Karyn McCluskey has led a controversial project in Glasgow to tackle gang violence. It seems to be working, but is there the political will to roll it out across the whole country?by Gavin Knight / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
ABOVE: policewoman Karyn McCluskey imported a US strategy to reduce gang violence in Strathclyde
When Karyn McCluskey took a job as an intelligence analyst with the Strathclyde police in 2002, she felt overwhelmed. She came from West Mercia Constabulary, a place of beautiful, sparsely populated countryside, some property crime and about two murders a year. Strathclyde had 71, most of them within Glasgow, making it the most violent city in Europe. When in 2005 the number fell to 55, her colleagues heralded it as a 13-year low. McCluskey was appalled. “We were very good at detecting murder.” The detection rate was 98 per cent. “We just couldn’t prevent it.”
The murders were driven by the gang culture on Glasgow’s vast, bleak 1950s housing estates such as Easterhouse. Gang members were local white youths. A typical murder might involve a 16-year-old having a drink to steady his nerves, walking less than half a mile from his flat, and being killed in a one-on-one arranged knife fight. Territory was marked with graffiti; those who strayed outside their area risked attack from a rival gang. Intelligence work revealed there were 170 gangs, with 3,500 gang members aged from around 11 to 23.
On Friday nights in Glasgow’s city centre, or on bridges over the River Clyde, battles were fought with machetes, swords and scaffolding poles. In August, McCluskey showed an example caught on CCTV to a crime conference in London. Senior policemen gasped as a wave of boys charged across Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow’s main street, slashing their rivals outside a busy shopping mall and running back. One victim disappeared behind a car as machete blows rained down on him. “We coined a term for it—recreational violence,” McCluskey said. “They were fighting because they wanted to. It was sensation-seeking.” That wasn’t the only unnerving thing about the footage. Throughout the fight, older shoppers wandered by, unperturbed, going home.
To deal with the problem, Strathclyde Police had used a mixture of crackdowns on knife crime and binge drinking, along with foot patrols and stop-and-searches. But these have only worked in the short term. Imprisoning a prominent gang member created a vacuum and aspiring younger members fought to take his place. A suggested ban on Buckfast—a cheap tonic wine popular among young Glaswegians—led to an increase in sales. One study found that Operation Blade, a knife amnesty that ran for four weeks in 1993, had no long-term success. Fear of reprisals in gang areas meant that 70 per cent of crimes went unreported. The real picture was only seen by doctors at Strathclyde’s A&E, which dealt with 300 attempted murders a year and a serious facial injury every six hours. These injuries were predominantly gang-related.
There were attempts to tackle the underlying causes of the violence. Many gang members grew up in a world of domestic violence, exclusion from school and without male role models. “Preventative” measures were designed for parents and schools. But it was difficult to co-ordinate all the services involved and other activities, which might have helped to divert young people away from gang life, operated in isolation. Playgrounds shut at 5pm, sports ceased in bad weather—a more radical approach was needed.
Glasgow’s problems are representative of other British inner cities where gang culture has become embedded. In 2007, public concern peaked with a number of high-profile murders. Rhys Jones, aged 11, was shot dead returning from football practice in Liverpool. Billy Cox, 15, was shot dead on the doorstep of his home in Clapham. In September 2007, the government launched the Tackling Gangs Action Programme stressing tougher enforcement and stop-and-search tactics. But in 2008 teenage murders rose to 29 in London. One was a 19-year-old actor in the Harry Potter films, Rob Knox, stabbed outside a bar in Sidcup. Some of the media reported it as the start of a US-style gang problem. Recently the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, compared British estates with the crime-ridden Baltimore housing projects in US television series The Wire.
BOSTON’S GANGS AND “OPERATION CEASEFIRE”
Karyn McCluskey was struck that none of the approaches being used understood the importance of gangs as groups. “The group dynamics are the really toxic thing,” she said, noting how reasonable individuals can resort to terrifying behaviour in a group. She had read about a different approach in the US called Operation Ceasefire, led by David Kennedy, an academic at Harvard. Kennedy had wanted to be a non-fiction writer, but after seeing crack-ravaged Boston housing projects in the 1980s, dedicated himself to researching new ideas in community-based policing.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Boston was gripped by a crack cocaine epidemic and gang-related youth homicides soared by 230 per cent. At that time in the US, tough enforcement and long sentences were the main tactics being used to combat these crimes. Kennedy found that in 1996, Boston had 61 drug gangs with 1,300 members. Although fewer than Glasgow, most members were highly active criminals. Seventy-five per cent of homicide victims and 77 per cent of perpetrators had criminal records, and averaged nearly ten prior arrests each. Under Kennedy’s guidance, police, youth workers and other members of the project meticulously researched the violence. Who was attacking whom? Which gang members were in prison? The research took a year to complete.
