The war on gangs

Written by Gemma Fraser on 25 October 2018 in Inside Politics

How tackling anti-social, violent and criminal behaviour from an early age changes the course of a future

Image credit: PA images

It’s eight o’clock on a Monday morning in the middle of a Glasgow housing estate.

Daniel’s mum takes a deep breath before she opens the door to her 12-year-old son’s room.

She knows the torrent of abuse she is about to receive as she tries to get her son up and ready for school.

She knows he will lash out at her, both physically and verbally, but she tries anyway because that’s what mums do.

Meanwhile, in nearby Govan, Operation Modulus is underway.

Armed with police data and a wealth of experience in how to deal with ‘difficult’ young people, the driving force behind the operation move in on their target – a gang of around a dozen young men aged between 16 and 25 who are terrorising the local community through their anti-social behaviour.

And in another part of Glasgow, 17-year-old John, an aggressive and vulnerable young man, is living on the streets with only his fellow gang members, a bottle of cheap cider and whatever illegal substances he can lay his hands on that day for company.

But fortunately for Daniel and his mum, the Govan gang and John, those moments in time when violence, drugs, crime and gangs seemed the only way of life have become a distant memory for them.

While it may have felt like it at the time, they were not – and still are not – alone, thanks to the numerous and persistent interventions of a range of proactive services which have teamed up to form the kind of partnership which really earns that over-used phrase ‘joined-up approach’.

One Glasgow – a collaboration led by Police Scotland, funded by Glasgow’s Community Planning Partnership and which works with the city council, the local health board, the fire service and a number of charity organisations – is dedicated to reducing offending and working with young people like Daniel, John, the Govan gang and so many others before their lives spiral irreparably out of control.

Created in the wake of the Christie report, which examined the delivery of public services in Scotland, One Glasgow and its array of partners now has five years of experience trying to reduce offending amongst those 12 to 25 year olds most at risk.

And, it seems, it has made some great achievements.

“One Glasgow is a collective partnership which evolved following the Christie report into public sector reform,” says Tom Jackson, Head of Community Justice.

“At the time, Glasgow City Council, then Strathclyde Police, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde all made a joint commitment to look at how the public sector could respond differently to issues to be more effective and, most critically, more preventative.

“So we set out to look at how we could use our investment and resources towards reacting to issues and preventing and facilitating the most effective interventions.

“The history goes back to 2011, that was when it was a concept, but since about 2013 we’ve been fairly active. It’s a partnership so the council lead it but we have police officers, a social worker, a police analyst and a range of third sector partners who are critical in all of that.”

The statistics speak for themselves.

In the five years since One Glasgow became fully operational, overall recorded crime in the city for under-25s has reduced by 37.1 per cent.

Between 2016-17 and 2017-18, there were 1,593 fewer crimes committed by under-25s, amounting to a saving of £103,454 to the public purse in that one year alone.

In addition to these figures, the number of young people convicted of a crime between 2011-12 and 2014-15 has fallen by 28.4 per cent and those reconvicted within a year has dropped by 31.9 per cent – highlighting that early intervention is the most effective approach when dealing with young people who are at risk of getting involved in crime.

“We do geographical hot-spotting where we go into an area where there are identified community issues, identify the young people who are most active in that and respond to them as a group,” explains Jackson.

“It’s pretty simple,” he continues, rather modestly as an approach which uses such widespread collaboration seems a far from simple operation.

“What we do is we use police data and council data to look either for individuals whose anti-social or offending behaviour is starting to hit certain markers, or in communities where community police officers or education will get in touch if they have an issue.

“That might be an issue with an individual or an issue like that in Govan where we had very quick escalation of reports of anti-social and criminal behaviour really focusing on young people. Ideally, you want to identify people really early in the stage, so it may be something as simple as letters going out to a household where your child has been acting in this way. It’s not criminal behaviour, it’s anti-social, it is disruptive to communities and it’s when we predict somebody might be on that trajectory towards something of an escalating nature.”

Action for Children is one of the agencies which works alongside One Glasgow and the police, tackling the hardest to reach group of young people through its serious organised crime early intervention service – the only project of its kind in the UK.

As its title would suggest, it targets young people – aged between 12 and 18 years old – who are either already involved in serious organised crime, or who are on the cusp of becoming involved in that world.

And it’s by no means an easy job, as Paul Carberry, director of Action for Children in Scotland, explains.

“Young people involved in organised crime are not encouraged to cooperate with the public sector in any way. A lot of them are from pro-criminal families, they are very anti-state intervention.

“They are perennial non-engagers so they are the hardest of the hardest to reach in terms of any kind of intervention.”

The methods the service employs, therefore, have to go that step further than most, taking into account the fact that these young people will have had it drummed into them from an early age not to talk to the police, or indeed anyone suspected of ‘interfering’.

“One of the things we do is employ young mentors who have had some experience in that activity themselves,” says Carberry. “A number have been in Polmont Prison and we’ve worked with them through our moving on service, so we train them and support them.

“The young mentors we employ have lived experience and can talk to young people in their own language. Often they are only three or four years ahead of them. Everything these young people are about to go through, the mentors have been through it, so they talk with real credibility.”

