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Dr Andrew Whittaker

04 April 2019, 4:53 UTC Share

Understanding street gangs and youth violence

Most academics enter into academia because we are curious and love our subject. But this means we can struggle with the challenges of influencing policy and practice in a complex world that is often indifferent to our research. Occasionally, research is recognized as having something to say outside of our network of researchers and this can be both exciting and demanding.

Last June, London South Bank University published a study, commissioned by the London Borough of Waltham Forest, on how street gangs had developed in their area. A decade had passed since the Council had last taken an in-depth look into this issue and they realised that gang activity and violence in the borough had changed and that new research was required to understand these developments.

The previous study found that gangs were focused on postcode territories and demonstrated their identity through ‘colours’ and other insignia. This has changed significantly, with gangs becoming more economically driven, focused upon drugs markets and expanding outside the saturated London drug markets.

We found that territory is still very important but its meaning has changed. Rather than an emotional connection to a postcode area that has be defended, gangs see territory as an economic market to be protected. This new way of working has meant that younger children are becoming involved in carrying drugs outside London, particularly young girls, as they attract less attention.

In response to our report, Waltham Forest Council recommissioned their gang-related services with an additional Ł800,000 of funding. This includes a new initiative to set up a financial investigation service that would address the more economically driven nature of gang activity and enable more senior gang members to be targeted.

The report also highlighted the importance of a particular geographical area for the dominant gang for its drugs selling activities. Waltham Forest Council and Metropolitan Police responded with a successful joint initiative targeted at this area, which has lead to a 38% reduction in violent crime.

Our findings attracted significant press interest and it proved demanding to respond swiftly. As a former child protection social worker, I am used to responding to urgent situations but nevertheless found it challenging to balance responding to press queries with the everyday demands of teaching and managing research.

Since then, there has sadly been a surge in youth violence and this has driven the issue up the agenda for policy makers. Parliament held a debate on knife crime in January and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology is currently developing a parliamentary briefing on ‘Early interventions to reduce violent crime’, which I had the privilege of being interviewed and acting as an external reviewer for.

One of the interventions identified in the parliamentary briefing is a trauma-informed approach, which recognises that young people involved in gangs are likely to have experienced trauma themselves, which can have an influence on their own behaviour. For example, it can lead to young people misperceiving the behaviour of other young people as threatening, which can lead to escalating aggression in response. Lewisham Council has developed a trauma-informed group work programme that we are in the process of evaluating, which holds potential for reducing violence and improving the lives of young people in the borough.

Surges in violent crime can often lead to knee jerk reactions from policy makers. Whilst this is understandable, if we are to make a lasting reduction in gang-activity and violent crime, the Government must pursue long term, evidence led strategies to address its root causes. In a Serious Youth Violence summit earlier this week, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s commitment to introduce a public health model. This is an exciting development with significant potential and the University has a public health gang researcher from New York coming to work with us on a Fulbright Scholarship in June to explore how this approach can lead to lasting change for young vulnerable people.

Dr Andrew Whittaker is Associate Professor and Head of the Risk, Resilience and Expert Decision-making (RRED) research group at the London South Bank University. He is the lead author of the Postcodes to Profit study of gangs in the London Borough of Waltham Forest.

Author: Dr Andrew Whittaker, Associate Professor and Head of the Risk, Resilience and Expert Decision-making (RRED) research group, London South Bank University

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