Street Angels cannot be a long-term solution

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Following the premature deaths of Euan Coulthard, Luke Pearce and Sope Peters in an 18-month period, a major review was launched into river safety in Durham. The RoSPA report incredulously found that immediate action needn’t be taken. The tragic deaths of these three students was an eye-opener for Durham students, culminating in the launch of the Street Angels initiative, a project designed to protect the student from the dangers of the river with much emphasis being placed on the dangers of alcohol.

The scheme was launched and hundreds of willing volunteers signed up to help keep their fellow students safe. For this they must be applauded.

This project was the brain child of Durham Police Superintendant Andy Huddleston, initially discussed with DSU’s Welfare Committee (WEDComm) in January 2015. Following this meeting the scheme was launched and hundreds of willing volunteers signed up to help keep their fellow students safe. For this they must be applauded. However, following the launch of its questionable new alcohol policy, a higher body of Durham University decided to scrap the Street Angels scheme seemingly without student consultation.

The University’s new alcohol policy is in no way sufficient to protect us. However, despite its good intentions the Street Angels initiative is not a sensible long term solution to our safety issues.

This scheme is naïve. It risks putting volunteers in unnecessarily dangerous situations. Volunteers run the risk of being subject to violent behaviour from those who they are helping amongst many other dangers. Training in the form of a vulnerability PowerPoint and basic first aid doesn’t qualify an individual or group to patrol the streets of Durham. Volunteers and advocates of the scheme will argue that they are fully prepared to put themselves on the line. This is not fair – we shouldn’t allow fellow students to be put at risk.

The second key concern with this scheme regards failure. The impact on the student volunteers who are on duty if another student were to fall in the river and die would be colossal. Such an incident will effectively mean that they have failed thus inducing a sense of responsibility. We have absolutely no right to entertain the idea of putting a student in this position.

The question remains: how can students be protected from both the dangers of the river and streets late at night? The answer is simple. The job of ensuring safety at night-time should fall to Durham Police and the security staff of Durham’s late night establishments. North Yorkshire Police Federation’s code of conduct states: ‘The primary duties of those who hold the office of constable are the protection of life and property’. However, when Superintendent Huddleston discussed the Street Angel’s scheme with WEDComm, he stated that he would not be prepared to place more police officers onto the street of Durham at night. Why not? As students living in his constituency we have a right to be protected. By putting students on the streets we are giving the Durham Police an excuse to not increase their presence whilst still appearing to be proactive in the push for river and night-time safety.

The focus of the Police has been on curbing student drinking. I won’t argue that the dangers of the river aren’t exacerbated by high levels of alcohol consumption. However, Professor Graham Towl (Dean of Colleges) said on April 29th 2015 at a Q&A on student safety that alcohol is not the only reason for the deaths in the River Wear. Others went on to expand on the serious safety concerns surrounding the River Wear, especially regarding the perilous condition of footpaths. Alcohol consumption has been continuously blamed by Durham University (reflected by its new policy) and Durham Police force for the three deaths. This scapegoating has detracted from the very real dangers posed by the river.

Unfortunately I feel that Durham Police have a negative attitude toward students. There are arguably contrasts between the treatment of local residents and students, with verbally abusive local residents threatening to smash windows merely being told to move. In contrast, one intoxicated student has been arrested for falling asleep in a doorway. Following the death of Euan, new by-laws to curb drunken behaviour were introduced. These include arrest and the creation of a criminal record for those who are found to be intoxicated, an incredibly harsh and unnecessary penalty. This regulation introduction has placed further strains on the relationship between students and the police.

A drinking culture cannot change overnight, maybe taking decades to change. Student drinking culture will probably never change. Education and policy is the University’s new strategy; pages of jargon were spewed out by the University Executive Committee (UEC), one of the main University governing bodies.

Aside from ineffective education programmes, new policy also includes the regulation of college bars. Volumes of drinks sold will be reduced, including the restriction of wine in Summer Ball tickets. In the April Q&A safety session multiple members of the panel including Professor Towl stated that college bars were not an issue. If anything, college bars provide safe and controlled spaces, mitigating safety concerns. The issue identified unanimously is ‘pre-loading’ on cheap alcohol. If the college bars are safe spaces, why are they being further restricted, driving students away into their homes which are uncontrolled spaces? The University’s new policy is completely counterproductive. Someone high up in the University hierarchy has an issue with college bars despite the important roles they have in Durham student culture. The events of the past two years have become a weapon for their eradication.

If anything college bars provide safe and controlled spaces, mitigating safety concerns

However, Durham University is not without praise. I will commend the reintroduction of the Nightbus service. This helps ensure that intoxicated students are properly cared for. This continued commitment to safety from the University is commendable. However, in some aspects they are approaching problems in completely the wrong way.

The final aspect of student safety which I will touch on is the physical barrier lining the footpaths of the River Wear. I have been calling for barriers since the death of Sope Peters in October 2013. The banks of the river are a serious hazard. This has been emphasised by the death of the rowing coach Bill Grant in February 2015. Bill fell in the river in the broad daylight. Why can we not have barriers erected as has happened on the River Ouse in York? Aesthetics, heritage and history as defences to why these structures are not being erected are redundant – people are dying. We are at a point where too many people have died. A short-term solution must be provided to ensure that no one else dies in the river.

The Street Angels scheme, whilst admiral, mustn’t be the long term solution. To protect students we must not put others at risk. The Durham Police force and other security must step in to ensure the safety of students and locals alike. By putting students on the street we are enabling the police to appear to be doing something. In reality the actions of Durham Police force has changed very little in the past two years. The University must rethink their action plan. UEC need to stop their petty vendetta against college bars. Restriction of these safe spaces would do more harm than good. Finally, excuses must be put aside and protective barriers must be erected to protect the public. These pathway are a hazard to all, regardless of the time of day and amount of alcohol consumed. It is disgusting that it has taken the death of Bill Grant for authorities to realise this. Excessive consumption of alcohol does play a part in these dangers. Student attitude towards this must change, but this will not happen overnight. However, drinking students should not be scapegoated as they have been, detracting from other very serious issues. With the current approach of the University and Durham Police towards these issues the Street Angels has, of course, been a positive scheme. The hope now is that by scrapping the scheme these authorities will be forced to provide a more permanent and effective alternative.

Photograph: Wikipedia by Jungpioner

One thought on “Street Angels cannot be a long-term solution

  • The dislike button cannot arrive too soon. Hopefully it will be augmented by a “which idiot allowed this into print button”.

    Reply

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