Leadership and hope – essential for violence prevention

Post Cards from Scotland

John Carnochan, co-founder of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit and author of Conviction: Violence, culture and a shared public service agenda (Postcards from Scotland book no 9)

I’ve never worked in England and don’t live there so some may think it inappropriate for me to tell others what to do in response to the increasing levels of violence in many English towns and cities. I respect that view. What I can do is describe what we did in Strathclyde from 2005 to challenge violence, including knife carrying and gangs.

I have been doing this very thing when asked, for more than a decade. So too has Karyn McLuskey and many other collaborators from that time. I’ve spoken with senior civil servants, senior politicians from both main political parties and countless community groups. Over the 14 years since we created the Violence Reduction Unit it has hosted hundreds of visits from agencies, services, individuals and groups all eager to understand what happened in Glasgow and why violence rates fell. These visits are still happening. I’ve spoken to thousands of professionals at hundreds of conferences where a sea of nodding heads confirmed for me that the story I was telling resonated or at least made some sense.

The message that everyone heard from me has never altered. In Scotland we used a public health model to clearly define the problem, help frame the solutions and articulate a shared agenda. At its heart was prevention and an acknowledgment that policing was only part of the solution. The key factor was the outstanding leadership provided by Sir Willie Rae, the Chief Constable of Strathclyde, who, despite the crisis at the time and the accompanying pressure, decided to act differently and try to develop more effective responses. It was Sir Willie who established the VRU. He didn’t demand a time line or an action plan or a strategy. Instead he gave us space and actively encouraged the development of positive relationships as he knew they were the key to success. Politicians in Scotland supported our decision to create a permissive and enabling culture that recognised violence prevention as a priority.

Sir Willie Rae understood that the key was people: professional people in police, education, social work, health, and housing. Third sector people. Ordinary people in communities. People who wanted to make things better and were willing to compromise, negotiate and share to make that possible. Crucially Sir Willie provided the visible and ongoing leadership that made this happen.

This is the real story of Scotland and the VRU. It’s the same story I have repeated a thousand times in a thousand meetings in hundreds of locations throughout the UK. It is the story I have repeatedly told the media.

The most recent knife crime crisis in England has had media outlets, commentators and journalists calling, texting, and emailing me once again as they all want to hear my thoughts. Others too are being invited to rehearse yet again what we did in Scotland. It’s as if there is a belief that if we are asked the same question again we might now come up with a different answer. It seems that despite all the meetings, conferences, visits, media interviews and stories where we set out what we’ve done, the way people see the problem down south has not changed. It seems everyone is stuck.

When I read and watch the reporting a few things stand out. First, the media interview lots of people from various walks of life and different communities who all appear to know for certain the cause(s) of knife crime and violence. There are an equal number of people who are just as certain they know the solutions. Politicians respond as politicians usually do, by either denying culpability or assigning culpability.

Despite much talk about public health, (using terms like epidemic does not necessarily indicate an understanding of public health) it is the police who are as usual front and centre. What is absent is any comment or understanding of the contribution from various government departments and agencies – education, health, social services or housing.

The media too have responsibility. They are keen to show us knives, as if we don’t know what a knife looks like. While it is vital that the voices of victims and their families are heard, filtering their voices through the editorial stance of the particular media outlet is not helpful but this happens all the time.

Most importantly wherever you look there is a real lack of visible leadership.

This is a wicked problem. It is complex, and there is no single solution, and no single agency is capable of solving it alone. More importantly there are no quick fixes. It requires leadership to grasp and hold the ambiguity and complexity. It requires leadership to maintain a clear vision of what success will look like. It requires leadership to create an effective consensus and establish and nurture the relationships that are required to succeed. It requires leadership to plot and follow a course that is led by the evidence of what works. That same leadership needs to resist strategies driven by ideology and dogma and which have been shown not to work.

So what can be done? There are countless community groups all over the UK doing great work, day in day out. They are heroes. There are many local people working together delivering local solutions in partnership with police. Helping the great ones do more of what they do would be a good start.

Those wanting to solve the problem need to stop looking for innovative solutions and apply those solutions proven to work. Community cops left in place to establish relationships with communities, and particularly those young people most at risk, is not a new idea but it works.

Those wanting to make a difference need to stop assuming they know the causes and start to collect, share and analyse meaningful data so they might actually understand the causes. In the process it’s important to stop using reported crime data as these have very limited use.

Not every young man in London carries a knife, not every young man in London is in a gang, not every young man in London deals drugs. It’s important to keep this fact to the fore when reporting, discussing or debating this crisis. Crucially it is important to inspire hope and make the lives, and the futures, of those who are involved less bleak.

Scotland still has much to do and anything that undermines the ongoing effort or cheapens the currency of what is possible with good people has to be challenged. Perhaps I should not be telling people in England what should be done. I’m sorry but I care.