The recent spike in serious youth violence across London, and the tragic consequences of it, have understandably led to the demand that “something must be done”.
Whilst we are all horrified at seeing more young lives brutally cut short, knee-jerk responses to problems that are both long-standing and deep-seated often make things worse. To solve the current crisis, we need to understand it.
Despite the hue-and-cry, the evidence suggests it would be self-defeating to simply ramp up levels of random stop-and-search, further alienating young people and taking up precious police time. Stop-and-search is a tool best used in a targeted, intelligent way.
Islington faces exactly the same problems with youth violence as many other parts of London. In response we’ve invested in an Integrated Gangs Team that links Council staff and Police Officers to support our more traditional youth services, working together to combat serious violent crime. At the heart of this team are an intelligence analyst, forensic psychologist and an adolescent mental health nurse whose jobs it is understand what’s going on and, most importantly, what is driving the violent behaviour by a small group of young people.
The insights we’ve learnt from these professionals, and from a lot of conversations with young people, have told us a great deal about what’s going on and how we might reduce levels of violence. What we’ve heard has taught us that, whilst it’s tempting to look for one silver bullet to solve youth violence in the aftermath of tragic events which convulse communities, the bad news is that there are many causes and no single solution.
However, the good news is we do know more about what is causing the shocking events we have seen in recent weeks and there are some solutions to them. Unfortunately, these solutions are resource intensive and they will take time to embed and make an impact. That isn’t easy for people to hear, especially for those people whose sons and daughters are the ones at risk – never mind the politicians and press who are largely unaffected by the real consequences of violent crime.
We need to understand more about the young people who are both committing and often becoming victims of these crimes. Most serious prolific offenders have witnessed or been a victim of domestic violence in the early years. Most are outside mainstream education. Many have broken attachments in the earliest years of life which lead to mental health issues which are only diagnosed when something terrible happens. They live in overcrowded housing. They often have fathers who play no role in their lives and lack positive role models. They often use serious amounts of cannabis on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
Most tellingly, despite living in the midst of London’s thriving economy, these young people feel that they have no hope of a job, a home of their own or a fulfilling life. They are scared and process fear as anger. Young people have also borne the brunt of austerity. It’s harder for kids from difficult backgrounds to make a breakthrough than it was eight years ago and they know it. The siren call of quick money and status is more alluring as a result. The older gang members have noticed this and are grooming young people to be involved in their gangs; pyramid schemes in which money travels upwards and risk travels downwards to the children they recruit. The growth of ‘county lines’ drug networks are a clear indicator of this.
This is not to excuse the horrific behaviour some people then go on to carry out; it is an attempt to understand what lies behind it and what we can do to try and stop it.
So what are the solutions?
First, we need to understand that trauma from violence in the home and the years of compound stress caused by living in deep poverty is endemic across much of London and elsewhere. Reducing the impact of trauma is do-able, but it doesn’t feature in the basic training of professionals from social workers, to teachers or youth workers and it must.
Police and councils must integrate their response to gangs, aligning their approaches locally to safeguard and divert the vulnerable and protect those at threat from older gang members.
We must provide mentors and youth workers to be role models for young people and disrupt the influence of older gang members. We can stop secondary schools chucking kids out when things get difficult, so they end up outside mainstream education, which is all too often a recruiting ground for gangs.
We have to listen to young people and respond. The Islington Fair Futures Commission spent a year hearing what young people had to say, and the result was revelatory. This process is rightly to be repeated in neighbouring boroughs and will help all local partners align their response to the needs of children and young people.
There is also the elephant in the room – funding. The government must reverse the police cuts. We can’t avoid this fact. The police are so stretched in urban areas they have no time to build relationships within communities that can help reduce violence. Islington has lost 240 police officers and we have seen the impact. The Government must also abandon plans to cut youth offending teams across the country.
But we also need to address the grinding hopelessness that far too many still feel. Although it’s harder than it was, there are opportunities available to young people in London, but these opportunities aren’t shared equally.
It is only with considered and evidence based approaches that we stand a chance of making a real difference in addressing the cancer of serious youth violence in our city.
Cllr Richard Watts is leader of Islington Council
Cllr Joe Caluori is Islington Council’s executive member for children, young people and families