Protection Racket

Fear of violence has become endemic among young people. SALLY GILLEN reports on the need to better understand the problem

A 16-year-old student of an east London school found himself in trouble last month for flouting school uniform policy. Nothing unusual about that – except the dispute made the news. The non-regulation piece of uniform at the centre of the argument wasn’t a pair of trousers, baseball cap or jacket. It was a stab vest. The unnamed boy, fearing he would be attacked after receiving numerous threats, decided he needed it to protect himself.

Like many other young people who are threatened and victimised, he was apparently unconvinced that he would be adequately protected by the authorities. His actions, though unusual, are a worrying indicator of how scared young people are of being attacked, often by someone of their own age.

Some respond to their fears by arming themselves with a weapon or, according to research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, by forming “gangs” in the belief there is safety in numbers.

Just how many young people are the victims of crime or whether the numbers are growing is impossible to tell. The 2003 Crime and Justice Survey, set up to improve understanding of the extent and nature of offending, offers some insight as it covers people between the ages of 10 and 65. It found that over a third of 10- to 15-year-olds interviewed had experienced at
least one personal crime during the previous 12 months.

But, incredibly, the annual British Crime Survey does not record crimes against people aged under-16. And, while some police forces submit data on under-16s to the Home Office in their yearly returns, there is no requirement for them to do so.

“It is shocking that young victims go unrecognised” says Lisa Brook, researcher at Young Voice. The charity has launched a campaign jointly with Victim Support that is calling for the collection of robust data on victims aged under-16.

Development officer at the National Youth Agency Pete Loewenstein says life is now riskier for young people, partly because of the temptation of “stealable items such as mobile phones”.

Ann Waldron works with under-19s who have been victims of crime in Islington, north London. The Young Persons Support Project, which works in partnership with Islington Youth Offending Service, commonly deals with robberiesof mobile phones and bikes. But it also helps those who have experienced the most serious crimes, such as rape.

Referrals come largely from the police but also from parents, schools and young people themselves. Between April 2004 and March 2005 the project dealt with 486 cases. By early March this
year, that number had risen to 936 – a rise Waldron attributes to greater use of the service by the police.

“These numbers are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. How many young people are out there who are coping with the psychological impact of being a victim alone?” Waldron asks.

One of the things the project does is to try and “put something positive into their lives, maybe encourage them to take up a hobby”, she says. Behind this is a drive to divert them from taking revenge, a common reaction to being a victim. Research by the Economic and Social Research Council found that being a victim aged 12 was one of the most powerful indicators of being an offender aged 15.

Despite a widespread fear of crime, police offi cers’ presence in school, although appreciated, is not always as helpful as it might be. By wearing bright yellow jackets they are easily identifiable so young people may not feel safe once they have moved beyond the school gates, says Brook, adding that many young people are in favour of people in plain clothes patrolling the
surrounding area.

She says a lot of the young people who took part in research by Young Voice neither trusted the police nor felt protected by them. Consequently they decided to take matters into their own hands. In one London borough, 48% of the young people interviewed carried a weapon. Of those, a quarter felt it wasn’t acceptable, but claimed that they had to do it to survive.

“If you are not protecting children and young people properly they will do it themselves,” warns Brook. “They feel they have to safeguard themselves because we don’t know what is going on.

“If we have no research, how are we supposed to protect them? It is a vicious circle. They are automatically more at risk of offending, and then we demonise them. Really we need to wake up and realise what is going on.”

In January, home secretary Charles Clarke announced a review of crime statistics. Everyone working with young victims of crime is praying that this will incorporate a more careful look at the statistics and impact of young victimisation.

Sheree,* 15, relives the moment she was attacked by three teenagers in south London and contemplates its long-term effects: “ I am a 15-year-old, mixed race female.

About a month ago, I was being escorted to the train by two of my friends – safety in numbers, so we thought. 

We were approached by three teenagers – one male and two females. They told us to walk the other way, but before I had a chance to move the male had gripped my hair.

He dragged me into a corner, where I was trapped between a hedge and a couple of parked cars. He kept hold of me while the females beat me. They punched me in the face I don’t know how
many times and banged my head on the car several times. I didn’t think I was going to get away alive. The male said that when the girls had finished, he wanted to get a few kicks in. He told me he was going to shoot my black arse.

I don’t know how long it lasted – it seemed to go on forever. The parents of the bullies came along and were standing in the way so my friends couldn’t help me. One of my friends phoned the police, but they still hadn’t arrived by the time it was all over. I have no faith in the police – I could have been dead for all they cared.

I ended up with lumps on my head from the cars, scratches all over my face, two black eyes, and a split mouth.

I am now scared of going out. If I see a group walking towards me I cross over the road and start sweating and shaking. I still have the most awful nightmares where I wake up screaming for help. I don’t know if I will ever feel safe again. My mum now drops me off wherever I’m going and picks me up again.

I don’t understand why me. Was it because I am mixed race? Or just because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time? I just don’t know.

It will be a long time before I come to terms with what happened – if ever.”

*Not her real name


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