trust, an inter-denominational Christian organisation that works with communities to address poverty and crime, Street Pastor groups originated in a gun-crime initiative targeting violent hotspots in London and Manchester.

Their numbers have swelled since 2003, and more than 11,000 trained volunteers in 300 teams around the UK now mount night-time patrols in town centres at weekends. The Street Pastors offer advice and help when they encounter problems of drunkenness, confrontation and homelessness.

One of the first Street Pastor groups was launched in Sutton, south London – a magnet for up to 2,000 young people drawn to its 16 town-centre bars and nightclubs on a Saturday evening – where patrols are led by Mark Tomlinson and a team of volunteers from local churches that now includes Audrey.

On patrol

The Pastors patrol in pairs talking to revellers, maintaining contacts with bar staff, and helping drunken or troubled youths. At 85, their oldest member, Pat Fletcher, says she has never felt vulnerable in her five years patrolling.

They hand out lollipops, sandals for young women who have removed their high-heeled shoes, and “spikies” – small, plastic devices that allow people to prevent bottled drinks being “spiked” maliciously with spirits.

As a religiously motivated group, at times the Street Pastors will even openly pray in the street with or for a troubled youth when appropriate.

These guys are amazing: you have people sitting around blind-drunk and they will always come and talk to them and encourage them to go home.

by Lawrence Dickson, nightclub doorman

Such methods may at first sight seem naive in the gritty urban jungle that areas of London become at night-time – but experience shows they can yield concrete benefits where high alcohol consumption heightens the potential for violent crime.

As Street Pastor Hazel Jessop points out: “You try having an argument with a lollipop in your mouth.”

Group members carry walkie-talkies linked to police radio control, working closely with officers and pub and club security staff – and alerting them to potential problems.

Those can range from encountering blind-drunk youths unconscious on the sidewalk, stumbling across fights or victims of mugging, and finding homeless people sleeping rough.

“I am convinced that we avert some of the crime and violence,” said Tomlinson, who has been patrolling for seven years. “The most important thing we can do is to maintain a presence, to be out there – and that makes a real difference.”

Other locals agree. Police officers on duty and club door staff speak in glowing terms of the Street Pastors’ work.

“These guys are amazing: you have people sitting around blind-drunk and they will always come and talk to them and encourage them to go home,” said Lawrence Dickson, the burly head doorman of Sutton’s Wonderland nightclub.

The work of the Street Pastors highlights a strong emphasis on collaboration employed by local authorities such as the police through the so-called “Safer Sutton Partnership”. In what is sometimes referred to as “joined-up” policing, officers consult regularly with the Pastors, bar owners and security guards – and respond rapidly to de-escalate signs of trouble.

Such tactics are having an impact: although levels of violent crime oscillate, recorded offences of violence against the person in Sutton fell from 3,214 in 2003-04 to 2,569 in 2012-13 – a drop of 20 per cent.

A similar organisation that originated in the north of England, named “Street Angels”, is also expanding rapidly, and has compiled evidence that the work of such initiatives makes a major contribution to the night-time economy.

Smart policing

Evaluations conducted in town centres from Stockton-on-Tees to Cleethorpes associate the Angels with large reductions in levels of crime and the fear of it. “The fact that a lot of towns report a significant reduction in crime from the day that Street Angels starts means there’s obviously some connection with the volunteer street patrols,” said Street Angels founder Paul Blakey.

Experts believe the emphasis placed by authorities on partnership between emergency services, volunteers and other agencies – and better use by the police of technology – are key factors behind the fall in violent crime.

Studies suggest that, by maximising the use of mediation, organisations such as the Street Angels reduce the need for more heavy-handed “response” policing.

Max Chambers, head of crime and justice at the Policy Exchange think tank that advised on the IEP’s report, says the UK evidence demonstrates that police numbers are less important than”“smart policing and preventative policies”.

Critics have attacked at least one aspect of this approach, arguing that a large increase in the use of “community resolutions” – by which, last year, more than 10,000 serious violent crimes were dealt with through an apology or compensation instead of a prosecution – are a quick way of clearing up cases and are bad for justice.

But community officials and police officers are in no doubt about the role played by the Street Pastors and Angels.

At a recent meeting with the Sutton Street Pastors, Chief Inspector Nick Collins, the local police partnership officer, told those assembled: “You being out inspires confidence in people. You make the street feel safer, and eventually that will make it safer.”

Source: Al Jazeera