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Peter Walker: Paris Brown is a vulnerable girl, not a villain - the victim of a gimmick by Kent's Police Commissioner

Walker peterPeter Walker retired as Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police in 2003.  He now owns SuperSkills, a Construction Training Business in Thirsk.  Follow Peter on Twitter.

Last Friday, I had a long telephone conversation with the mother of a seventeen year old, asking how her son could take up one of the training courses we offer. She holds down a very responsible job, works hard - and has always done so.

She was clearly frustrated and feeling guilty, because the boy had dropped out of school having done quite well in his GCSEs last year.  Presently, he hasn't got a job, seems uninterested in everything and isn't going to college.

She's known me for many years, but when I told her that I had dropped out of school in sixth form, and that my parents had felt exactly like her at the time, she started to put things into context. I've lost count of the number of similar conversations I've had since I started a business training young people.  It is said that men are from Mars and women from Venus.  There is another planet altogether where young people going through puberty reside.

When the furore over Paris Brown, the youngster appointed as "Youth Police & Crime Commissioner" in Kent erupted over the weekend, my thoughts returned to that conversation in a different manner. It seems to me a classic case of an attractive idea being poorly executed.

It is essential for the police to focus attention on youngsters.  They are the adults of the future, and people the police will rely upon for information and support in the coming years.  The encounters they have with officers as teenagers will shape their attitude to their own behaviour and law enforcement generally.

Furthermore, it is during their teenage years that people tend to come to police attention for the first time, although the level of seriousness will vary.  Effective resolution at this stage will divert most from further encounters - and getting this absolutely right will prevent crime for many years after. It follows that effective scrutiny of how the police engage and deal with young people is essential.

The problem in this case is that Anne Barnes, the Police & Crime Commissioner for Kent decided to have a "Youth" version of herself, and put it in her manifesto without enough thought. At the time, it was clear there were problems with her idea - not least of which was that she would limit the age of the post-holder to a person under 25, which as Sam Chapman pointed out in the PCC's website was probably unlawful discrimination on the grounds of age.

More simple questions also arose.  Engagement with young people is clearly part of the Chief Constable's operational responsibilities.  The Commissioner can determine the budget for the activity, prioritise it in the Policing Plan and rigorously hold the Chief to account for the outcomes - but that's it.

The glossy "Youth Commissioner" title is a pointless gimmick.  All this person was ever going to be was another adviser in the Office of the Police & Crime Commissioner for Kent, going to meetings for a living at taxpayer's expense. Voters in Kent were, however, persuaded of the merits of Ms Barnes manifesto pledge and she set out to bring it to fruition.  Yet here, she and her advisers have spectacularly dropped the ball.

Within a couple of days of a headline-grabbing announcement, all the media were commenting on the character of Paris Brown, based on her previous entries on Twitter.  A 17 year old was at the centre of a completely avoidable storm. The Commissioner tried to handle matters with an adult's perspective, saying that what Paris had done was "typical of teenagers".  Cue teenagers popping up on every radio and TV station to say it wasn't.

It was naive of Anne Barnes to think the person appointed to this headline-grabbing gimmick of a job would not come under intense scrutiny by the media.  She says that Paris was asked whether there was "anything that might embarrass her" from her past.  That question is right up there with "Will you still love me in the morning?" in terms of its record for accurate answers.

Many employers (I am one of them) search online about job applicants.  At the very least, this would have given the Commissioner the opportunity to see what might need attention. It is surprising that none of the adults involved in this sorry mess seems to have had the nous to recognise that whoever was appointed might need some protection.

I thought the tearful apology given by Paris Brown - who had the gumption to face the media herself - demonstrated both recognition of the offence she might have caused and clear remorse.  I thought it might be time to move on and let her demonstrate what she could do on behalf of the young people of Kent, despite my reservations about the sensibility of the post and the appointment.  However, news the Kent Police had started to investigate her past conduct (and the probability that news stories would continue to follow her) made her position untenable.

Taxpayers in Kent now have the worst of all worlds.  A spectacular mess created by the Police and Crime Commissioner.  The costs associated with the failed selection and the "programme of support" put into place to help Paris Brown get over the events of the last week.  A manifesto pledge they have voted for which has obviously not been thought through. I sincerely hope the Police and Crime Panel, who are responsible for scrutinising the work of the Commissioner do their job properly and make sure this sort of nonsense cannot happen again.

As for Paris Brown - at some stage she will move from "planet puberty" and take her rightful place in the world.  Many of us have done similar stupid things, some far worse, some not at all.  What we do know about this young lady is that she wanted to do a job that would help people in her community.  With that sort of motivation in her, she deserves to succeed.


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