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."

Andrew Alderson
12 August 2007


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