It was the sunny evenings that 14-year-old Kimberly dreaded most. That’s when the boys on her Glasgow housing estate would be out, looking for a fight. During the summer holidays, rival gangs would line up at either end of the football pitch and charge at each other with knives, machetes and baseball bats like two medieval armies. The goal was to slash the faces of the enemy or catch one of the weaker ones and give them a severe kicking. The foot soldiers were between 12 and 16. Older members of the gang would stand on the sidelines, egging them on.
“I remember sitting on the bank of a playing field in the evening, watching the gangs fight with knives,” Kimberly says. “You’d hear shouting and screams and know someone had been caught. I’d pray it wasn’t my boyfriend.” The knife crime epidemic that gripped her city in the 1990s and early 2000s was so bad that the World Health Organisation branded Glasgow the murder capital of Europe.
Kimberly contacted me over social media after I wrote an article about the stabbing of a teenage boy on my doorstep in west London. She said the events I described reminded her of her childhood in Glasgow’s East End. “The reason I contacted you,” she wrote, “was to let you know that things can change, I do believe there are ways to prevent kids joining gangs.”
The knife crime epidemic in London and other English cities has helped push national figures to an all-time high, according to the Office for National Statistics. Scotland, by contrast, has managed to stem its surge in knife attacks (although it now has the highest number of drug-related deaths per capita in Europe). The introduction of a Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), helped bring down 137 homicides (which include murders and cases of manslaughter) in 2004-05 to 59 by 2017-18, the lowest number recorded since 1976. Now London has set up a VRU of its own. The question is, will it work?
Higher education was Kimberly’s way out of the notorious Easterhouse estate. Only then did she realise that “being beaten up or watching your friends being murdered by rival gangs wasn’t normal and didn’t happen everywhere”. But until the age of 19, that was her reality.
Kimberly is not her real name. She may have escaped Easterhouse, but still bears the scars of the trauma she experienced as a teenager. After exchanging a few private messages on Twitter and promising to conceal her real identity, I went to Glasgow to meet her. Now in her late thirties, she lives in a small suburban house a few miles from where she grew up. She works for a charity and is married with children. Over tea and biscuits in her impeccably tidy living room, Kimberly describes what it was like growing up in conditions not dissimilar to those of a civil war.
She explains how the council estate was divided territorially into “schemes”, each with their own gang. The ones in her area were called Aggro, Drummy, Skinhead and Den-Toi, and they hated each other. “Your world gets really small because you daren’t cross a front line,” she explains in a soft voice that wavers with emotion as she recalls the fear that haunted her every step as a child. “To get to the bus stop to get into town we had to cross several different territories, which was terrifying, so we rarely left our area. If we did take the bus and members of a rival gang spotted us, they’d throw bricks through the window, so we’d slide down the seats. Sometimes they’d run on the bus and start stabbing people.”
Kimberly’s ex-boyfriend was a well-known gang member, and that made her a target. His father had also been a gang leader in his youth and was still considered locally to be a bit of a hard man. Violence, like poverty, gets passed down through the generations.
Easterhouse was built in the late 1950s to rehouse up to 50,000 inhabitants from Glasgow’s East End slums. Row upon row of tenement blocks went up, six miles from the centre of town, with fields on one side. But the planners failed to provide much in the form of amenities such as community centres, cinemas, churches, shops or cafes. There was little for teenagers to do but fight. “A lot of it was boredom. The younger ones joined to prove their worth and would act with even more venom than the older boys, and that was encouraged,” Kimberly recalls. “I remember my boyfriend’s best mate boasting about having murdered someone. He went to prison for it.”
Her grandmother was one of the first residents of Easterhouse and remembers the joy of having a bathroom and an indoor toilet for the first time. She grew up in the Gorbals, where several families would share one filthy lavatory on a communal staircase. But moving thousands of very poor people didn’t solve the endemic problem of street gangs that plagued the East End of Glasgow as far back as the 19th century. The hard men of the Gorbals brought their violent codes with them. By the time Kimberly was growing up in the 1990s, the territorial lines of Easterhouse were well established.
So ingrained was this culture that the intake of the primary schools mirrored the gang territories. Kimberly’s problems began when she went to secondary school in a scheme controlled by the sworn rivals of her boyfriend’s gang. “On a daily basis I fought for my life, despite the school being a two-minute walk from my home. I was beaten, spat on, punched, hit with bricks, had lit matches thrown at me by both boys and girls, all because my boyfriend was a gang member.” She pauses for a moment and then removes her two front teeth. They’re false. “I lost these when I was 14, punched in the face by another girl as I walked home.” I try to imagine how difficult it must have been for a self-conscious teenage girl to lose her front teeth. Tears trickle down her face as she relives the memory. “The bullying was so horrendous. I was terrified of taking the stairs at school in case I got pushed down.” Going to the girls’ toilets was like running the gauntlet. Walking to and from home was even more dangerous. She describes witnessing stabbings, murders and beatings on an almost weekly basis. The worst thing was the constant fear, always looking over your shoulder. Many years later, in her early twenties, she suffered a nervous breakdown caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, not long after Kimberly’s escape from Easterhouse, something changed in Glasgow. The city decided that enough was enough. Doctors, teachers, social workers, community activists, politicians and police officers came together to work on a courageous social experiment that would reduce the violence dramatically.
