170 gangs on streets of London
Detective Chief Superintendent Barry Norman thought he
had seen it all during his 28 years with the Metropolitan Police Force:
gruesome murders, brutal rapes and vicious armed robberies.
Yet, as he rose through the ranks from a constable to
the head of Scotland Yard's Violent Crime Directorate, nothing prepared
him for the scale of the task he now faces - tackling gang warfare.
Scotland Yard has just completed the task of counting how many street
gangs there are in London. The results are staggering: there are more
than 170, some of them up to 100-strong. It means on any given night,
several thousand gang members are roaming the capital, many of them
thirsting for violence. In other British cities, notably Manchester,
Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham, there is a frighteningly similar
picture. "Serious youth violence is the biggest problem we have today in
London - with the possible exception of terrorism," Mr Norman told The
Sunday Telegraph. "Nothing frightens people more, and when that violence
takes place in a group setting, it is all the more shocking.
"If I could achieve just one more thing in my service,
it would be to wake up the whole of London to this problem. Trying to
suppress [gang] crime on a day-to-day basis is like holding a football
underwater. Eventually it just comes flying back in your face."
DCS Norman was speaking just days after Barbara Reid
told an inquest that her son, Jessie James, 15, had been killed in a
park on Moss Side, Manchester, because he refused to join a gang. She
urged local people to stand up and "denounce this evil in our
community". On Wednesday, a year-long government study concluded that
black teenagers urgently needed role models to divert them from the
world of gangs and criminality.
At his first floor office in Cannon Row police station
-opposite the London Eye - DCS Norman identified with the report's
findings. "How difficult must it be for a parent to bring up a kid in
some of these areas? How difficult must it be to be a kid and to make
the right choice when sometimes the easiest way to be 'safe' is to
belong to a group of other kids? It's an awful situation and there is no
short-term solution. "The only way to stop today's children becoming
tomorrow's problem is to invest in them when they are young. The best
thing that can happen from the tragedy of this year - with [a record] 18
teenagers murdered in London - is that we get new money, new
investments, new partnerships and we invest in the long term. "This
mustn't be seen as just a police issue. The health service, the
education service, social services and the Home Office all need to do a
whole lot more. I sense there is a real appetite for this, but we have
got to grasp the opportunity and work together."
The police distinguish between gangs and old-style
gangsters - like the Krays or, more recently, the Adams family -
referring to the latter as "criminal networks". They are fundamentally
out to make money through organised crime, controlling everything from
drug smuggling to money laundering to prostitution and protection
rackets. Street gangs are predominantly younger and more loosely knit.
Many gangs are linked by no more than a post code, where members live.
Often gangs indulge in "turf wars" - perhaps over who controls
small-time drug deals. Other times, gangs will clash because one of
their number has been "disrespected" by a rival.
Scotland Yard officers, like those in Greater
Manchester, have flown to Los Angeles to see the city's widespread gang
problem and to learn lessons on how to police them. Mr Norman, 46, is
currently co-ordinating Operation Curb, which involves new projects in
the Met's 32 boroughs, from improving intelligence to reassuring the
community. Newham in east London is currently the worst for "teenager on
teenager" violence but there are pockets in other boroughs almost as
bad. Asked whether there were "untouchable" gangs operating "no-go"
areas, DCS Norman paused. "You would expect me to say this - but I
genuinely do not know of any area in London where the police do not
operate. But it would be naive of me to say there were no criminal
networks out there which are at the moment beyond the reach of the
police because perhaps our intelligence isn't good enough."
The Violent Crime Directorate was set up last year to
reduce crime in the capital involving guns, gangs and weapons. A similar
project - the Xcalibre task force - was set up soon afterwards to target
gun crime in Greater Manchester, particularly the notorious Moss Side
area. Here gang rivalries tend to be more clear-cut - often with clashes
between two major heavily armed groups: the Gooch Close and the
Doddington gangs. Firearm discharges in Greater Manchester are running
at a record 120 a year, with nearly a third of them are gang-related. A
recent Home Office study of south Manchester revealed that in 150
separate shooting incidents over a three-year period, only one witness
came forward to testify.
Detective Inspector Paul Miller, who works in the
Xcalibre task force, said: "We are seeing turf wars where one shooting
leads to a series of tit-for-tat reprisals. Shootings are often linked
to status, or 'glamour'. Sometimes it's just violence for violence's
sake." The 9mm pistol, glamorised by American rappers and easy to
conceal, has become the handgun of choice among gang members. Police say
many of the weapons are smuggled in from Lithuania.
John Pitts, a professor of socio-legal studies at the
University of Bedfordshire and the author of a report into gang culture
called Reluctant Gangsters, warned that violence was spreading from the
cities and gang members are getting younger, some even of primary school
age. "When the police launch campaigns to take out the drug dealers,
people emigrate to places like Reading, Northampton, Peterborough and
Preston," he said. "What you're seeing is a dispersal of this kind of
activity and when drug territories move, violence goes with them."
12 August 2007