Meet the ex-cop who’s spending his retirement battling Hertfordshire’s county lines problem

Retired police officer Mike Woods runs the Aspire project, which helps to rescue young offenders in Herts from criminal gangs...

Retired police officer Mike Woods runs the Aspire project, which helps to rescue young offenders in Herts from criminal gangs. Picture: Karyn Haddon. - Credit: Archant

Retired police officer Mike Woods, who works to rehabilitate young offenders, says rising gang activity in Herts is a consequence of austerity.

Mike said the number of young people being referred to Aspire for drugs or county lines activity had risen since the Covid-19...

Mike said the number of young people being referred to Aspire for drugs or county lines activity had risen since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Picture: GettyImages/iStockPhoto. - Credit: GettyImages/iStockPhoto.

Mike Woods was a police officer for 27 years – but he spends a lot more time around young offenders now than he ever did on the job.

In spring, he took over Aspire, a Hertfordshire charity which rehabilitates teens caught up in the criminal justice system.

Surprisingly, he says, since the pandemic hit, referrals have gone up instead of down - particularly for involvement in drugs and county lines.

During his police career, Mike encountered many troubled teens.

Mike Woods withAspire coordinator Chantelle Burley and mentor Ash Jennings.
Picture: Karyn Haddon.

Mike Woods withAspire coordinator Chantelle Burley and mentor Ash Jennings. Picture: Karyn Haddon. - Credit: Archant


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“I often wondered; how did they get to that point in their life?” he recalls. “To do something that was going to affect their life – and other people’s lives – forever? But as a police officer, you just deal with the job and move onto the next job.”

Towards the end of his career, he was seconded to the Prince’s Trust, working with young people who were out of work and education. The experience transformed his outlook.

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“It started to give me an insight into young people from a different side,” he explains. “Without the copper uniform, the body armour. Once you got rid of that, young people started to open up.”

After retiring in 2017, Mike devoted his life to turning around young offenders and gang members, spending three years with the Prince’s Trust before joining Aspire.

The Sopwell Youth Centre in St Albans is one of several which have closed down since 2010. Picture: St Albans Council.

The Sopwell Youth Centre in St Albans is one of several which have closed down since 2010. Picture: St Albans Council. - Credit: Archant

He believes Hertfordshire’s growing county lines problem is a legacy of government austerity measures.

“When I started as a police officer there were youth clubs and organisations all over the place,” he says. “Now there’s nothing. You’re trying to take a young person out of an environment that they feel comfortable in. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of being in a gang, it’s like a family to them. So what is being offered to them to pull them away? Everything that was offered to them before has gone.

“Not all young people want to sit behind a computer or playing an Xbox. Some want to be out. But there’s nothing to do. Boredom sets in. Temptation sets in.”

Many children referred to Aspire have been groomed and exploited by criminal gangs, says Mike. Some come from wealth and others from poverty – but one common trait is a lack of positive role models, which children might once have found in a youth worker, but are now instead left to look for on the streets.

Many of the young offenders referred to Aspire are vulnerable and have been groomed and exploited by sophisticated criminal g...

Many of the young offenders referred to Aspire are vulnerable and have been groomed and exploited by sophisticated criminal gangs. Picture: GettyImages/iStockPhoto. - Credit: GettyImages/iStockPhoto.

“If you close youth clubs and that sort of stuff, on paper you’re saving money,” he says. “The consequences take time to develop.”

Hertfordshire Council said that despite “challenging budget conditions”, spending on youth services had remained “relatively stable”, from £20.819 million in 2010/11 to £20.292 million in 2018/19.

However, taking inflation into account, that amounts to a real-terms cut of 23 per cent.

This newspaper group has reported on the closure of youth services in Stevenage, St Albans, London Colney and Royston.

Chantelle, left, is the West Herts hub coordinator, assigning newly referred young people to mentors in Watford, Hemel Hempst...

Chantelle, left, is the West Herts hub coordinator, assigning newly referred young people to mentors in Watford, Hemel Hempstead and the surrounding areas. Picture: Karyn Haddon. - Credit: Archant

In the same period, the cost of youth justice in the county more than tripled.

Sending one child to a young offenders’ institution costs £76,000. A secure training centre costs £160,000 per child, and a secure children’s home £210,000.

“The price of putting one young person through the criminal justice system and then inside – how many clubs could you run?” Mike laments. “It is amazing.”

In addition to occupying young people, he says, the clubs were staffed by youth workers who got to know them. Problems like county lines grooming “would have got picked up so much quicker”.

“It was an activity place, a counselling place, a friendship place,” he says. “A youth club was so many things. The young person felt at ease and more likely to talk.”

Mike has tried to infuse Aspire with elements of the “youth club environment”. Mentoring occurs in the community – never in a classroom or an office. They take youngsters out to kick a ball around, or for an ice cream. That way, they are more likely to open up.

He has recruited new mentors who have belonged to gangs, battled addictions and served sentences.

“It’s very important to have mentors who’ve been through that journey and come out the other end, to inspire that young person,” he says.

They are directed towards art, music, drama and sports, and trained in business, cooking and other skills. Unlike court-ordered schemes, is no end date for Aspire’s support.

“To get to a certain point in a young person’s life, it doesn’t just take 12 weeks,” says Mike. “It could take years... I believe some agencies just regard it as, ‘Right, that’s it, he’s at college now, our work is done’. It’s not. There will be a new set of challenges for that young person.

“Without support, it’s easier for them to default back into their comfort zone, which is the criminal justice system. We put the support around them to go through that journey.”

*Aspire can be reached by dialling 07736 927741.

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