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25 June 2014
Violent history

Violent history

Glasgow has worked hard to distance itself from its infamous violent reputation. In the last decade, the number of crimes per 10,000 population recorded by the police has fallen by more than a third; serious assaults have plummeted 67 per cent from 2,420 to 787; and offensive weapons are down 70 per cent. Equally encouraging, though, are the reductions in youth offending. Referrals to the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration on offence grounds are a quarter of what they were six years ago, while youth crime in Glasgow has dropped six years on the trot and is now less than half of what it was in 2007-08.

It was, after all, a different story at that point. Then Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police, Sir Stephen House, had to defend his record of tackling gang violence after a report by the Centre for Social Justice warned Glasgow had as many gangs as London, a comparison that the current Police Scotland chief deemed “simply not valid”. Still, as the city of Glasgow basked in the news that the Commonwealth Games were on their way, Strathclyde Police’s newly-formed gangs’ taskforce was ratcheting up its activity.

Superintendent Alick Irvine was influential in those early discussions. “You take the external view where you consistently had in the media reporting of large-scale disorder and violence, you had that whole historical tag that Glasgow had in terms of being a violent place, gang-related culture, knife carrying, I think it reached a peak, probably, around about establishing the gangs’ taskforce where we said, you know what, it’s time to have a fresh look at this and really try and crack this nut in a way we have never done it before,” he says.

“There was a team set up [and] direct from the outset it was about hard-edged policing, it was about enforcement, it was literally about going in through people’s doors because of allegations of drug dealing, trying to resolve all of that. Some of the critical people who were controlling these gangs were hard-edged criminals. You needed to do something but you needed to do it in a sustained way – you just didn’t deal with it as a one-off incident, you had a strategy and a plan to deal with the gang. I think that is what changed.”

Coupled with that, though, was a renewed emphasis on alternatives, ones that would prevent those on the periphery from becoming more and more ingrained in gang culture. Policing alone could not solve the city’s violent crime problems on its own. Agencies across the city – partly under the umbrella of community planning structures – started to work in a more collaborative fashion, says Irvine. “We’re a front-end service that come across people with all different scales of challenge in their life, some of which I think it is entirely appropriate for us to refer onto other services and we need to develop that approach. It’s a more early intervention approach.”

The Violence Reduction Unit, for instance, launched the much-praised Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), relying on a carrot-and-stick model to encourage high-risk gang members to accept help accessing education, health services, careers advice, social services and diversionary projects. “That was probably for the older young people at that time beginning to come to their senses, but there were still young people causing havoc and harm who just wouldn’t engage with that,” says Angela Morgan, chief executive of Includem.

In January 2010, the charity commenced a three-year pilot Gangs Project whereby Strathclyde Police referred gang members aged 14 to 18 for intensive one-to-one support. “In the first six to nine months, we weren’t getting the right young people referred – what we were getting were young people who really didn’t need us,” Morgan says. “But I think that was because the police actually weren’t convinced [and] some of the guys on the ground who have known some of the young people, who we did eventually work with who have got a name and a reputation, weren’t convinced we actually could work with them and were genuinely concerned because we do use a lone working model.”

Confidence soon grew, however, with offending rates falling 90 per cent over the piece. Progress was recognised by government last year insofar as monies from the Reducing Reoffending Change Fund were awarded through to 2015 to broaden the intervention out to young people up to the age of 21 who were demonstrating persistent and serious violent or alcohol-related offending. Renamed Includem IMPACT in recent weeks, the first of three evaluations by the Dartington Social Research Unit (SRU) has now been published.

Headline figures show that four-fifths (81 per cent) of the 48 young people sampled reduced the gravity of their offending and 62 per cent the frequency of it when comparing six months pre-intervention with six months post.

The number of offences fell 38 per cent from 199 to 123, while violent offences dropped from 20 to six. These, of course, carry a health warning. Until a comparison group is in place, attributing the improvements in recorded offending wholly to the intervention would be premature. Still, they illustrate a degree of promise.

To be eligible for referral, a young person has to have committed more than one violent or weapon crime, be identified by police as a prolific offender, and have been charged more than once in the last six months. Referrals rely on a ‘recency, frequency and gravity’ (RFG) analysis introduced by the legacy Strathclyde force that effectively ranks and scores individuals based on their offending rates. Initial interaction involves a joint door knock by an Includem worker together with a colleague from police.

