Gangs and serious youth violence: Is the Centre for Social Justice using statistics responsibly?

Violence between young people in the UK is a problem that merits serious attention

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KIR profileKeir Irwin-Rogers joined The Open University as a lecturer in criminology in 2017. His current research explores the implications of national and international drug policies and practices, focusing on the links between socioeconomic inequality, consumer capitalism and young people’s involvement in drug markets. He has also conducted research and published papers on the subjects of community sentences, deterrence, young people’s use of social media, sentencing, serious violence, and education for children excluded from mainstream schooling. Keir is currently studying part-time for a BSc in Economics and Mathematics.

In the 12 months to March 2017, 61 young people aged 16-24 died as a result of knife crime in England and Wales. Violence between young people in the UK is a problem that I think merits serious attention, which is why I have been supporting the cross-party Youth Violence Commission as an academic advisor for the past two years.

During many meetings, roundtables and conferences on youth violence, I have been struck by people’s fixation on gangs whenever the issue of youth violence arises. Admittedly, I myself focused closely on ‘youth gangs’ for a number of years while I conducted research for the Dawes Unit – a specialist team within the social business, Catch22. During this time, I became increasingly concerned by what I considered to be significant limitations in the empirical evidence base on gangs.

As part of my own research, I recently contacted the Metropolitan Police Service to request their most up-to-date data on violent crime in London. In particular, I wanted to find out the proportion of violent offences that were being flagged as gang-related. Given the prominent place of gangs in government policy initiatives and the media, the results were not what I was expecting:

In 2016, just 3.8% of knife crime with injury (fatal, serious, moderate and minor) had been flagged by the MET as gang-related.

In light of the FOI statistics, I was taken aback by some of the claims made in the Centre for Social Justice’s recently published report, It Can Be Stopped: A proven blueprint to stop violence and tackle gang and related offending in London and beyond. Developing a clear agenda and narrative in its opening paragraphs, Iain Duncan Smith’s Think Tank state:

“It is estimated that gangs are responsible for as much as half of all knife crime with injury…”

I was keen to find out the reason for the discrepancy between the figures I had received from the Met and the claim being made by the CSJ in their report. The source provided to support their claim was the Metropolitan Police Service’s 62 page Business Plan 2017-18. With no page number provided by the CSJ, I proceeded to hunt through chapters on the Met’s vision, finances and performance frameworks. Upon reaching the end of this document, I had failed to find any reference to such a high proportion of knife crime being attributed to gangs.

This begged the question: why were the CSJ misdirecting their readers to a reference that did not support their claims?

I emailed the CSJ to bring this ‘mistake’ to their attention, and asked if they could point me in the direction of the real source on which they based their claims. While waiting for a response (which I have still not received), BBC Reality Check came to the rescue: according to the BBC, the CSJ based this particular claim on data from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC). This indicated that in the year to March 2017 there had been 4,446 reported offences of knife crime with injury. If you remove the cases in which the victim was over 24, and then exclude incidents of domestic violence, this leaves 2,028, which represents 45% of the total.

In a stunning leap of faith, the CSJ have assumed that all of the remaining 2,028 cases were consequently gang-related. To be clear, the claim being made is that knife crime with injury offences involving victims 24 years of age and under, which are not incidents of domestic violence, can all be assumed to be gang-related.

This is utterly implausible. The proximate reasons for knife crime with injury offences involving young people are numerous and varied. Many incidents are triggered by isolated episodes of disrespect that have nothing to do with street gangs. The CSJ may well consider this reality an inconvenience to the gang narrative they attempt to conjure throughout their report (which contains a whopping 478 references to the term ‘gang’).

The claim that gangs are responsible for as much as half of all knife crime with injury not only flies in the face of the Met’s own statistics (discussed above), but of other recent publications, because it is patently absurd. Certainly, it is possible that police statistics are to some extent unreliable, based upon shaky assumptions and/or limited intelligence. If the CSJ believes this is the case, then calls for better data on gang-related violence ought to be accompanied by measured statements about the existing evidence base – not wild claims that lack serious foundation.

