The 38th annual Police Conference at Cumberland Lodge, in June 2019, brought together a specialist group of police, academics, NGOs and policymakers to discuss how gangs operate, the police response, and creative solutions for tackling organised crime.
Leading figures such as Lord Victor Adebowale, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, and head of the Gangs SOS project at the St Giles Trust, Junior Smart, all contributed to the debate, which shed light on many aspects of gang crime.
The attractions of gang culture
Young black men are over-represented in gangs. This is partly due to overlaps between social deprivation and black communities, especially in cities. Growing up in deprived areas, young people can lose hope for the future, and criminality becomes an attractive economic opportunity.
However, this is an oversimplification. More organised gangs have mafia-like traits, with a strong sense of belonging and status among members. These are toxic attractions for vulnerable young people, who can often be intimidated and coerced by gangs.
Schooling can contribute to the gang problem: increasing exclusion rates and substandard pupil referral units marginalise troubled youngsters, making them easy recruits for criminals.
Interventions and dissuasion
Although there are different kinds of gangs (from minor criminal groups to major organised networks), they have all become more tech-savvy. Encrypted digital communications (WhatsApp etc.) have enabled ‘County Lines’ gangs to emerge, where drug runners are dispatched from cities to deal in smaller towns. These gangs can be harder to deal with, as they cut across different police forces and keep their members on the move.
In policing gangs, the way in which members are viewed is very important. Specifically, the distinction between victim and perpetrator is key: are teenagers with a history of trauma, mental health needs and poor social environments really criminals, or are they victims in need of support?
This question must be considered on a case-by-case basis, with appropriate police intervention.
Various charities that were represented at the conference, including Turning Point, SOS Response, St Giles Trust and Safer London, are actively supporting those affected by gangs.
There is clearly a need for more focus on youth communities in deprived communities: specifically, safe places where young people can go to socialise, meet role models and engage in team activities.
In at-risk communities, reformed ex-gang members are the most credible messengers for dissuading children from gangs, as they can best relate to the individuals involved.
Many conclusions and action points emerged from the stimulating discussions and case studies at the conference:
- An urgent review is needed on school exclusions and pupil referral units, which can place young people at greater risk of gang recruitment.
- Charities, safeguarding teams and police must communicate more effectively to co-ordinate gang intervention.
- Year-on-year funding cycles for charities, and safeguarding projects, hamper the development of the longer-term interventions required. Government project funding should be awarded on a multi-year basis.
- The cost-effectiveness of public investment should be redefined to focus on future crime prevention, as well as responding to ongoing crime.
- Visible policing, and community confidence building through a greater use of school-based officers, could reassure residents in affected areas and improve the safety of vulnerable children.
The outcomes and recommendations from this conference will inform a Cumberland Lodge Report, due to be launched in London later this year, with the aim of influencing policy and improving public awareness and understanding of gang culture and early intervention and prevention strategies.
About the author
Find out more about Jack Parsons and his involvement with Cumberland Lodge here.