How to tackle gang culture

A heated debate is under way over how to tackle gang culture. Meanwhile, an array of projects are dealing with the issue on the ground. Andrew Mickel reports

In the past 18 months 39 young people have been shot or stabbed to death in London. Many of the killings have been directly linked to feuds between rival gangs.

The shocking figures, and tragic individual stories behind them, illustrate the dangers inherent in groups of young people “owning” territory and being prepared to use violence to enforce their rules. Last year, a Metropolitan Police report on London gang culture found 169 distinct groups, with at least a quarter involved in murders.

In an attempt to tackle what is perceived as a growing problem the government is providing £20m over the next three years to support multi-agency initiatives. But while it is generally agreed that such initiatives are the right response, there is a difference of opinion as to how they should work.

Here, Community Care asks three gang experts for their views on the exact nature of the problem, and how to enforce the law while tackling the root causes.

John Pitts, professor of socio-legal studies, University of Bedfordshire

“Currently here we’ve got a patchwork of what people are doing. But most of the evidence from the US, from Operation Ceasefire [a multi-agency task force in Boston with a focus on law enforcement], suggests that you’ve got to do everything simultaneously. The solution is on the one hand about enforcement, on the other hand about engaging with families.

“If we’re talking about people who are involved in drug dealing, assault, murder, etc, clearly the police must be involved. The police in the Five Boroughs Alliance [a South London initiative] say that there are people we simply have to prosecute, but there are other people to whom we can present an alternative. There are things they can do, there are routes out, and there are services which can respond to vocational needs. They are there if they will consider them if not, we will do what police do.

“But where the money is needed now is in early training, mentoring support around schools and employment to get vulnerable kinds into [these] processes. In areas where gangs are prevalent, often the local authority is the biggest employer. They can use that leverage to open up internships and apprenticeships.”

Professor Simon Hallsworth, director of the centre for social evaluation and research, London Metropolitan University:

“People talk about gangs, but the empirical evidence that we are awash with gangsters does not stack up. I think John Pitts is buying into the gang paradigm [using the label ‘gang’ too readily]. It’s very seductive.

“The US approach is to suppress them. It has failed at every single level. It has put a lot of ethnic minority men in prison used paramilitary-style policing on young men in minority groups and criminalised whole communities. It’s a complete failure. We should steer clear of it like the plague.

“We have to look at a different policy. The life chances at the bottom just aren’t there. What you are looking at are the industrial areas which have not made it to the service sector. You need labour market manipulation for 17- and 18-year-olds. It costs £40,000 to send one person to prison for a year you can get two decent jobs for that.

“If you read the government’s plan, they want to introduce risk management models where gang members are seen as clusters of risks. But I think that, where possible, you should tackle bad behaviour and criminal acts with reference to the act itself. If they’re in groups, deal with the groups as a whole. Politicise them. You’ve got to work with them. Get them to come up with projects, and you’ll get them involved in their own resurrection.”

Andy Newsam, gangs and weapons strategy manager at the Youth Justice Board

“What we do is contribute to a number of regional initiatives and make sure that young offender teams feed into those strategies. Some of the work we’re doing is creating a YOT database to record who the gangs are, who leads the gangs, what people’s relationship to the gangs are. It’s really a complex way of understanding what each local problem is.

“I think the solution is partnership work. All our partners to the YJB need to come together along with the community, and we’ve seen it in several areas already.

“Police have an effective joint working model with YOTs, to target their most entrenched offenders with intense resources. We have done some work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to help schools to understand some of the issues that may be occurring in their boundaries or outside their gates.

“YOTs have social work resources, so the young people’s service already contributes to the work YOTs do. The thing to think about is some of the younger children who may get caught up with gang violence, and their vulnerability. I want to ensure that child protection processes are working, and recognise that they’re just as much victims as perpetrators.”

Further information

Working with gangs

Lambeth gang scheme slams intelligence unit plan

The South Central Youth project, south London

This topic will be discussed at Community Care Live in a session called Gang Warfare or a War on Gangs?

This article appeared in the 8 May issue under the headline “Gang Bustaz”

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