Finally, the maxim about ‘people who live in glass houses’ sprung to mind when I saw the CSJ demand in this very report (see recommendation 39 on p.120) that people ‘desist’ from using ‘flawed…statistics’ to fuel ‘false narratives’.

While there is some sound research and analysis in It Can Be Stopped, it will continue to be overshadowed by the CSJ’s refusal to acknowledge their error and be honest with the public about the available (and limited) evidence on the scale of gang-related violence in London and the rest of the UK.

Knife crime, we can all agree, needs to be treated seriously. But doing so requires a rigorous evidence base, accurately and faithfully represented, if we are to avoid counter-productive, knee-jerk policy responses.

Originally posted on Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative Blog on September 5, 2018

Contact

Dr Keir Irwin-Rogers, Department of Social Policy and Criminlogy at the The Open University

Email: Keir.Irwin-Rogers@open.ac.uk

Twitter: @KeirIrwinRogers

Website: http://www.open.ac.uk/people/kir8

Image: with the permission of HERC

 

Policing Black Culture One Beat at a Time

As debates on youth violence in London soar, emotions run high over a problem that is often blamed on Black music subcultures rather than on social and racial injustice, often perpetrated by the police. This article argues that Black British music genres are unfairly targeted as the prime suspects of youth violence, and discusses the role of the police in contributing to the violence it seeks to eradicate.

Dr. Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He previously taught at the University of Sussex and has received several awards and nominations for teaching excellence and academic support.

In an atmosphere of widespread alarm about the rise of youth violence in London, UK drill music has been identified as the prime suspect by the media and the police with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick and the Met’s gang-crime chief, Commander Jim Stokley ordering a clampdown on this new Black British music genre. Despite entirely legitimate concerns with public safety, however, is it at all reasonable to suggest that UK drill causes the violence it is accused of inspiring, or are drill artists cursed by forms of violence that are only scantily acknowledged, if at all, when the issue is discussed? Unsurprisingly, this question divides opinion and stirs up strong feelings on both sides of this never-ending chicken-and-egg conundrum, which also urges for an understanding of the problem as a political rather than a (purely) criminological one. Policing our way out of it, therefore, seems utterly misplaced when policing is part of the problem rather than its solution. Such a controversial claim invites skepticism, as it should, yet a cursory glance at the Met’s response to UK drill music reveals a host of hostile, unfair, illegitimate, and discriminatory tactics that have informed the policing of Black Britons and Black British music and culture in the post-war years.  For what it’s worth my own research illustrates this fairly clearly, but this blog posting will hopefully inspire more nuanced and considered responses than the ones to which we are currently exposed.

Denounced as ‘demonic’ and ‘nihilistic’, UK drill music came into the orbit of the London Metropolitan police after a series of violent incidents were linked to the content of drill music videos that circulated online: provoking rival drill collectives by describing the harm that awaits them, and keeping a tally of stabbings in YouTube “scoreboards”. In response to such fatalities, the Met took action by removing 30 YouTube videos and used a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) against the drill collective 1011,  building on the government’s Serious Violence Strategy whose aim is to target those who ‘glamorise gang or drug-selling life, taunt rivals and normalise weapons carrying’. In addition to such action against “gang-related” videos, the Terrorism Act 2000 has been revisited to bring convictions against individuals that are identified in those videos, without any proof that the targeted music videos were linked to specific acts of violence. The pursuit of drill artists as terror suspects has the potential to prevent targeted individuals from ‘associating with certain people, entering designated areas, wearing hoods, or using social media and unregistered mobile phones’. Given the seriousness of the offences with which drill artists are being charged, such responses might seem justifiable, albeit controversial, but only if they are divorced from the context in which (youth) violence emerges in the first place. Put simply, the reactive responses adopted by the government and the Met could be described as attempts to end an infection by simply arresting the virus, rather than treating the environment in which the disease is being hatched in the first place.