“It is very varied,” in terms of reaction, says Shonagh Speirs, a project worker since the start and who is now team manager. “It’s about being transparent to make sure that young people understand that there is that partnership between Includem and Police Scotland in terms of information sharing and protecting the community and protecting young people.”

In the past, Includem has gleaned intelligence on impending gang fights that has informed a police response; this of course has been dealt with sensitively to make sure the young person is not at risk as a result. On occasion, workers do approach young people at the outset without a police presence given extenuating circumstances. “But in terms of the police going out with us, it’s often the first time that young people have had police standing at their door without it being to charge or detain them and the fact that they are offering them support is a whole new experience,” she adds. “It does get met with suspicion but it is about us, Includem workers, going back out persistently to build up that relationship and help young people understand that it is about supporting them, it is not about making life harder for them.”

Engagement with the project is voluntary. Often young people recognise that they want support to do something else other than offend, says Speirs. Motivations, of course, vary. Deductions in community payback order hours can be made, while participation is taken into account during court processes. Morgan, for instance, recalls a few occasions when a sheriff said in open court a custodial sentence would not be handed down as a result.

That said, Speirs acknowledges that getting young people to cooperate can range from “hitting the ground running from that initial appointment to months of persistence”. Contact is then made up to three times a week and at times when the individuals are most likely to offend, such as Friday or Saturday evenings. Figures for 2011-12 found that half of Includem delivery time was outside the hours of 9-5.

A 24-hour, seven days a week helpline is available to the young people and their families, while workers are notified should the young person be in custody or linked to any police investigation. “[That] allows us to put in supports at the earliest possible opportunity, what we call a teachable moment, and that can mean us sitting in cells with young people to reflect on their behaviours, or rather the consequences of their behaviours, at the most opportune time,” says Speirs. A workers toolkit, called ‘A Better Life’, draws on cognitive exercises to help young people identify their goals and how they intend to reach them with support from the charity.

But, of course, there is far more to the story. Workers can fulfill a useful brokerage role, but ultimately, they have no control over certain barriers. “Past convictions and acts of violence pose as a very real barrier to obtaining employment,” says the SRU report. Whilst youth unemployment is, in many ways, an obvious focal point raised by researchers, another is more difficult to explain. Though pro-criminal attitudes improved, the report shows that young people with serious substance misuse problems linked with offending demonstrated no change in these behaviours. Drinking on the streets and drug offences were the only two of eight offence types to increase post-intervention, a finding that Morgan acknowledges needs to be explored further to see if support to access specialist services is sufficient or if this is just a reality of the culture that these young people are living in.

Speirs’ experience on the ground tells her the picture is much more nuanced. “Sometimes what we’re seeing is that young people are going from the occasional drug distribution charge to actually being picked up with small amounts of cannabis and no longer distributing drugs.

“It is about the level of harm, so although their offences might increase, and again, we saw drinking in the street increase or drinking in public places, the number of violent offences and their ability to drink in public places without causing harm and damage to people [improves]. It’s about risk management and risk reduction.”

Assessing that risk from the outset is an area that police intend to revisit. Up to 32 young people are worked with at any one time. Those accepted onto IMPACT therefore represent a “small proportion of those eligible referrals”, say researchers. The RFG methodology introduced seven years ago is pivotal, then – and not just for this intervention. “I think it is just time to review that and see whether it is still actually still fit for purpose,” says Irvine.

“One of the things that I recall about the RFG list, it is a starting point for a broader conversation but I always remember reviewing RFG at one point and we’d a clear view about who within the spectrum of that offending we were going to look at and were going to deal with. Then all of a sudden, within a fortnight, it hadn’t quite turned on its head but there was one individual, in particular, who just appeared on it who, again, was committing multiple offences and were quite significant and serious offences. But the RFG didn’t flag that up. If we’re talking about early intervention and prevention, why is that guy who never appeared on our RFG list suddenly appear at the top of the spectrum within a couple of weeks? There must be other factors and other indicators that we could take in.”

IMPACT, it should be said, is only part of the answer when it comes to the problem of community violence. Ingrained public perceptions mean that Glasgow is unlikely to escape the shadow of its violent past anytime soon. Irvine clearly feels it deserves to, though.

“Like any big city, it has got its challenges. But I don’t think it deserves that image anymore. I think it has changed quite dramatically. If you look at the level of investment across the city, and the Games has been one particular element of that, and the potential it offers for the future, there has been an incredible amount of change in the city over the last five years I would extend it to. I just don’t see any evidence anymore that it deserves that tag in any shape or form.”

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