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Safer Nights Out van – tackling vulnerability in the night-time economy

A help point for vulnerable people, parked in the heart of Northampton's night-time economy every Friday and Saturday night.

First published

Key details

Does it work?
Untested – new or innovative
Community engagement
Crime prevention
Drugs and alcohol
Operational policing
Violence against women and girls
Vulnerability and safeguarding

Paul Golley

Email address
East Midlands
Business and commerce
Local authority
Voluntary/not for profit organisation
Stage of practice
The practice is implemented.
Start date
Scale of initiative
Target group


The main aims are as follows.

  • To support night-time economy (NTE) users with an end-to-end service.
  • To safeguard vulnerable people in Northampton's NTE, particularly women.
  • To provide an immediate place of safety with additional support services to provide options to volunteers, maximising safety. This approach provides resilience and flexibility.
  • To make visitors to the Northampton NTE feel safer and familiar with the synonymous pink Safer Nights Out (SNO) van – which is located in the same place every weekend during the same times (10pm to 5am). This approach drives the crime prevention agenda, at the same time as addressing vulnerability (a proactive and reactive approach).
  • To improve the management of the NTE, bridging the gap between the door staff and the emergency services. This in turn can prevent many issues reaching them.

Intended outcome

Primary outcomes are:

  • to improve the feeling of safety in the NTE
  • to protect vulnerable people
  • to reduce the demand on emergency services by early intervention – freeing up police time used on vulnerability and spending more time policing the NTE
  • improved communication between partners in the NTE, including the council, police, door staff and security, street pastors and guardians

Secondary outcome possibilities (not yet proved) include:

  • a hope that violent crime may reduce due to the visible presence of guardians, and/or by intervening earlier by tackling the vulnerability
  • possible reductions in ambulance calls outs, as guardians manage lower-level issues that prevent calls for ambulances or admissions to accident and emergency


The van was purchased by Northamptonshire Office of Police and Crime Commissioner together with all the provisions to produce the ‘end to ends’ service. Equipment includes:

  • provisions to care for vulnerable people – including sick bowls, water, foil blankets, lolly pops and many other items
  • an enhanced first aid and basic medical supplies – including trauma kits and defibrillators
  • engagement products – information leaflets that are applicable to the NTE and safety, such as the new Flare app
  • crime prevention products and promotional items – these are supplied to vulnerable people and revellers in a timely manner, such as anti-spiking bottle tops and bottles of water
  • radios – volunteers are on the channel with a CCTV monitoring station
  • a large exterior video screen – to play prevention messages and draw attention to visit the van
  • the ability to charge all mobile phones on the SNO van – using a range of cables and power
  • lighting around the van – to stand out and draw attention to revellers
  • a secondary van – to get vulnerable people home safely where all other options have been exhausted and demand will fall to the emergency services. The SNO van and minibus is maintained within the police fleet
  • training for all volunteers – including officer safety, basic first aid and mental health training
  • a taxi account – where demand overspills, the taxi account outlet allows guardians to get vulnerable people home safely where there is no other option

The Northampton NTE is a destination for young people travelling by public transport for cheap nights from nearby towns and cities. The relocation of the university to Northampton town centre has increased the number of young adults drinking in the leisure zone. There is a high proportion of young female students aged 18 to 24 years old. This group is statistically more vulnerable, accounting for half of all victims in the town centre.

Most establishments in the town are ‘wet trade’ – competing with regular drinks promotions that attract volume drinking. 

Particularly where alcohol is involved, both offenders and victims can be considered as being on the same continuum due to a lack of control, with vulnerability entwined. There can be a fine line between arrest to custody or accident and emergency due to being too intoxicated or drug overdose. Early intervention is key to manage the situation, with flex and fluidity to react and respond accordingly. 

Offender interviews and research indicate that offenders are situationally aware of the environment they choose to commit offences in. They are more likely to be deterred if there was an increased presence of capable guardians. 

High levels of violence resulted in higher demand on policing. This had a knock-on effect with demand – a huge amount of policing time was going towards tackling vulnerability and the police were stretched. If we could find a solution to fill the vulnerability void and intervene at an earlier stage, then it could keep the public safer and free up force resources to police the NTE. 

Our solution was an overt mobile asset known as the Safer Nights Out (SNO) van. This is funded by the Northamptonshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner and staffed by volunteers from Northampton Guardians.

This end-to-end approach bridges the gap from the point where identified vulnerable people vacate licensed premises and the police are called to investigate or prevent further violence. This includes getting vulnerable people home or to a place of safety where all other options have been exhausted. 

