Team that keeps gangs apart faces new threat - lack of cash


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The Independent Online

Civilian mediators have been sent into prisons across Britain to dissuade senior gang members from organising tit-for-tat attacks on rivals to prevent violence spreading on the streets of the capital, the head of the project has told The Independent.

The mediators, who include former gang members and businessmen, secured truces between rival groups involved in drug and turf disputes during the three years of the programme to cut gang-related blood feuds.

Gang violence has been pinpointed by Scotland Yard as one of its highest crime priorities. There are no specific figures for gang-related violence but 12 teenagers died last year from gun or knife attacks in London.

Two mediators have been pulled off assignments after being threatened while organising one-to-one meetings with potentially violent targets, most of whom have criminal records and have been referred to the unit by the country’s biggest force.

Members of the 32-strong mediation team cold-call suspected gang members who are seen to be at threat of carrying out reprisal attacks and embark on what can be months of meetings.

The “utopia” is to get individuals around the same table to discuss a way of resolving their conflict without violence, but that rarely happens, said former detective Andy Simon, who heads the non-profit organisation, Capital Conflict Management.

One teenager, Imran Miah, 16, said a mediator convinced him not to launch a reprisal attack after a beating that left him in hospital but he refused to name his attackers to police. “I was just thinking of my revenge, how I was going to catch them and what I was going to do,” he told The Independent.

Mediators are barred from passing any intelligence to Scotland Yard to secure their operational independence - unless there is a risk to life or a threat of violent disorder. They have scored some notable successes, according to Mr Simon.

The unit had a man moved from his remand cell at Belmarsh top security prison in southeast London to another jail after they discovered a serious threat to his life. The prisoner, who had already been badly beaten up, was moved and subsequently jailed for 12 years for attempted murder.

However the work of the unit – seen as an important initiative in the Metropolitan Police’s anti-gangs initiative and using tactics copied from the Northern Ireland peace process – is threatened by an impending cash shortfall.

In a meeting at the group’s headquarters in central London, victims, mediators and former gang members gave an insight into the changing nature of Britain’s gangs and the tactics used to confront the groups.

They also revealed the growing propensity for violence among young members of the estimated 250 active criminal gangs in the capital. Police have categorised 62 of the gangs as “high-harm” and responsible for two-thirds of gang-related crime.

“We are not there to dismantle gangs,” said Mr Simon, a former detective on Trident, the Metropolitan Police programme that tackled black-on-black gun crime but has now been given a larger remit to tackle gangs. “We’re there to deal with violent conflict.”

He said three-quarters of the 175 people – aged between 13 and 30 - identified and referred by Scotland Yard have cooperated with them after being approached by mediators.

Often by the time they are identified, one of the feuding rivals is in prison and the team meets them there to try to prevent reprisal attacks when they come out of jail.

Police have successfully driven down gun crime with only one teen death from shooting last year in the capital. More would have been killed but for the use of poor home-made ammunition with limited killing power. “We’re just lucky that the ammunition is not good. If they got hold of the right stuff, more people would die,” said Mr Simon.

The mediator

As a former gang member, Damion Roberts speaks from experience when he meets young men at the sharp end of Britain’s urban gang wars. Mr Roberts, now 31, was a former member of the London Fields Black Boys. He was stabbed, shot at and involved in drugs and gangs from the age of 14. At least four of his friends were killed during a feud that started with the killing of a member of a rival gang.

His life changed while he was serving three-and-a-half years of a sentence for drug dealing after being caught after a police surveillance operation. While inside, his former gang members never visited. “It just showed me that there was no loyalty in this game. They didn’t care,” he said.

He got a degree while in prison and started voluntary work when he got out before working for Capital Conflict Management. But the scene had changed since he was a gang member.

“For these young guys, respect has gone out of the window and they’re just getting younger. These guys are now starting as young as 11. Back then, I always thought about having my own organisation, my own business. These young lads they’re not thinking about that. They’re just thinking: I need to get my gun because I have to get him before he gets me. It’s scary.”

The victim

Phillis, now aged 21, was one of gangland’s unwitting victims. Her brother had been followed to the family home by a group of youngsters who remained outside their front door. She made the fateful decision to look out of the window to see what was happening - and was struck in the chest by a bullet.

She was in hospital for four months and doctors were not able to remove the bullet lodged inside her. Phillis says she sometimes feels it moving.

Her brother said that he never knew who was behind the attack, but the police wondered whether he was keeping something back and they hoped he would open up to the mediator, Andrea, a young criminology graduate. Phillis’s brother was never able to help and the focus soon changed. The whole family was depressed, Phillis refused to leave the house.

The unit helped the family to relocate out of the area. “After speaking to Andrea, I finally decided to come back outside and live life the way I used to live my life,” said Phillis.

Nobody has been prosecuted for the shooting.