An extraordinary meeting took place at Glasgow’s main courthouse in the autumn of 2008. More than 100 young gang members from across the East End were rounded up by youth workers and police officers, cajoled into minibuses and driven to the Sheriff Court. A helicopter hovered overhead as they were escorted inside through metal detectors by police in anti-stab vests. “Luckily for us, it was a sunny day,” recalls Will Linden, now deputy director of Scotland’s VRU. Sitting on the other side of the courtroom were community activists, counsellors, social workers, criminologists, hospital surgeons and mothers of wounded gang members.
The approach was carrot and stick. The chief constable opened the proceedings by promising to come down hard. He warned that if one gang member committed an offence, all his mates would also be pursued. “We will haunt you. We will oppose bail. We will keep you in custody, photograph you, fingerprint you, take your DNA — the whole nine yards.” And while he spoke, big screens around the courtroom flashed up all the intelligence the police had gathered, including CCTV footage, photographs and maps of the gang’s territorial boundaries.
Then came the guilt trip. A surgeon explained how small children in Scotland were waiting for vital operations because medical staff were too busy dealing with life-threatening knife injuries. He flashed up images of a busy operating theatre and patients with stab wounds being stitched up. To start with, there was angry muttering and shuffling as rival gang members glared menacingly at each other across the room, aching for a fight. But silence fell when a mother spoke about her 13-year-old son, who had been brutally attacked by a gang with machetes. “Everything shifted at that moment,” says Jimmy Wilson, a community activist from Easterhouse. “She had them in the palm of her hand. Until that point, I thought the whole process was a crock of shit, but it changed my opinion.”
And finally, there was a carrot — a way out of the cycle of violence. Put down your weapons and engage with the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence set up by the VRU and we will give you a fresh start. Every gang member was offered a card with a free phone number promising a response from a personal case worker within 48 hours to help them with housing issues, rehab for drug and alcohol abuse, and access to training and employment opportunities.
Another nine gang call-ins took place at the Glasgow Sheriff Court over the next two years. About 400 gang members signed a written pledge promising to stop their violent behaviour. Every single one was offered mentoring and counselling as part of a four-week personal development programme. If they graduated from that without getting into trouble, they were offered a place on an employability course.
Politically, it was a risky strategy. Police officers grumbled about doing social work and critics of the Scottish National Party (SNP)-led government complained that it was “rewarding” criminals. However, the results spoke for themselves. Within two years, an external evaluation report announced that gang fighting had dropped by 73%, weapon possession by 85% and violent offending by 56%.
The gang call-ins were an impressive piece of theatre, but they wouldn’t have worked without significant preparation on the ground first. In Glasgow’s East End, law enforcement was seen as the enemy. Stop and search and incidents of police violence had created a deep well of distrust. Apart from a few gang members who were brought in from prison and youth offender institutions, attendance at the call-ins was voluntary. The police couldn’t just set a date and hope they would turn up.
The groundwork at Easterhouse was done by Wilson and his team at Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse (Fare), a voluntary organisation based on the estate that had already devoted five years to the peace process. One of the founders of Fare was Bob Holman, a former professor at Bath University who gave up a promising academic career to devote himself to helping poor families, first in Bath, then in the East End of Glasgow. Known locally as “English Bob”, he helped set up Fare in an abandoned shop. It was a place where local residents could turn up for help or volunteer to assist others. They ran a youth club and provided support for families from cradle to grave.
In 2003, Fare received a grant from Comic Relief to tackle violence between three of the gangs that had haunted Kimberly’s teenage years: Aggro, Drummy and Den-Toi. But they needed an outsider to run it, someone who didn’t have a dog in the fight. They turned to Jimmy Wilson, a broad-shouldered, charismatic youth worker from Greenock. Wilson, who swears like a trooper, spent 13 years in the army, so was well qualified. To get to the gang members, they sent youth workers to stand on the same street corners week after week, to identify key influencers in each gang. “It’s about finding the gobby ones,” he says.
Once trust and respect were established, the teenage boys were invited go-karting, an adrenaline-fuelled activity they would find difficult to refuse. Adolescent brains are hardwired for risk, which is why boys that age are likely to fight.
“It was expensive,” Wilson says, chuckling. “We’d invite the guys from Aggro go-karting on Friday night, so when their rivals from Den-Toi turned up looking for a scrap, there was nobody to fight. On the Saturday night, we would take the Den-Toi boys, which meant when Aggros heard that Den-Toi had been on their territory and went looking for revenge, they couldn’t find them.”
