In a radical initiative to steer young people away from crime, London’s top community football coaches venture into police station custody suites. In A bid to redirect young people into jobs or training, coaches who work for football clubs’ charitable foundations will seek to intervene at a “teachable moment” following an offender’s arrest.
The tactful scheme known as Divert has been introduced by The Metropolitan Police, where young people in police custody between the ages of 18-25 are presented with potentially life changing opportunities.
So far at Brixton custody suite, 192 people have engaged with youth workers in the pilot scheme. A total of 79 have been found work or training and just eight have been jailed after reoffending.
Now the project is being rolled out to six custody suites across London with intervention staff and Met volunteers working alongside football coaches.
Kevin Luke turned his life around after a gang stabbed him during a robbery at a drug house in Brixton. He was slashed with a knife as they stormed the property searching for drugs and cash.
At the age of just 17, the experience left him determined to stay clear of trouble. The opportunity for a new life came when he was in custody at Brixton police station being questioned about a domestic dispute.
Ann-Marie Willison, leader of the Divert project, took him out of a cell to talk to him about his future.
Seven years later, Luke, who now has two children, said: “Something inside said ‘listen to what she has to say’. I got an opportunity to meet someone in an office in Liverpool Street. There were nice people and it was a good environment. It was somewhere I would like to see myself.”
Nearly a year later he is on a business administration apprenticeship at a hospital with high hopes of a permanent job.
He said: “I have done stuff that is not legal, like drugs. The environment I was in was literally a click away from getting into trouble. The Divert scheme has changed my life completely… it has made me wiser, to think about my actions. I want to go as high as I can go and I also want to help other young people.”
Former Chelsea defender Paul Elliott, now chairman of the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board, said: “The power of football is critical… this is a great opportunity to reach out and be a force for good.
“There are so many opportunities that football can give young people. Jobs in football can include playing, coaching, refereeing and admin. A lot of these guys are doing the wrong thing but they are bright people and have the right skills.”
Willison, 35, leader of the Milestone Foundation project, which runs the scheme, said it was aimed at suspects aged 18 to 25 who are awaiting interview. Volunteers enter cells and ask suspects if they want to talk.
She added: “I have had many different reactions. I have had people crying, people getting angry and emotional. Most of the time the message I get is people saying ‘I want to change but I don’t know how to get out’.”
As it gains attraction, the scheme is being backed by the FA with discussions underway with Tottenham Hotspur Foundation, Palace for Life Foundation and Millwall Community Trust.
The project aims to match offenders to jobs that suit their interests. So far, this has included coaching, hospitality and construction. One Divert participant is on the trading floor of a City bank and another plays for Southend United. The scheme has two full-time workers in Brixton and Bethnal Green.
Written by Monifa Bobb-Simon