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.