Martin Surl, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Gloucestershire, has been buying flipflops. Hundreds of them. Not for the police, but for a local Christian volunteer team of ‘street pastors’. Earlier this year, Surl announced a £40,000 grant to cover the group’s training and resources. ‘Some things are better delivered by people who aren’t the police,’ he says.
What street pastors deliver is hard to sum up in a few words. When I first encountered them a couple of years ago in their uniform of baseball caps and blue jackets, both with ‘STREET PASTOR’ printed across them, I thought they were going to ask me whether I was saved. But street pastors are not street preachers. They are, instead, a friendly presence — ‘non-judgmental’ is a word they often use — who offer help to anyone who needs it. They do ‘everything you can think of’, says Surl. ‘If you have a young girl there who’s drunk too much, they will look after her.’ That, by the way, is what the flipflops are for: high heels, Surl observes, ‘aren’t very effective when you’ve had a few beers or the equivalent’.
Street pastors hand out bottled water, accompany drunk people to the right bus or a safe taxi, minister to the homeless, clear up broken glass, give a listening ear to the miserable, and are on hand to defuse tension. The results of these accumulated tiny gestures are remarkable. Since 2003, when the initiative was founded (they are now active in over 280 UK locations), street pastors have been repeatedly credited with reducing crime. In 2012, Salisbury Inspector Andy Noble remarked: ‘Violent offences are 12 to 15 per cent lower than this time last year and I would attribute much of that to what the street pastors are doing.’ In Kingston, after violent crime around the town centre almost halved between 2005 and 2009, Superintendent Paul McGregor praised the street pastors’ ‘tremendous work’ as a key factor.
You can find many similar stories from around the country. ‘Almost every London borough now has a street pastors team,’ notes the Met website, ‘and the most immediate result in every case has been the drop in crime in areas where teams have been working.’ Martin Surl confirms this. Cheltenham, he says, ‘would be much, much harder to police without the street pastors. I used to be a bobby years ago in Cheltenham. It is just such a nicer atmosphere.’
Street pastors receive 50 hours of training, much of it in street awareness. But their solutions aren’t always sophisticated. Paul Summersby of Stroud Street Pastors — one of the teams backed by Martin Surl — recalls one recent night out: ‘There were two lads who were intent on doing each other some physical damage and were trying to hit each other — not very successfully, because they were too drunk.’ The team went and bought some chips. ‘That took the sting out of the situation. They were more than happy to stand and eat chips with us rather than swing at each other. You appeal to people’s basic instincts, don’t you? The smell of chips for free is hard to say no to.’
The logic of it — overcoming street violence with chips — is typical of street pastors’ weirdly effective unworldliness. They start the evening with a Bible reading and prayer, and claim their work is only possible because others are praying for them. This spirituality makes itself felt not through any ostentatious zeal but rather, I sense, through a feeling that it is entirely natural to be out at 2 a.m. helping people get home. The comment they hear most often, according to Summersby, is ‘You’re mad.’ Still, there is no doubt, he says, that ‘the vast majority of people do have a respect for people who work from a faith perspective’.
The Greenwich team, who I joined for an evening last week, was founded a few years ago by a Baptist pastor in Woolwich. She got up one morning to find the body of a murdered young man on the church doorstep. It felt like a direct question from God. Her answer was to join the street pastors.
The quartet I accompanied — Irene, Eddy, Philip and Beverley, all middle-aged to varying degrees — are longtime residents of the area and have watched it come through some difficult times. Woolwich was badly bruised by the 2011 riots. ‘I signed up to join street pastors two weeks before that,’ says Beverley. ‘And then everyone said: you’re crazy.’ Two years later, Lee Rigby was murdered around here, and far-right parties tried to capitalise on the moment. The community rallied, the different faith groups met, and the tension died down. But it still lingers. It’s hard for the police just to be a friendly neutral presence. That’s where street pastors come in.
Out with the Greenwich team, I noticed two things. The first is that almost everything they do is utterly mundane and obvious. Our first stop is at a couple of corner shops, just to say hello, ask how business is, talk about the weather. When we pass a rough sleeper in a doorway, they go over, check what he needs and offer him an extra blanket; afterwards, they can inform homelessness services. When a drunk man comes out of the pub, a couple of the team wander over to make sure he knows where he’s going. When we pass a few skater kids, Philip pauses for a chat. It is pretty low-level stuff — but it is exactly the low-level stuff which can be missing from British cities, especially after dark. The second thing I noticed was my mood steadily lifting: the street pastors’ good cheer is infectious.
Philip points out that you don’t know how momentous brief meetings can be. ‘A few years ago there was a man on the Golden Gate Bridge who left a note saying that if one person smiled at him or said hello, he wouldn’t jump. And sadly no one did.’ He prefers to think in terms of ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘outputs’: they focus on the individual encounter instead of worrying about how they are changing things. Beverley agrees: ‘If you did it thinking you’re making a difference, it’d be frustrating, because you can’t always see what difference you’re making.’ The irony being that, according to police chiefs all over the country, they are making a difference. If you want to cut crime, one of the best ways to start is with small talk and the smell of chips.