Stephen has been an independent advisor to Southwark Police since 1992.In the 1990s he was instrumental in setting up one of the first locally-based, multi-agency forums to address homophobic crime, and in 1999 he was invited to join Southwark’s Critical Incident Panel. Since 2007 he has been the Co Chair of his local Safer Neighbourhood Community Panel.
In 2009 the following article was published in Camberwell Quarterly, the newsletter of the Camberwell Society.
Camberwell’s Critical Friend by Stephen Bourne
When I was a pupil at the Archbishop Michael Ramsey school in Camberwell in the 1970s, our local police stations had reputations for being among the toughest in south London. If we saw a policeman, we didn’t ask him the time, we just ran for it! Times have changed. In 1992 I put aside my mistrust of the boys and girls in blue, and accepted an invitation from them to join a local police/community forum in Camberwell. It was called the Faraday Sector Working Group and we met at Camberwell Police Station. Since that time I have been working voluntarily on behalf of the Southwark community as an ‘independent adviser’ to our local police.
In the early days, I concentrated on building trust with local officers and gradually I found, with like-minded members of the Camberwell community, a willingness on the part of our police officers to talk about our concerns. The findings of the influential Scarman Report led to the introduction of many measures to improve trust and understanding between the police and the communities they serve. Sector Working Groups was one of the outcomes of the Report. However, my ‘community’ approach differed to the confrontational one directed at the police that I had observed at some other public meetings. I have always taken a friendly approach, and treated officers with respect, but I do not shy away from making criticisms of any police practices or decisions I consider bad for our community. For example, in recent years I have been extremely critical of the axing of the popular and much-needed Elder Care Project, and the closure of our police stations, especially the one in Camberwell. There is no point working with the police as an adviser if you just sit there, smile, pass the custard creams, and say nothing! I have sometimes been described by the police as one of their ‘critical friends’ and I am happy with that.
As a result of the bridge-building work I had already accomplished with Southwark Police, in 1999 I was invited by our first Borough Commander, Superintendent Trevor Pearman, to become a member of his Critical Incident Panel. Together with other representatives from our wider Southwark community, we have been working together for almost a decade as independent advisers on a number of high-profile cases, most notably the murder of the Peckham schoolboy Damilola Taylor. In 2003, for my work as a ‘critical friend’ to the police, I received a Metropolitan Police Volunteer award from the former Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, at a ceremony in City Hall.
I am glad I have remained committed to this work because I have found a new role as the co-chair of my local Safer Neighbourhood Community Panel. In 2005 Safer Neighbourhood Teams were introduced and placed in our communities to work closely with local people. The teams include one Sergeant, two Police Constables and several Police Community Support Officers. It has proved to be an important initiative but it can only work if people are willing to work in partnership with the teams. The Camberwell Green Safer Neighbourhood Team was one of the first to be launched in Southwark, and I have been working in partnership with them since they were introduced, mainly through the Community Panel which includes representatives from various communities in the Camberwell Green area. In 2007 I was elected by the Panel to co-chair meetings with the Sergeant. It was not a position that I wanted, but I realised that the partnership work could only progress if a community representative took some responsibility for the leadership of the Panel.
I have seen many examples of police and community partnership working at its best, particularly during the murder investigation of Damilola Taylor. However, though the police get it right some of the time, they can still get it wrong some of the time. I believe they can get it right more often when the community is working in partnership with them. It is not easy. It is unpaid, time consuming, sometimes difficult and challenging, but ultimately enriching and rewarding work.
I have been told by some of my friends – and a few police officers – that I am mad to give up my precious spare time to do this, but I will continue to serve my community and be a ‘critical friend’ to the police as long as I am asked to, and as long as I can make a difference.