This help point is deployed in the same location, at the same time every Friday and Saturday evening (10pm to 5am). This is when footfall for the NTE is at its highest. Our approach drives partnership working and identifies vulnerability early on, empowering everyone to play their part in creating positive change. 

One year on, the SNO van has integrated well and feels part of the fabric of Northampton NTE – becoming synonymous with students and visitors to Northampton NTE. 

Northampton guardians have clocked 5,000 free hours, improving capable guardianship and supporting more than 1,000 people. Many of these clients would or could have required the emergency services without this intervention in place, putting more demand on policing and healthcare. 

The SNO van harnesses many other safety provisions and is at the heart of the vulnerability model we have developed. This approach has resulted in door staff feeling supported, with a free referral outlet to the guardians who take over the vulnerability when the client reaches a public space upon leaving licensed premises.

The guardians are supported by Northamptonshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, by having the right training and crime prevention and safety equipment to provide genuine options to support vulnerable people.

Our vulnerability approach was formed by following the problem analysis triangle theory (supporting victims and the vulnerable location). It is particularly powerful alongside Operation Kayak (targeting offenders). This is a dedicated policing team that seeks out sexual predatory behaviour before it arises. By pushing on offender, location and victim, we have been able to promote a cultural change of calling out poor standards of behaviour towards women. This makes it harder for sexual predators to go undetected, while intervening early to support victims and potential victims.

Overall impact

The success in reducing violent crime is currently inconclusive. We are currently evaluating the work and awaiting data from the ambulance service. Initial signs suggest no reductions in the identified area during the times the SNO van was deployed. However, the following factors should be considered.

  1. The van was primarily designed to identify vulnerability. The van and operating model is working within the parameters of its objectives.
  2. With Northampton guardians patrolling the immediate area in overt red uniform as a capable guardian, more people will come forward to report because the support is there.
  3. The guardians themselves report concerning issues to police.
  4. We have seen a 30% increase in footfall since COVID-19.
  5. Violent crime has increased nationally.
  6. The van has only been in place for 12 months and has taken six months to become established. The asset is now built into the fabric of the NTE and the guardians' processes have been consistent for the past six months.

Despite the distorted picture around reductions in violent crime, the main observed impact we are seeing is positive anecdotal evidence. This has come from police, door staff and security, the council and the revellers themselves, who are feeling safer and happier.

We can also see the effects in reduced police demand, freeing them up to police the NTE. In 12 months this initiative has involved 5,000 hours of volunteer time, supporting more than 1,000 people. 

Northampton guardians record all contact with service users in the NTE. This gives them a broad base and rich picture for data extraction and extrapolation. By analysing this data, we can project cost savings to the police, ambulance service, NHS and criminal justice system. It is not an exact science due to the variables involved. Our actual evaluation work draws on police data, footfall data, NHS data and the guardians' collected data to hopefully provide a more accurate picture.


The SNO van needs to be non-police branded. The organisation that runs it should ideally be a charitable organisation. This means volunteers can engage with revellers from a different angle, without suspicion and out of kindness with no motive or agenda, other than just to keep people safe. 

However, we do still find it works well supporting the police. The guardians achieve a balance by working with the police but remain impartial as a charitable organisation. For example, officers will also take statements on the SNO van. Operation Kayak (a dedicated police operation to seek out sexual predatory behaviour) regularly uses the asset when dealing with crime incidents, such as drink spiking.

The model works by using kindness and early engagement with vulnerable people. This is more likely to achieve a positive outcome (less violence and crime) and less demand on the emergency services.

Where there is sign of violence, it is not for the guardians to get involved. They have a strict protocol and instruction to keep away and simply observe. However, most incidents start with a vulnerability – for example, someone detached from friends or not feeling well. Where situations escalate and violence is imminent, it is not appropriate for volunteers to engage further. They come away for police to deal with it.

Police see real value in this approach as it takes away some of their pressures on dealing with the vulnerability and allows them to police the NTE. In some cases, we have seen members of the public getting aggravated by police checking on vulnerability. In those cases, the force is well supported. They simply call guardians who take over caring for the vulnerable person. The response and attitude towards guardians is much more positive than for the police. This frees up officers to carry on with other policing duties.

The van is a draw for issues that cannot be solved directly by the SNO van and guardian set up, such as homelessness and mental health. However, having the asset in place does allow liaison and shows compassion and provides an immediate place of safety. It’s a good base to identify particular concerns and subsequently allows signposting activity to take place and referrals to the right agency where possible.


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Disclaimer: The views, information or opinions expressed in this shared practice example are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the College of Policing or the organisations involved.

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