A 12-YEAR-OLD boy was the youngest person caught by Wiltshire Police in possession of an offensive weapon, figures show.
And the force said the youngest boy allegedly dealing class A drugs in 2020 was just 14.
The man in charge of Swindon’s community policing teams said he was incredibly saddened to learn of the young ages of those caught with knives and drugs on the town’s streets.
Speaking to the Adver, Supt Phil Staynings said the way in which the police and partners like the council and youth offending teams were approaching youth crime was “completely different” to how it was just a few years ago.
“We’re actually looking at viewing the vast majority of young people as vulnerable and we’re not quick to criminalise young people because we recognise that in the vast majority of occasions that can have negative or counterproductive impacts on young people,” he said.
Figures obtained by the Adver under Freedom of Information rules showed arrests of children in the county for drug and weapons offences fell slightly in 2020 compared to the previous year. Arrests for the most serious violent crimes like causing grievous bodily harm were down by 50 per cent.
Under-18s arrested for causing grievous bodily harm and grievous bodily harm with intent Source: WILTSHIRE POLICE
In 2020, 50 boys and four girls were arrested on suspicion of possession of a knife or offensive weapon. In total, 35 youths – including five girls – were arrested on suspicion of being concerned in the supply of a class A drug.
And 15 boys were arrested by police for causing grievous bodily harm with intent – a charge one rung down from attempted murder in the catalogue of serious criminal offences.
Under-18s arrested for possession of a blade and/or possession of an offensive weapon Source: WILTSHIRE POLICE
Under-18s arrested for drugs offences Source: WILTSHIRE POLICE
Last month, a 16-year-old boy was given more than two years’ custody for stabbing a man two years his senior outside Toothill Tesco in October 2020. His lawyer raised concerns the youngster had been exploited and was regularly being reported missing.
Another boy, Arney Stead, then 17, was jailed for four years last May for his involvement in a group attack in East Wichel in January.
He was also sentenced over his involvement in a drugs conspiracy that saw thousands of pounds-worth of cocaine and cannabis dealt in Swindon. A drug dealer in his own right, when police raided the then 16-year-old’s home in late 2018 they found £8,800 worth of designer clothing.
Arney Stead’s custody shot Picture: WILTSHIRE POLICE
Asked for his reaction to the revelation that the youngest boy caught with a weapon was just 12, Supt Staynings said: “I’m incredibly saddened by that.
“I reflect back on my own childhood and my own experiences and I guess I make comparisons to my childhood, my background.
“We want all children to have an opportunity to enjoy their childhood, enjoy the experiences irrespective of their backgrounds. All children deserve the same opportunity.
“Unfortunately, there are individuals in our society who are looking to exploit and manipulate particularly vulnerable young children.
“From a policing perspective, we’ll do everything we can to first and foremost be very strong, proactive and on the front foot with those individuals in society who want to exploit vulnerable young children.
“But, secondly, support families and children to make the right choices, to educate them in a better way so we can steer themselves away from going down a pathway that can sometimes be very difficult to extricate themselves from.
“That’s not just the job of the police but the job of all agencies and the job of the community.
“We need to raise awareness of some of the challenges we face, of the hidden harm we face. Communities can help solve those issues with us.”
Supt Phil Staynings Picture: NEWSQUEST
That work has already started. The words “public health approach” have been on the lips of senior police officers for years. In Glasgow, where Strathclyde Police enjoyed success tackling massive violence rates, it meant working with the council and hospitals to first get a true picture of violent injury rates – then treat violence as a disease with social causes that could be addressed.
In Swindon, an “emerging gang culture” group meets regularly, bringing together police officers with council staff and managers from Great Western Hospital. Another group, known as a multi-agency risk panel, discusses individual children the authorities are concerned about.
A new programme, Swindon and Wiltshire Intervention for Families to Thrive, works with children aged eight to 15 and their families in a bid to divert them from falling into crime. Launched last September, it’s a collaboration between the police and different council departments and has 23 young people on its books. The programme has trained all Swindon’s PCSOs as “trusted adults”, with plans to roll out the scheme to the wider county.
This year, the police is commissioning charity StreetDoctors to deliver sessions in Swindon. The group teaches lifesaving skills to young people so they know what to do if a friend is assaulted. Other plans include paying for motivational speakers to go into schools, setting up an advisory panel made up of youngsters and a campaign aimed at hotels and bars to help staff spot the signs of child exploitation.
Asked why he believed the measures, some of which have been tried in different guises in recent years, would succeed now, Supt Staynings said: “I don’t think you can expect to get bang for your buck straight away. The public expects us to achieve results immediately.”
He noted that violent crime arrests were falling but added that it would take time to build confidence and trust between some young people and the police. He stressed that the majority of young people were law-abiding.