This blog is all that remains from the former website which was closed after 8 years of providing a 'wiki' of urban street gangs in London.

An unfinished history of modern urban street gangs in London has been used to replace some of the content of the original site, beginning here

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Gangs aren't the problem, gang violence is

Gangs aren't the problem, gang violence is

By Karyn McCluskey

Being in a gang isn't something you choose. It just sort of happens.

Most of the young people involved in our gangs project, CIRV – the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence probably wouldn't say they were in a gang. To them, they're just hanging around with friends, their brothers, an older cousin. They don't think of themselves as a gang.

And gangs aren't necessarily a bad thing: gangs are groups of people coming together for a common purpose. So by that token, politicians are a gang, journalists are a gang, the police are a gang. It's what the gang does when it comes together that is the issue. No-one would mind if groups of young men gathered on street corners to play chess or basketball. But when the common purpose is violence, then that cannot be tolerated.

Much has been written about gangs and how to tackle them, to "bust" or "break" them. But for many youngsters gangs can be a positive thing, offering the kind of support, encouragement and approval they don't get at home. That can be very important, and we don't want to destroy that support network. We just want them to stop being violent.

In order to tackle the problem of violent street gangs, we therefore decided to use a strategy that uses the gang dynamic in a positive way rather than one that seeks to destroy it.

Drawing on a model developed by Dr David Kennedy and used in Boston, Cincinnati and several other US cities, we developed a programme that worked by treating the gang as a unit rather than as individuals - using the gang themselves to address their own behaviour.

The issue then was how to get others on board: there are many different agencies working at the many different stages of dealing with youngsters who are involved in gangs, but with each working more or less in isolation from each other, the territorialism between services was often just as much of an issue as it was with the gangs themselves. However, although lengthy negotiations were required to resolve this problem, what was always clear, right from the start, was the commitment of all involved in tackling gang violence.

Working with such a wide range of partners – education, social services, housing, police, community groups – also had significant benefits. Primary among these was the sheer volume of knowledge about gangs, which enabled us to tailor the programme to suit not just the Glasgow context but the particular nature of gangs in the east end and north side of the city: geographically, these areas are very close, but even here the nature and makeup of gangs differs, with older gang members and the element of organised crime being more prevalent in the north than the east.

Following intelligence gathering, to which all partners contribute, those considered suitable for the programme are identified and approached by CIRV street level workers with the offer of help to find an alternative to a violent gang lifestyle. They are then invited to voluntarily attend a self-referral session, which is held at the Sheriffs' Court.

The session is essentially a piece of theatre: groups of different gangs are brought in to attend a carefully scripted meeting where they are addressed by a senior police officer, an A&E consultant, members of their community and the parent of a victim, among others. The senior officer assures the gang members that they will all leave after the meeting, but that if any of them – including members not present – commits a violent crime, they will pursue the whole group, not just the individual. This has the effect of pushing gangs to police their own behaviour – after all, no-one wants to hang out with someone who is going to get them into trouble. The A&E consultant talks about the problems of trying to patch up victims and offenders and former gang members warn youngsters not to follow in their footsteps.

But most effective of all, perhaps, is the testimony of a mother who has lost her son to gang violence. She sees in them boys who are treading the path her son trod, unaware or uncaring as to where it may lead. They see in her their own mother.

"What if it was her, standing here?" she asks them. "What if it was your mum?"

Often, there are tears, not just hers.

The session ends with gang members being given the phone number of a "one stop shop" where they are given help to access education, health services, careers advice, social services and diversion if they want to turn their lives around.

Not all gang members come to us via this route. Some will never attend a court session – indeed, for some, the simple idea of being in court is too much. Others will attend two or three self-referral sessions before they sign up. Some will come to us via word of mouth.

Once a gang member has signed up, their needs are assessed and they are putting on relevant programmes. These range from anger management and conflict resolution to employment skills such as CV writing and interview techniques all the way through to physical activities like football. The aim is to show them there is a life outside the gang, to influence them to change their behaviour. But behaviour change is not a straightforward process. Young men that have grown up in communities where gang violence has become part of the scenery, where grandfathers, fathers and sons have run in the same gang and where it is not uncommon to see three or four generations of unemployment, they will not change their behaviour overnight. It will take time. We fully expect some will "fall off the wagon". Those that do commit acts of violence while working with CIRV are disengaged from the group, although we do believe in second chances.

CIRV has now been running for just over two years. In July this year, we published our final report on the project. From the outset, we always said that if the project, scheduled to run for an initial two year period, was successful, it would become part of every day business. Our final analysis showed that among the 400 gang members who had signed up to the project, violent offending had been reduced by 46 per cent, rising to 73 per cent amongst those who undertook CIRV's most intensive programmes. The project has now been handed over to Strathclyde Police to become part of their day to day business.

Yet while these figures are testimony to the great work done by everyone involved with CIRV and to the commitment of young men who geuninely want to change their behaviour, gang violence hasn't stopped. It has been a problem for Glasgow for years and it won't go away overnight. We have made inroads into tackling it, but the key now is keeping up momentum. If we can look back in 10, 20 years and still see a reduction, then we will know this has worked.

Karyn McCluskey is co-director Violence Reduction Unit

This article is from the forthcoming edition of Public Service Review: Home Affairs

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