This might sound like a hopelessly radical assertion were it not defended by mainstream official bodies such as The Youth Violence Commission whose Interim Report confidently states that ‘debates around the potential impact of drill music on youth violence are, in the main, a populist distraction from understanding and tackling the real root causes’. Despite or rather because of the gravity of the problem, however, context and perspective are not a luxury but a necessity. Drill music is not made in a vacuum but in specific places (deprived social housing estates in London) informed by conditions of life where violence is a fact of life rather than a lifestyle. Blaming UK drill music for broadcasting violence, therefore, is to blame rappers for living a life where inequality, poverty, and social exclusion are not abstractions but a daily experience. Add to this the persistence of police racism as a crucial factor in the hostility, marginalisation and criminalisation that young Black Britons grow up with, and the policing of drill music can be seen as legitimating the very practices it hopes to eliminate. Increased support for stop and search operations, and other anti-gang initiatives such as Operation Trident and the Metropolitan Police Gang Matrix may seem rhetorically effective as “crime-fighting tools” to law enforcement agencies and political parties alike, but they are only marginally successful overall, while also leading to discriminatory outcomes that were described as ‘shocking’ by the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, E. Tendayi Achiume.

This of course is nothing new in the history of policing against Black Britons, as my work demonstrates, punctuated as it has been by a host of discriminatory practices that include: the ‘sus laws’ of the 1970s, the saturation policing tactics of Operation Swamp ‘81, or the Special Patrol Groups (SPGs) in the 1970s and the 1980s; only to be succeeded by Operation Trident in the 1990s, and Operation Shield, the Metropolitan Police Gang Matrix, and Operation Domain in the early to mid-noughties. What unites such policing initiatives is the suspicion of Black British forms of culture, mostly music, as seen in the police overstaffing of Black cultural events (e.g. Notting Hill Carnival) and the harassment of Black people in meeting places such as youth clubs, music venues and other semi-public venues; gradually paving the way for the only recent withdrawal of the Promotion Event Risk Assessment Form 696 which targeted grime music as a criminal subculture, in ways that are hardly dissimilar to the banning of drill music as grime MC Lethal Bizzle rightly tweeted.

Pronouncing such practices dead, when they recur so frequently, is to piously deny facts in favour of an uninformed, uncritical and misplaced view of the police as allies rather than as perpetrators of the burning injustices that “drillers” so fiercely express in their lyrics. This is not to deny or condone the violence that UK drill music broadcasts and even celebrates, but to accept it as a reality that is forged in the crucible of social and racial injustice for which we are all responsible if we do not hold Criminal Justice System professionals to account for the harm they inflict in our name. Discussing UK drill as criminogenic while excusing the harm that discriminatory policing inflicts on our fellow citizens amounts to little more than a cop out. As does the tendency to treat the issue as a public health emergency alone, rather than a racial and social justice priority. The challenge for (critical) criminologists, therefore, is clear leaving us no choice but to tackle violent crime boldly, making it difficult for our colleagues, our elected representatives or our law enforcement officials to dodge a bullet as far as London’s knife crime is concerned.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

 

Contact

Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton

Twitter: @lfatsis

 

Copyright free image courtsey of Pexels

 

The importance of knowing what family means to young offenders

How can we begin to understand how family life influences youth offending behaviour if we do not have a clear understanding of what ‘family’ means to young people themselves?

Nicola Coleman

Nicola Coleman is a full-time PhD student in Criminology at Middlesex University, London. Her research focus is on understanding the relationship between family life and youth offending behaviour.

