Gangs brought face to face with victims as London tries US scheme

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The Independent Online

Ten members of the Get Money street gang from the north London borough of Enfield found themselves in the dock at Wood Green Crown Court yesterday.

The boys, most of whom were in their early teens, had not been charged with any crime, but were summoned in the hope that they might be prevented from doing so in the future.

The initiative is part of a radical new approach to the area's street gangs which will see them hauled in front of the courts and forced to witness first hand the consequences of the violent actions. If it proves successful it could be rolled out across London.

Gang members are ferried to court for a "call-in" – a technique originally pioneered in the United States where offenders are forced to collectively attend face-to-face meetings with police officers, accident and emergency surgeons, former criminals and victims of crime.

The idea is to confront them with the consequences of their crimes but also to offer them a way off the streets if they abandon their violence. It is the first time the scheme has been used in England.

As they sat waiting in the court room, a number of the Get Money boys began to giggle. But the mood changed when Nicola Dyer told them her eldest son, Shakilus Townsend, had been stabbed by a gang that was notorious in the area they lived in.

"When my son was killed people talked about him being a soldier. There was nothing soldier-like about being run down like an animal, being stabbed and beaten to death. That doesn't represent a soldier to me," she said.

Former gang member Jermaine Lawlor went right up to the youths were sat and spoke directly to them, almost shouting.

"Who do you think is going to be there for you when you are in hospital? Do you think your mandems will be there for you? It is your mum who is going to be there for you when you are lying in hospital, your mandems don't care about you, only your mum cares about you?"

William Graham, a retired police inspector from Strathclyde Police who has helped pioneer a similar scheme north of the border, described call-ins as a "specific piece of theatre" designed to prick the conscience of gang members.

"You start off with a police officer who tells the gang members that if they don't change we will come after not just you but your entire gang," he explained. "Then you show them what violence can do to someone. You might get a surgeon in to show them pictures of stab wounds and how they kill. I've seen hardened gang members faint at those pictures, they just can't look. Finally you get a victim to confront them, often a mother whose son has been murdered in gang violence."

The technique was initially trialled in the American cities of Boston and Chicago where they proved remarkably successful at encouraging gun-toting gang members to turn their backs on violence.

Impressed by what was happening across the Atlantic, Strathclyde Police began exploring whether they could do the same for Glasgow's gangs who had helped turn the city into Europe's most violent.

Compared to Boston and Chicago, Glasgow's gangs were younger, had little access to guns and were not involved in the same kind of multi-million pound drug trade racket that defined the American networks.

But they were no less violent. Knives, machetes and crow bars were routinely used to mete out punishment that was often provoked by the smallest transgression such as straying onto enemy turf or perceived slights against a gang member's reputation. When Strathclyde first began using "call-ins" in October 2008, teenagers were twice as likely to be stabbed in Glasgow compared to the average British town.

Police say collective confrontations of gang members – combined with more traditional policing measures – has had a palpable success. According to a review published last year, knife carrying among participants dropped 60 percent since call-ins were introduced whilst violent crime among gangs was halved.

Karen McClusky pioneered Glasgow's call-in work, known officially as the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV). "Violent crime in the east end – which is a hard place – is now the expectation rather than the rule," she said. "It's been a long time and a lot of hard work but it really does work."

She believes anti-gang measures often focus too readily on trying to eradicate the gangs.

"You have to understand the group dynamics of gangs," she said. "For a lot of these kids the gang is the only support network they've got. You can't dispose of the gangs, that's unrealistic. What you can do is target their violence. Some people need to jail for a long time. But there are others out there who are looking for a way out."