Woman who helped dramatically reduce youth murders in Scotland urges London to treat violence as a 'disease'

'It’s about bringing the people who are most affected by it into the solution, and that’s your young people,' Karyn McCluskey, former director of Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit, tells The Independent. 'Don’t dismiss them. Listen to your communities. They have a solution to this'

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 05 April 2018 19:45 BST
Karyn McCluskey was appointed director of a new Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in 2005
Karyn McCluskey was appointed director of a new Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in 2005

Youth violence is creeping back into the political agenda after three teenagers were killed in London this week. The deaths of Israel Ogunsola, 18, Amaan Shakoor, 16, and 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne, came amid a spate of killings which has seen the capital eclipse New York’s murder rate for February and March.

This year's murder victim toll now stands at 50 – already nearly half of the total for 2017, with five other suspected incidents being investigated. Nineteen of the confirmed victims were under the age of 25, and 10 were just teenagers.

The alarming rise bears striking resemblance to what was happening in Scotland a decade ago. A spike in killings in Glasgow made the city the murder capital of western Europe, with multiple homicides recorded most weekends. A&E staff were treating people for stab wounds every few hours, 24 hours a day. A global health report in 2005 found Scots were more than three times more likely to be murdered than people in England and Wales.

Twelve years on, Scotland has reversed the trend. The number of homicide cases in the country has fallen by 47 per cent in a decade, from 115 to 61. The number of children and teenagers killed in homicides involving a knife dropped from 40 in the five years to 2011 to eight in the five years that followed. In 2015, recorded crime in Scotland hit a forty year low.

The incredible shift followed drastic action – and it had little to do with policing or criminal justice. One woman, Karyn McCluskey, a former nurse and qualified forensic psychologist, led the way. And she believes that with political will and a multi-agency approach, London can do the same.

Head of intelligence at West Mercia Police at the time, Ms McCluskey was appointed director of a new Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in 2005, a specialist team tasked with preventing violent crimes rather than solving them. By viewing violence as a disease, its goal was to diagnose the problem and treat its cause – adopting a so-called “public health“ approach.

“People are looking for a quick fix, but there are no quick fixes. If there were we would have done it years ago,” Ms McCluskey told The Independent. "So I thought, let’s try to understand it. It may take us 10 or 15 years, and it will mean having uncomfortable conversations, but it’s been incredible.

“We took a public health approach. It’s about putting money where your mouth is in terms of prevention, and understanding that you may not see a really quick return on it. We managed to get the politicians on side, and we had the communities as well, because they had had enough. And London’s communities have had enough as well.”

Ms McCluskey, who is now chief executive of Community Justice Scotland, oversaw police officers working with "a whole range of people", including teachers, social and health workers, to collate and share knowledge of people involved in gangs. They began by engaging with A&E departments.

“Lead consultants told me they’d had enough. They were sick of it. They were doing a lot of open heart surgery for stab wounds. They were treating people with the ‘Glasgow smile’ every six hours 24 hours a day. Now it’s dropped like a stone,” she said.

“My measure of success was reducing the number of people coming through the A&E doors, because the police figures are inaccurate. Inaccurate in London inaccurate up here. We estimated only 30 per cent of violence was reported.

“We started to do interventions with young men who came in with stab wounds, engaging them at that critical moment of vulnerability. Nurses were trained to do it. We got everyone involved, and it worked.“

The VRU also engaged teachers and schools, with huge emphasis placed on listening to young people themselves. People with lived experience started going into classrooms to talk about witnessing violent situations, discussing how to challenge violence. Instead of instructing the young people on what to do, the focus was on listening to what they had to say.

“It’s about bringing the people who are most affected by it into the solution, and that’s your young people. Don’t dismiss them. Don’t think just because they might be involved that they haven’t got something to say about it. Get out and listen to your communities. They have a solution to this,” said Ms McCluskey.

“The majority of young people are not engaging in this, they don’t want this. But you’ve got a number of alienated, hopeless, disenfranchised people, and you need to involve them. And sometimes you just have to listen and let them get their anger out. Because they are angry about it, they feel let down.”

The most significant factor in the VRU's success was the focus on prevention: tackling the potential for violence in young people before it has the chance to play out. This meant increased support for early years, identifying and paying attention to young children from troubled homes, rather than simply excluding them.

“When I go in and speak to young men who have been involved in violence, and they tell you about their background it always starts with see when I was five, see when I was seven, see when I was eight," Ms McCluskey said.

"Everyone looks at them as difficult 17-year-olds, but are not willing to consider them as abused and neglected five-year-olds. And that’s exactly what they all are.

“The early years was a massive part of it. We brought in a zero exclusion policy, with massive efforts to try keep kids in schools. One more kid in school is one less kid I have in jail. Where do people think they go when they’re excluded? They’re on the streets.

“I had people saying get back to your work, why aren’t you arresting people? But I knew that despite the best 30 years of policing prior to 2002, with a 98 per cent detection rate for murder, it had made no difference to prevention. The policing side and the criminal justice side weren’t working."

Ms McCluskey said instead of focusing on new policing units, tackling violence required the best of community policing, with investment put into keeping community officers on the streets and ensuring they "stay there for a while" to "get to know people and build trust with communities".

As well as engaging NHS staff, teachers and police, she also quickly realised that a vital segment to the solution lay in the media, and that in order to "set the agenda" of solving the violence endemic on a national scale, the editors of national media outlets had to be engaged.

“We brought all the editors in. We said they need to be part of this agenda - set the agenda. We’ve had enough and we don’t want this anymore. You need to understand the context about what’s driving this," she explained.

"The focus is sometimes too much on the weapon in the media, which is wrong. These incidents are happenstance in many ways, but the end result is the same.

"And this is not an issue of race either. Most of the guys we worked with were white. I’m not saying that race isn’t a factor in terms of poverty and exclusion and other things. But I think sometimes the media can set a negative tone."

Next week, the UK government will unveil a new strategy on violent crime. There is some hope in this, but campaigners have accused politicians of treating rising youth violence as a "political football", with the Conservatives turning their fire on the London mayor Sadiq Khan while he attacks the Government over being “weak on the causes of crime”.

Highlighting the fragmented political landscape, Ms McCluskey stressed the importance of having politicians and senior authority figures on board and ensuring they are committed to the cause – not using it to achieve short-term goals.

“You have to stay and fix it. I don’t know how many home secretaries you’ve had.. How many police ministers.. It’s really important. The first year we started this, our murder figures went way down. I could’ve ridden off into the sunset and sat that’s it fixed. But I’ve been in the same job for 14 years and it has paid off," she said.

"It's about staying in position, understanding the complexity of the problem and setting a long term plan to make London the safest big city in the world, because it absolutely could be."

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