Working with gangs

Our monthly series of articles offering guidance on important issues in children’s social care continues with a look at what gangs are and the issues outreach workers should look out for

Defining the gang and other street organisations

Defining what a gang is remains an imprecise science. In the model used by the Home Office, the Metropolitan Police and Association of Chief Police Officers, three social groups are identified: the peer group, the gang and the organised crime group.

Peer groups can be defined as a relatively small, unorganised transient congregation of young people who may meet in public spaces. Its members will be known to each other principally because they share the same space (school or neighbourhood) along with a common history and biography (they have grown up together and have shared the same experiences). Delinquency and criminal activity is not integral to the identity or practice of all or most peers, and this distinguishes peer groups from gangs.

Gangs are defined as a relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people. They see themselves (and are recognised by others) as a discernible group for whom crime and violence is intrinsic to identity. The minimal characteristic features of the gang are that it has a name and a propensity to inflict violence and engage in crime, where violence and delinquency perform a functional role in promoting group identity and solidarity. Gangs are usually male-dominated. In the UK there are few female gangs, though many female peer groups have been mistaken for them.

Organised crime groups are composed of criminal entrepreneurs for whom involvement in criminal behaviour is intrinsic to their identity and practice and for whom such involvement is their raison d’être. These are men to whom the business of crime is an occupation.

The pyramid of risk

These groups may be represented schematically on a pyramid of risk. The higher in the pyramid a group is, the greater the risks associated with it.

Confronting the gang and other associations

The first principle of an intervention strategy is simple but in practice difficult. It involves correctly identifying the nature of the street organisation you are dealing with. Care is needed when applying a label such as gang to a group because non-criminal peer groups may find themselves criminalised.

A one-size-fits-all approach must be avoided and each group requires different intervention strategies. The overarching principles that guide intervention should be:

To prioritise preventive, social inclusiary interventions for groups towards the bottom of the pyramid.

To prioritise law enforcement interventions to groups located nearer the apex.

The overall objective of an intervention strategy should be:

To promote downward movement of groups and individuals in the pyramid and the risks they pose.

To prevent upward migration of groups and individuals within the pyramid and them becoming more dangerous.

Confronting the peer group

As peer groups are not intrinsically criminal the risks they pose should not be met by a hard-line law-and-order approach. They shouldn’t be harassed, stopped and searched, driven from their streets or treated as a suspect community. Instead, interventions at this level need more positive forms of investment, such as centre-based youth work access to appropriately funded leisure activities and well-designed safe spaces where they can gather and socialise without fear and education programmes that emphasise the risks associated with weapon use.

Confronting the gang

Intervention strategies must combine inclusiary and preventive work, and be accompanied by a more pronounced role for law enforcement. A greater role for outreach workers needs to be considered. They should be trained to help manage conflicts and encourage attendance in centre-based settings and act as a bridge between young people, the community and law enforcement agencies. Intensive centre-based work with gang-affiliated young people should be provided and dedicated programmes working with gangs developed to help them manage the risks they pose. There should also be close partnership working between youth workers and police officers.

Confronting the organised crime group

Given that we are dealing with criminal entrepreneurs, the responsibility for dealing with them lies mainly with law enforcement agencies rather than social workers. Young people may be targeted by these groups who may employ or coerce them to conduct services for them and so issues of child protection and abuse remain. Effort needs to be directed at identifying these young people and educating them on the risks.

This article is an abridged version of the Guide To Gangs by Professor Simon Hallsworth, director of the London Metropolitan University Centre for Social Evaluation Research, published on the CC Inform website. CC Inform is an online subscription information service specifically for social care professionals working with children, young people and their families. It has been designed to enable practitioners to be better informed be more reflective in their practice and better evidence their decisions.

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