Once it was over, Kennedy’s next move was to turn the gang’s group dynamics against them. He summoned gang members to face-to-face forums—“call-ins”—which they could be compelled to attend as a condition of parole. The first was in Boston in May 1996, with a second in September that year. In the call-ins, gang members were not treated like psychopaths but rational adults. It was businesslike and civil. The object was explicit moral engagement. They were told what they were doing was causing huge damage to their families and communities and that the violence must stop. The police said that any further violence would result in the whole group being punished. In emotional appeals, members of the community, victims’ relatives and ex-offenders spoke about the consequences of gang violence. And youth workers said that if they wanted out of the gang life they would be given help with jobs, housing, training and addiction problems.
Gang members are bonded by a macho street code similar to that of football hooligans, where reputation is gained through violence. Any disrespect has to be answered with brutal retaliation or there is a loss of face. Fights are normally personal, about girlfriends, respect and territory. The mantra is that gang friends would die or go to prison for each other. “The code was about manhood and honour. It was Montague and Capulet. It was West Side Story,” Kennedy told me.
In the call-ins Kennedy aimed to show that the street-code was nonsense. Gang members were challenged about using violence to avenge disrespect. They were told about a drive-by shooting where a 13-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet. “Who thinks it is OK to kill 13-year-old girls?” they were asked. To counter the belief in loyalty they were given examples of gang members fighting among themselves. They were asked: “Will your friends visit you in prison? How long will it take your friends to sleep with your girlfriend when you’re in jail?” One gang member called out: “Two days. And it was my cousin.” One by one, the rules of the street were dismantled.
One of the strongest tenets of the street code was that gang members were not afraid of death. The lyrics of gangsta rappers like 50 Cent and Tupac Shakur reinforce the idea that gang life is nasty, brutish and short. The culture was so deep-rooted that something with high impact was needed to change it. Kennedy remembers one later call-in in Cincinnati, where gang members were brought face-to-face with a victim’s mother. “It was filled with the most dangerous people, badly dressed, deviant. It had a scary atmosphere.” There was a Swat team stationed outside. The mother stood up and said: “I know you are not afraid of dying. My son wasn’t afraid of dying either. But he’s dead. He’s been gone a while. I got the phone call in the kitchen. I fell down on the floor screaming. I fell apart. I lost my husband. I started drinking and taking drugs. I have two other sons—I love them dearly. I was so broken I couldn’t take care of them. They are now damaged for life. If you let yourself get killed your mother will be standing here. She will be me.” At the end of this, many of the gang members were in tears, and left the call-in with a message for the rest of the gang. Peer pressure was now created to stop the violence and the gang started policing itself.
After the call-in the police tried out the new strategy. If a gang member killed someone, they went after the entire gang for any crimes: drug sales, drug use, gun carrying, outstanding warrants, probation and parole violations. Normally after a murder a cop would be looking to put an offender away for life, rather than clamp down on his friends for having an unregistered car. Yet it worked. Over the five-month period between the first two call-ins there was a 71 per cent drop in youth homicides. Before Ceasefire started in 1996, Boston was averaging around 100 homicides a year. By 1999 it was down to 31. When the strategy was used in Chicago, the homicide rate went down by 37 per cent within 18 months in some neighbourhoods. Nine months after the first call-in in Cincinnati, gang-related homicides were down by 50 per cent.
Ceasefire challenged the orthodoxy of traditional enforcement. It questioned whether enforcement and criminal justice were effective deterrents. Old-school cops were stunned that a group of drugged-out killers could be influenced by moral reasoning. Criminologists were confounded that homicide, a personal crime often committed on impulse, could be stopped simply by asking. It sparked a vigorous discussion amongst academics who could not believe the results.