 

 

Recent years have witnessed an increasing focus on young people and their problematic behaviour, which has been brought to the public’s attention by the government and kept in the limelight by the media. Understandably, this has been met with a vast amount of research, which has mostly been aimed at identifying key ‘risk factors’ in young people’s lives that could potentially be used to predict how at-risk they are of reoffending (Farrington, 2015). Largely based on this risk factor research, youth justice responses are becoming increasingly managerialist, creating a culture consumed by the need for ratings and scores to predict future behaviour and decide on the most appropriate ways to manage such behaviour (O’ Mahony, 2009).

From this vast pool of risk factor research, the relationship between the family environment and youth offending behaviour has been well established. However, with much of the previous research in this area employing quantitative methods, it has been suggested that a move forward would be to incorporate qualitative measures in order to achieve more depth and understanding (Case, 2007). Furthermore, with the changing nature of family life over the past 30 years, and the move away from a traditional ‘nuclear’ family structure, findings from earlier studies investigating the relationship between family life and youth offending may be less relevant to contemporary social relations (Blau & Van der Klaauw, 2013). Such a context indicates the need for research to reinvestigate definitions and understandings of ‘family life’ and its influence on behavioural outcomes, including youth offending.

The married, co-resident heterosexual couple with children no longer occupies the centre-ground of Western societies and cannot be taken for granted as the basic unit in society (Roseneil & Budgeon, 2004: 140).

The statement above provides the central argument for my current research: that society and academics are changing the way in which ‘family’ is both practiced and conceptualised, rendering previous research into the relationship between ‘family’ and youth offending behaviour outdated. This creates a significant gap in the current literature, whereby further research is needed to explore, in detail, the ways in which people understand ‘family life’ and how this impacts on behavioural outcomes, such as youth offending behaviour. Previously, research has taken the image and concept of the traditional ‘nuclear family’ as the central point of comparison for all other families; in this sense, if you ‘measure’ too far away from this centre point, then you are deemed as being more ‘at risk’ with regard to developing delinquent behaviour.

My current research project will take a case study approach and apply a mixed methods research design in order to develop understanding of the relationship between youth offending behaviour and family life. The first stage of my data collection utilises questionnaires to gather views and opinions about family life from both the young people and staff at a Youth Offending Unit (YOU) in London. Importantly, it aims to work towards identifying a common definition of what ‘family’ means. The results from this initial stage will help to inform the questions used in follow-up interviews and focus groups with the staff and young people at the YOU. In working closely with, and being fully supported by a Youth Offending Team (YOT) in London, the practical implications of my research can be demonstrated not only at a local level but also potentially at a national level. The managers at the YOU where my case study is based intend to use the findings to develop the programmes and activities they run with young people and their families: most importantly, however, the level of understanding the staff have about how young people perceive family life will be increased. In adopting a case study approach, the results will be limited to the YOT where the research was conducted. However, the tools developed to collect the data are not location specific, and therefore there is potential for the research to be replicated in other YOTs across the country, providing each unit with its own tailor-made recommendations and insights into the young people it deals with.

 

Blau, D.M. & Van der Klaauw, W. (2013) What determines family structure? Economic Inquiry, 51(1), 579-604.
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/ doi/abs/10.1111/ j.1465-7295.2010.00334.x

Case, S. (2007) Questioning the ‘evidence’ of risk that underpins evidence-led youth justice interventions. Youth Justice, 7(2), 91-105. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1473225407078771

Farrington, D.P. (2015) Prospective longitudinal research on the development of offending. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 48(3), 314-335. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0004865815590461

O’ Mahony, P. (2009) The risk factors prevention paradigm and the causes of youth crime: A deceptively useful analysis? Youth Justice, 9(2), 99-114. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1473225409105490

Roseneil, S. & Budgeon, S. (2004) Cultures of intimacy and care beyond ‘the family’: Personal life and social change in the early 21st century. Current Sociology, 52(2), 135-159.
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/001 1392104041798

 

Contact

Nicola Coleman, PhD Student in Criminology, Middlesex University, London.

Email: n.coleman@mdx.ac.uk

Twitter: @nic_coleman_

 

Copyright free image: from Pexels.com