Glasgow campaigner calls for radical response to gang violence after riots

Karyn McCluskey says authorities should seize the moment, but warns combatting gang violence could still take 10 years

One of the driving forces behind a successful crackdown on gang-related violence has warned that transforming the culture of inner-city youth could take up to 10 years.

Karyn McCluskey, a single mother who pushed through the community initiative in Glasgow credited with reducing gang-related violence by half, told the Guardian the time to seize the moment and adopt similar initiatives in London and other cities was now, after the worst urban disorder ever seen in this country.

"What happened was criminal," said McCluskey, a former nurse and forensic psychologist, now a police intelligence analyst. "What would be more criminal is if we missed this opportunity to do something spectacular ourselves … We should do something really different so that when this happens in future people will look at Britain and praise what we did."

McCluskey, whose initiative has been cited by David Cameron, is clear that politicians talking about addressing the problem was one thing; having the will, political support and sheer bravery to tackle it is a different challenge: "There needs to be aspiration and resilience from everyone - from politicians, the police and the local communities, because this is hard work.

"If you start on this you are in for the long term, it will take five to 10 years at least. You have to deal with the young people who are 15 now and then you have to deal with babies who have been born.

"We need to look at America, but we also need to look at Denmark, to look at the way they support vulnerable families from the early years and support kids who are at risk. In Glasgow, we had lots of murders of young people, and we thought: 'we are going to hell in a handcart'. It was a Rosa Parks moment. We suddenly realised we couldn't police our way out of it anymore. We had to do something different.

"What we did was something really big. We treated violence like a disease and mounted a public health campaign against it."

Now co-director of the Violence Reduction Unit in Glasgow, it is McCluskey's background as a nurse, she believes, which turned her into a crusader against gang violence. "I met lots of victims' families, I saw young people who had been paralysed from the neck down because of knife wounds. I spoke to families who will never get over losing their son or daughter. It stayed with me."

She joined Strathclyde police in 2002 at a time when Glasgow was ranked as the most violent city in the world. After studying the Boston Ceasefire project and meeting its creator, David Kennedy, an Harvard academicat Harvard, McCluskey went to Strathclyde chief constable Stephen House and persuaded him that what the city needed was the same approach; detailed research on the gangs' make up and their leadership, followed by a direct confrontation to kickstart some moral engagement.

The project involved the use of a "call-in" in which hundreds of hardened gang members are cajoled or forced – through probation terms – to attend a mass forum where they are bombarded with appeals to give up their violent lives from victims' families, members of the community, former gang members, youth workers and health workers who have to mend the wounds.

If offenders do not respond, the call-ins are followed up with tough enforcement work, including daily visits, arrests for minor offences like parking infringements and a sense that any time they step out of line the police will be there.

"We did exactly the same things as in Boston," McCluskey said. "There was some resistance from some officers but Steve House was quite brave. What he said was: 'On you go.' He really showed backbone and gave us full support."

There have been attempts to take the project to other cities, including Manchester, Liverpool and London – where McCluskey recently completed a two-year secondment. But her experience in the Met was that leadership was tentative.

While she met many excellent commanders on the ground, including in Waltham Forest, Lewisham and Lambeth – where the hard-hitting Growing Against Gangs programme targets primary and secondary schools – she felt the approach across the city, which research suggests has as many as 200 gangs, was piecemeal. "I just think that in lots of places, particularly in the Met, they were just a bit cautious. They did it on a small scale only."

The Met has since taken an initiative which draws on ideas from the Boston Ceasefire project. Led by Commander Steve Rodhouse, Operation Connect is trawling the Scotland Yard intelligence bank, and information from local authorities, schools and health authorites, to produce a centralised database of the most harmful gang members.

It is these individuals who are targeted. Rather than using "call-ins", the team is adopting a "call-on" policy. In Waltham Forest, a blueprint for the rest of the Met, the unit identified 102 gang members responsible for most of the crime. Backed by other agencies, police visited the individuals and their families and gave them a stark choice.

"In Waltham Forest about 50% of the individuals will engage with us," Rodhouse said. "For the 50% who don't it is made clear that they will be subject to a wide range of enforcement action – things like targeting them for no insurance, no tax or licence, to undercover drugs operations and covert policing."

Whatever tactics are used, McCluskey believes the key lies in tackling the violence, not trying to break down the gangs. "I don't have a problem with gangs. I have a problem with what they do," she said.

"People are social, many people like to be in a group. If you come from a crap background, if there has been domestic violence or child abuse, and you go out and meet other people who have come from similar backgrounds, you form groups and gangs and that is all you have got. So we have to use the positive aspects of that … You can go out and play football in a gang, you can play basketball in a gang, but the violence is unacceptable."


Sandra Laville, crime correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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