According to the National Crime Agency, there are 164 known organised crime groups, made up of 3,282, individuals, being investigated by police and partners in Scotland.

The teenagers recruited to work for these groups can be earning up to £500 a day, doing ‘jobs’ ranging from drug dealing to shoplifting and violence to order.

Carberry explains: “Organised crime is a significant problem in Scotland. It is a very broad model, but traditionally you’d recruit young people through the ranks to be dealing in drugs and money lending in particular areas.

“They need people who are potentially violent and entrepreneurial. By and large, most of the young people either come from pro-criminal families where there’s an expectation that these young people will get into the family business, or young people who come from a very poor, very difficult and very challenging background.

“They’re recruited because they’ve grown up in poverty and what they see is the glamour and easy money. They’re young people who are not attending school, don’t see any hope or aspiration for themselves, and are living in very poor circumstances, so when they think they can earn £500 a day dealing drugs or whatever, there is a challenge once they get into it to get them out of it. The further in they go, the harder it is to get them out.

“They think they’re untouchable because they’re immature, they’re making money, they think they’ve got the gangster connection.”

But despite the significant challenges of luring vulnerable young people away from the “glamour” and clear financial benefits of serious organised crime, the Action for Children project is succeeding in breaking down those barriers and helping to pull back those youngsters before they reach the point of no return.

An evaluation carried out by Professor Billy Whyte from Edinburgh University found that out of the young people supported by the service, 75 per cent did not offend again and the same number maintained regular contact with the service.

There’s a similar success story to be told by Includem, another third sector organisation working with One Glasgow.

Aimed at helping those who have been in and out of the care and justice systems, the charity receives referrals about at-risk young people, in a similar way to Action for Children, and provides 24/7 support.

According to an independent evaluation of statistics, the number of crimes committed per young person fell by around 50 per cent in the six months after involvement with Includem.

Lynsey Smith, head of services and development at the charity, explains: “The police and One Glasgow have an overview of all young people between the age of 14 and 25 who are offending.

“They have information on young people they are charging with offences and also have community police information that tells us who is taking up police time even though it might not result in charges.

“They put all this information together and identify the young people who are engaged in behaviour which is violent.

“The police give the message to that young person that they know who they are, they know what they are doing and they are going to continue in that enforcement role that may or may not lead to charges.”

She adds: “Includem’s role is very much to get alongside that young person and whatever family they are living with or identifying with, to challenge the behaviours that are causing the police concerns, but also to be able to support them in finding or keeping appropriate accommodation, employment, and providing practical support linking in with addiction, lawyers, the PF [Procurator Fiscal], all those practical things that allow the police to focus on enforcement whilst we are actually doing work to try and reduce the factors that are causing the risk.”

As with the other services, participation is voluntary, but once the initial hostility passes, the charity finds that most young people are receptive to getting the help they need and to making changes now that will give them more positive outcomes in the future.

“What works well is when Includem and police go out jointly to deliver that message,” Smith says. “On that basis, it might take us a long time to actually find a young person or get them to open the door. On the whole we are successful but we have regular meetings with the police to review where we are at if we are just not able to engage with a young person at all.”

The aim is to keep young people out of prison wherever possible, so Includem workers get involved at each stage, from arrest to court appearance.

“If we can prevent a young person going to custody for that first time, they’re less likely to go to custody in future,” says Smith. “It’s important to build up credibility with the sheriff and PF and for individual defence lawyers to be able to articulate the work that Includem’s doing and show that it’s not a soft option.

“We’ve had plenty of examples where a sheriff has made the decision to do a deferred sentence instead of custody because of the progress that we’ve been able to show a young person has been making while working alongside us.”

An independent report conducted by Dartington Social Research Unit found that the financial cost of early intervention is another measure of its success.

The estimated social and economic costs of crime per offender fell by more than 50 per cent from around £56,000 for the six months prior to involvement with Includem to £27,000 for six months after.

And the estimated social and economic cost of violent offending fell from £10,259 prior to involvement to just £122 after being on the programme.

But above all, it’s about the human benefit, about improving the lives of the young people who so desperately need help, support and guidance, and about showing them there are other options open to them.

With that in mind, what happened to Daniel and his mum, the gang from Govan, and homeless John as a result of positive interventions to tackle their behaviour?

Daniel was referred to Includem by his guidance teacher and the charity began meeting with him three times a week to help him work out why he behaved the way he did in school and at home. His mum, too, received help developing her parenting skills, as well as practical ways to help alleviate tensions.

Through continued support, and work around education and future training, Daniel is talking about future goals, has established a friendship group, and there have been no more reports of violence in the home.

The Govan gang were given the chance to work with Govan Housing Association and the Choice Works Programme – a One Glasgow partner – to get work experience and training, working on projects to improve their local community instead of destroying it.

And John, who first came into contact with One Glasgow as a result of his repeated gang-related offences, is now on a programme which supports vulnerable young people into training and employment after being referred to Includem.

He completed a three months focused intervention service and his offending reduced – and he got the help he needed to get off the streets and into accommodation. 

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