THE GANG DYNAMIC IN BRITAIN
British gangs lack the firearms that are allowed in the US. But the drivers of gang crime—poor parenting, fractured families, youth unemployment, school exclusion—are the same as across the Atlantic. A 2004 home office survey estimated that 6 per cent of ten to 19-year-olds belonged to a gang in England and Wales, although 10 per cent defined themselves as gang members. Gang affiliation has been rising in recent years and the age of members has been dropping.
Although it is an underexplored area, new research is giving us a greater understanding of British gangs. Last year Judith Aldridge, a criminologist at Manchester University, published a study based on 26 months of observation and 107 interviews. Her team found that drug dealing was not the defining gang activity but rather an individual pursuit. Gang members are just as likely to earn money from having a job, a business or state benefits. Living with others without paying rent was seen as key in getting by day-to-day. Aldridge also found that gang violence was not linked to drug dealing but disputes about love and friendship. Ethnic tension did not emerge as a significant cause either. Contrary to the image of gangs offering loyalty and protection, researchers found a large degree of within-gang conflict, often caused by jealousy and debt. A key source of violence were “vendettas” over murders dating back years or even decades.
In a 2007 study of gangs in Waltham Forest, northeast London, John Pitts drew on data from two surveys and 54 interviews. His report, “Reluctant Gangsters,” challenged the idea that members wilfully signed up to gang life. He argued that gang involvement for a third of his subjects was not wholly voluntary. Youths living in a known gang area were forced into participating or carrying a weapon out of fear. If they were asked to carry out a crime and refused the consequences could be dire. One youth worker said: “There were a brother and a sister; he was 15 and she was 14. Never been in trouble. They told them to do a robbery. But they said no. So they beat him up and raped her.”
In tackling gang crime, British police have largely relied on traditional options—extending sentences for knife possession and increasing stop and searches—despite their relative ineffectiveness. Manchester, however, did try something different. A 2001 home office assessment by UCL criminologist Nick Tilley recommended that the city should adopt Ceasefire. Manchester had notorious gang problems, especially in the deprived area of Moss Side. Tilley thought the conditions were perfect for the American model. The main gangs, the Gooch and the Doddington, had been engaged in a 20-year feud on the Alexandra Park estate, separated by a dual carriageway.
But, when implementing the model, Manchester police altered Kennedy’s strategy. The most important part—the call-in—was never staged. A multi-agency community-based project was set up but it was initially staffed by police. Other cops saw it primarily as an intelligence-gathering body to help them. Wary gang members stayed away, then the police cracked down on gang members who refused to join in. “Manchester has fundamentally missed the point,” said Kennedy. Detective Superintendent Darren Shenton, of Manchester’s gang unit, has said: “We considered the call-in process, but when you go to Boston and LA, the number of gang members is huge and the display in terms of gang allegiance is really clear. While it might work, we have done some low-level mediation but we’ve not done a call-in project in Manchester. It’s not the same as the US. Access to firearms is different there.”
BRINGING THE US MODEL TO GLASGOW
Karyn McCluskey knew about Manchester’s project and about other, innovative tactics being proposed in Britain and Europe. But Scotland’s gang problem was more extreme and entrenched. She needed something that was proven to work—such as Ceasefire. Many of her colleagues objected, pointing out the differences between Boston and Strathclyde. Boston gang crime was partly driven by control of drugs markets, guns were widely used and gang members were mainly African-Americans. None of these factors was true of Glasgow, but McCluskey believed the macho street-code and group dynamics were the same. On a visit to Boston, she had gone to court to observe gang trials and “the majority of the fights and murders over there were about respect. They weren’t about control of the drugs market. Fights were over girlfriends. Fights over territory. You’ve shown me disrespect. You’ve come into my area, exactly what we have in Glasgow.” She was determined to follow the model almost to the letter.
In 2007, she met Kennedy, who was now in New York and the director of the Centre on Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She invited him to Strathclyde to address her colleagues later that year. Kennedy, an impressive communicator, won over the sceptics. The £5m package needed to fund the initiative was raised. The Scottish government provided £1.6m over two years, and a further £3.4m was provided using existing resources and services. McCluskey was able to set up an initiative which brought together people from justice, government, housing, careers, education, social work, health and the community.
After 18 months of planning, the Strathclyde police were ready for the first call-in, to be held in the east end of Glasgow. It took place on 24th October 2008 in the Glasgow sheriff’s court, and was opened by the sheriff as though the court was in session. Through a cordon of four mounted police at the entrance, 120 gang members were escorted into the courtroom by police in riot gear. A police helicopter hovered overhead and constables cruised up and down the Clyde.
