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Is a Policing-led approach the best way to tackle gangs and serious youth violence?

On Monday June 2 Mayor of London Boris Johnson hosted an international Gangs Summit at which experts from around the world discussed how best to tackle gang violence. Mayor Johnson has stated that £3 million per annum will be spent on tackling the problem of gang violence in London.

Living in a leafy North London suburb doesn’t make me best placed to be an expert on urban street gangs, but I have always been a sceptic on the effectiveness of what can feel like an obsession with gang interventions from government on a number of levels. My three key contentions are:

  1. I have always felt that gang interventions tackle the symptoms rather than the root causes. For me, the construction of the `gang’ is a by-product of being marginalised, excluded, uneducated and poor. Acknowledge this context and tackle the root causes and the oxygen which feeds gang culture can be exhausted;

  2. The experience of BAME young people, and particularly young black men, within the whole gangs’ debate and analysis is largely ignored. To me this is bizarre. I would have thought an approach that recognised the marginalisation and discrimination faced by young black people would be better help tackle the wider exclusion faced by this group. There needs to be a focus in areas such as school exclusions, the care system and structural labour market barriers (young black men have unemployment rates more than twice that of their white peers)

  3. For all the warm words around exit strategies and support for young people, this is an enforcement-led agenda. Don’t get me wrong, wherever you have laws being broken the Police must have a role. However, the culture of British policing is law enforcement not crime prevention and diversion away from crime. If young children are being coerced or groomed into gangs, the best ways to deal with that are by early intervention and by working with families and communities. Some of this work may be happening in a piecemeal fashion but not, I suspect, at the level needed.

In March I attended a seminar organised by the Centre of Crime and Justice Studies called Ending the Gang Nexus at which Patrick Williams, a lecturer and researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, was a speaker.

A centrepiece of his analysis compared the mapping and figures for gang interventions against those for serious youth violence across the city of Manchester. Whereas nearly 90% of identified gang members were from BAME groups, the list for perpetrators of serious youth violence was only 23% BAME.

Patrick’s research largely chimes with my intuitive observations. He not only points to an over-policing of BAME groups but the clear danger that younger BAME people are being corralled into the Youth Justice system when resources could be far better spent diverting them away from it. 

This analysis raises quite serious issues for the justice system, particularly when we know the over-representation of BAME young people, and in particular young black people, has soared in the youth justice system over recent years. 

Clearly Patrick and my views are out on the margins, but I believe that those making and implementing policy need an approach that is not tilted so much towards law enforcement, and that involves young people who have been through the system, as an essential element in deterring young people away from crime and violence.

Read more on Patrick Williams and his research


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