Research challenges government plans to clamp down on knife crime
Posted on Wednesday, July 16, 2008
The government’s drive to curb street gangs and knife crime is challenged today by research suggesting official tactics are fundamentally misinformed, frequently failing, and sometimes actively strengthen the gangs they target.Based on two years’ close work with members of six gangs in an English city, the research finds that schools, health services and prisons are "grossly unprepared to collaborate or respond adequately to the problems brought about by gangs".And police mistakenly target individuals who, though gang members or associates, are not themselves engaged in criminal action - thus cutting them off as potential sources of help, driving them into gang membership, and confirming the status of gangs.
The research comes as ministers respond to demands for increased policing and longer sentences.Home secretary Jacqui Smith yesterday proposed that teenagers arrested for carrying knives should be forced to visit victims of violence in hospital.Tomorrow three senior ministers - Smith, the justice secretary Jack Straw and the children’s secretary Ed Balls - will unveil the government’s £100m youth crime action plan.
But researchers at Manchester University’s school of law found evidence which directly contradicts core assumptions of government policy. Having spoken to and won the trust of more than 100 gang members, associates and informers, they concluded that in general gangs are not tightly organised; they do not specialise in dealing drugs; and their violence is not provoked primarily by turf wars. They also found no basis for the popular belief that most street gangs are black.
Conducted in a city left unnamed to protect the identity of those who helped, the research pinpoints breakdowns in links between official agencies and communities in which they work, tied to the flawed assumption that gangs are tight groups bent on drug dealing and other forms of crime. Robert Ralphs, the project’s lead fieldworker, said: "Police and other statutory agencies respond to gangs as clearly identifiable groups of criminally-involved young people, where membership is undisputed.
"In reality, gangs are loose, messy, changing friendship networks - less organised and less criminally active than widely believed - with unclear, shifting and unstable leadership."
By failing to understand this basic structure, the researchers say, police mistakenly target and sometimes harrass individuals who, though gang members, are not breaking any law; the police also repeatedly follow, stop and searchthe gang members’ family, friends and classmates. This alienated both the gang members and their associates who might otherwise have helped police. Among the six gangs in the research, not one was dedicated to dealing drugs. Members survived on "cafeteria-style earning", mixing paid employment, benefits, living off friends or family, and opportunist crime, including selling cannabis and committing street robberies.
Although access to firearms was common in all six gangs, it was found that turf wars about drugs were not generally the cause of violence; it was far more likely to be triggered by disputes over friends, family and romantic relationships, often within the gangs rather than between them. And a gang’s ethnic make-up tended simply to reflect its local area - black, white or mixed - even though the media and police overwhelmingly focus on black gangs.
According to the researchers’ report: "An unintended consequence of this policy was the observed greater vulnerability of black young people to aggressive and intrusive policing strategies, resulting in perceptions of discrimination that are counter-productive."
In one key underlying pattern, researchers found that the very same young people who had been identified by police as crime perpetrators turned out in reality to be repeat victims of serious crimes, often having witnessed or suffered traumatic violence including shootings and abductions. Yet police and other agencies were said by the research to offer such individuals little protection or help. There were claims that police might take hours to respond to shootings in poor neighbourhoods; some families of gang members were said to be reluctant to seek help from official agencies for fear of being blamed for gang activity. Judith Aldridge, who led the research, said: "They are mainly victims. So, there is a desperate need to appropriately assess the needs of these young people and their families - and not blame them."