Police cuts blamed for 23% rise in youth gang offences in London

Mayor’s controversial ‘collective punishment’ Shield scheme lacking community support despite worrying increase in youth violence

Fears of a renewal in serious youth violence in London are growing after it was revealed that youth gang offences are up 23% in the last year, while a spate of fatal incidents in the last month has once again focused attention on Boris Johnson’s key pledge to tackle serious youth crime in the capital.

The last weekend of September saw the death of a 17-year-old boy in Brockley, after the car he was travelling in smashed into a lamp post while trying to flee a group of young men; in Hackney, a 25-year-old man was shot in broad daylight on a busy shopping street. Two weeks earlier, 16-year-old Mohammed Kwenga Dura-Ray died after being stabbed repeatedly following a “major incident”. Seven youths – including two 16-year-old boys – are being held on suspicion of his murder.

Figures seen by the Guardian from the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC) also show that knife crime with injury is up 14% in the past 12 months, while serious youth violence has increased by 8% in London. There has also been a 16.5% increase in the number of firearms discharged in the capital compared with the previous 12 months. The increases come after a period of several years where the number of offences has been falling.

“There has definitely been a worrying increase in violence,” said Tom Sackville, head of the gangs prevention unit at social enterprise Catch 22. “Set against a period where there has been a consistent reduction, it appears that we are reversing and going back to a picture we saw a few years ago.”

Opponents argue that Home Office-led cuts – the Met has lost 5,655 uniformed officers dedicated to borough and neighbourhood policing since 2010, a 23% decrease – are taking a toll. The increase in violence, was “alarming”, said Joanne McCartney, the Labour spokeswoman for policing at City Hall.

“Cuts to integral police roles such as neighbourhood policing undermine the Met’s ability to gather the grassroots intelligence which is vital to tackling gang and knife crime,” she said. “With the Met now looking at axing all of the capital’s PCSOs, the worry is the situation could get much worse.”

On a Southwark side street in south London, just a few metres from a shrine to Dura-Ray, Eduardo*, 28, said he was 14 when he started carrying a knife and thinks the situation is even worse for teens today, with knives such as the foot-long ‘Zombie killer’ knife recovered by the Met police easy to get hold of.

“It’s normal for kids to carry knives, they want to feel safe – be the cool guys,” he said. “The longer your knife, the longer your reach, the better [the] advantage.”

Eduardo was jailed, aged 17, for stabbing another boy – who survived – four times in the chest. “I felt I needed to prove a point, to be untouchable, to be feared,” he said. “I thought I was unstoppable but I got caught. I ended up ruining my life.”

One aspect of the mayor’s youth violence strategy that has faced fierce criticism is the 12-month Shield pilot. Launched in January, it saw £200,000 split between the pilot boroughs of Lambeth, Haringey and Westminster, and a “one rule for all policy” which would “see members of some of the most active gangs in London collectively punished for the criminal actions of individual members”. However, in Lambeth and Haringey communities feared it would damage trust in authorities and hand draconian powers to the police and have effectively stated they would not support Shield in its current format.

Shield was designed by American criminologist professor David Kennedy, who was paid a “maximum value” of £50,000 for “support and advice” – 25% of the pilot’s overall budget. It is based on the successful Operation Ceasefire (pdf) model developed in the US. A version of the operation exported to Glasgow, was credited with reducing gang violence by 50%.

But critics argue the community and support aspects seen in the US and Scotland have not materialised in London. A key feature of the operation is making gang members face their own communities in public “call-ins” but while in Glasgow the first call-in saw between 60 and 70 gang members confronted, at the equivalent event in Lambeth, held in June, just three identified gang members turned up, according to individuals present.

Three further call-ins, all in Westminster, were held in recent weeks, according to the mayor’s office, who did not divulge the number of attendees. There have been just 50 arrests as a result of Shield. In comparison, the Metropolitan police’s London-wide Operation Teal, launched in June to tackle gang violence, has seen 3,300 arrests.

“It was all about the headlines – we’re going to lock up your friend, your dad, your dog,” said Stu Thomson, from the Knights Youth Centre, which has been a presence in Lambeth for 80 years. “But in the US it started from the mums, it had the support of the community from the beginning; it was the opposite here, it came from the top.”

A misunderstanding of “collective punishment” has made it difficult to get community support for Shield, admitted Stephen Greenhalgh, deputy mayor for policing and crime. The phrase had been confused with joint enterprise – where defendants can be found guilty of offences committed by another person if they have agreed to act together – rather than a means of police and authorities coming down hard on any civil or criminal misdemeanours, he said.

“All three authorities are continuing to work on [Shield] and make the adjustments and changes that are needed to ensure this pilot does work and does have the confidence of communities,” said Greenhalgh. “There’s no doubt it’s been harder than we envisaged but often these programmes do take a while to build up community support.”

Shield was just one of £6.8m worth of anti-gang projects, said Greenhalgh, adding that in recent years, knife crime has dropped by a third, and gun crime by 50%. At the start of September, Met police chief, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, said that despite the drop over several years, knife crime had increased by 21% in London the last 12 months and warned that targeted stop and search operations would be stepped up.

Shield, like many other anti-gang initiatives in the capital, also promised to help young people to exit gangs. But critics argue they have seen little evidence of this so far. “If you’re using a big stick then you’ve got to make sure you have a good carrot,” said Sackville. “You’ve got to give [those in gangs] the tools to make changes, and that can mean rehousing them, supporting relationships and giving them a job.”

Around the corner from the most recent shrine to a teenager to be fatally stabbed in the capital, Eduardo, now 28, said once violence was a part of young lives, it was difficult to escape. He is still unemployed. “I’m trying to better my life but I need to get off the street,” he said. “But I’m too used to it, I don’t think I can ever let go.”

*Name has been changed


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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