“The chief of police stands up first. He gives a hard-edged message.” McCluskey said. “Pictures of the gangs are getting flashed around on the screens. We know who you are, who you associate with, who you fight with. If we wanted to we could have a police officer outside your front door. You could see the looks on their faces. They are shocked. Some of the gang members think we don’t do things like that.”
Then members of the community spoke. An elderly man said he was petrified to walk past them on the way to collect his pension. An A&E consultant explained the difficulty of dealing with knife victims. A mother told how at the age of 13, her son was set upon by a gang and attacked with machetes. The injuries to his face were so severe he was unrecognisable. He had tried to protect his face with his hands and lost his fingers. “We had gang members crying because regardless of how good or bad their parents are—they love their mums,” McCluskey said. “That was the most powerful thing in the US and it was the most powerful thing here too.”
Another speaker was Gary, who committed a murder at 18 and had been in prison for 11 years. “He has such self-loathing.” McCluskey said. “He spoke about the dehumanising, harrowing aspects of prison, spending his twenties in a cell, someone telling him when he can go to the toilet, when he can eat. He has a level of remorse that speaks to them.”
WILL THE REST OF BRITAIN FOLLOW?
It is still too early to evaluate how successful Strathclyde’s project has been, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is working. As in the US, members were given a number to ring if they wanted to leave the gang life. Within 24 hours of calling the freephone number, the boys were assessed by a social worker to see if they needed drink or substance misuse treatment. Then they were given help to access education, health services, careers advice and social services. After four months, 119 gang members had taken up the offer. Recently the programme was expanded from the east of Glasgow to the north.
The Ceasefire model has been the most successful attempt to reduce gang-related crime to date. It deserves to be piloted in other British cities. But it takes strong leadership to implement and so far only Strathclyde has succeeded.
At Merseyside police, Detective Chief Superintendent Stephen Moore was a fan of Ceasefire and even arranged for Kennedy to visit the force. “But it was difficult to sell it to the cops,” Moore said in August, shortly before he retired. “They thought they could arrest their way out of anything.” No call-ins have yet been staged in Liverpool. In London, three boroughs are piloting a scheme called “Pathways,” which they say is based on Ceasefire; Kennedy says they are just using the name. Commander Martin Hewitt of the Metropolitan Police said: “There are a number of different ways in which the ‘call-in’ can be delivered; for example, an enhanced home visit, or a ‘conference’ involving a small number of gang members at a community venue.” All a long way from high-impact group sessions in courtrooms.
The challenge for the government is to implement Kennedy’s ideas without complicating or watering them down. Ceasefire is an idea driven and supported by a community. While Labour has emphasised the need for police to be closer to the community, too often it has done this by putting more community support officers on the streets. “In Boston the police and community services were really hooked into each other,” said Simon Antrobus, the author of “Dying to Belong,” a review of street gangs published in February by the Centre for Social Justice, the think tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith. Antrobus has called for implementation of the Ceasefire model, backed up by a gang prevention unit within the cabinet office to identify the areas with the worst problems and evaluate the work done so far.
Others on the right have taken notice too. A 2008 report “Going Ballistic—dealing with guns, gangs and knives” from Policy Exchange, sometimes called David Cameron’s favourite think tank, also praised Ceasefire. And the home affairs select committee’s review on knife crime, published in June, praised McCluskey’s approach.
Sceptics of Ceasefire highlight the differences between Britain and the US. Gang members cannot be compelled to attend call-ins as a parole condition in Britain. Strathclyde police had to put pressure on boys’ parents instead—yet even so, 120 gang members turned up to the first call-in.
Others argue that it is impossible to deliver the multi-agency approach efficiently with so many moving parts. Police forces here have homegrown strategies. Supplanting these with a radical US-based initiative will not be easy. A future Tory government may find it hard to roll out the Strathclyde initiative, especially given its commitment to localism. McCluskey said that in Strathclyde they had reached a “Rosa Parks moment” of change, where everyone was so fed up with the violence that egos were left at the door. Yet in other British cities local council fiefdoms and the interests of different agencies may not be so easy to set aside. As Kennedy said, “We know how to deal with the bad guys. Now we just need to work out how to deal with the good guys.”