This went on for 15 weeks and culminated in a residential outdoor activities course. Wilson and his team of youth workers would take 24 gang members away to a Scout Centre in the middle of nowhere. “We had four boys to each dorm, two from each gang and a youth worker. We’d check their kit for knives and alcohol. The first night, nobody got any sleep, but by the morning they had one thing in common — they hated us. We’d get them doing non-verbal activities like rock climbing, which forced them to co-operate. By the end of the week, they were talking to each other.” This trust-building project went on for four years, until 2007.
When Strathclyde police decided to arrange the gang call-in, they turned to Wilson and his team to bring in the members from Easterhouse. It didn’t all go smoothly. Wilson remembers the police originally sending one large coach to pick them up and take them into the city. He pointed out that putting rival gang members into one bus was a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, Fare has a fleet of minibuses so they were able to travel in separate vehicles.
Violence as an epidemic
Trying to explain how Scotland successfully tackled its knife crime problems is like putting a jigsaw together. You don’t get the big picture until all the pieces are in place. There were big political changes taking place at the turn of the 21st century. One was devolution and the rise of the SNP. The formation of a Scottish parliament allowed a profound shift to take place within law enforcement, towards what is now known as the “public health approach” to policing.
In 2004, Karyn McCluskey, a Scottish forensic psychologist working for Strathclyde police, was asked to research a homicide reduction strategy. She crunched decades of local crime data and concluded that traditional policing methods such as stop and search or putting mounted police in Easterhouse were not working. She suggested they try a different approach. The chief constable said yes, and Scotland’s VRU was established the following year.
McCluskey and her boss, Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, were determined to take an evidence-based approach and searched the world for solutions. What they eventually came up with combined the work of two American academics: the Harvard criminologist Professor David Kennedy, who had pioneered gang call-ins in Boston, and the Chicago-based epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who argued that violence spread like an infectious disease and must be tackled with public health initiatives.
Slutkin had spent much of his career fighting the spread of cholera and Aids in Africa. He gathered all the data on gun crime in Chicago, plotted the attacks against maps of the city and discovered that violence occurs in clusters. One attack leads to another (often in revenge) and spreads through a community like a contagious disease.
Glasgow’s VRU decided to take a similar approach. Linden was sent out to Easterhouse to physically map the gang territories. “At one point, I felt like a UN negotiator standing on a piece of wasteland while two rival gangs argued about where the border was,” he says.
Both Slutkin and Kennedy concluded that traditional law enforcement methods don’t work with street gangs because they are based on the idea that crimes are committed by bad people who need to be locked up. Kennedy persuaded the Boston police force to see that gangs of teenage boys with guns are fundamentally different from organised crime groups. Operating under a strict hierarchy, organised criminal gangs are businesses that deploy violence in order to facilitate their trade in illicit commodities such as drugs. Street gangs, Kennedy argued, are about desperate young people from chaotic backgrounds, looking for surrogate families. The drugs trade was a red herring. The violence was actually happening because young men were encouraging each other to protect their territory or take revenge for a perceived infraction or lack of respect. Violence, according to their research, is a learnt behaviour that spreads among gang members. Even the word “gang” is considered unhelpful by some sociologists; they prefer the term “friendship group” to describe what binds these young people together.
Looking at violence as a disease requires finding the source of the infection. Just as you treat cholera by draining the infected well, you treat an epidemic of violence with public health policies — and that starts in the womb. Research shows that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can have profound effects on a foetus’s brain, making the person hardwired for an aggressive environment. Domestic violence is a key driver for gang membership. If you grow up watching Dad beating up Mum, then violence becomes normalised. Identifying young mothers in aggressive households as “at risk” is an important part of the strategy.
In the 1990s, a huge American research project demonstrated that early trauma can affect a person’s physical and mental health across their lifetime. It found that if you can identify those people most at risk, you can help them to become more resilient. A score chart was devised using a list of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as parental drug or alcohol addiction, divorce or imprisonment of a family member, domestic violence, sexual abuse and so on. Someone affected by four or more ACEs is seven times more likely to be involved in violence over the past year than someone with none. Talk to anyone involved in Scotland’s violence reduction strategy and the term ACE will crop up. It has become part of the blueprint of a multi-agency approach. “The biggest achievement of the VRU,” says Wilson, “was to bring together a lot of organisations and persuade them to tackle this problem as an epidemic.”
These days, Scotland’s VRU occupies a small suite of offices in a nondescript block in the centre of Glasgow. It’s a remarkably small team for an organisation that has achieved such positive results. The VRU costs the Scottish government £1.3m a year to fund, while a single murder investigation costs the taxpayer £1.9m. Researchers in the US think the true cost of murder could be about £10m, if you take in the ripple effect on the families of the victim and the perpetrator. That’s a lot of ACEs.
Linden talks about the “halo effect” and creating “herd immunity”. “We rely a lot on self-referrals. If one person decides to change their life, it ripples through their friends and family group,” he says. He points out that belonging to a street gang when you’re a teenager is exciting, but as you get older the levels of chaos and fear become toxic. Getting to gang members at that moment when they want to change their lives is key. And then there’s the generational aspect, interrupting the transmission of violent behaviour from parent to child. It’s all about finding the right pinch points, from pre-birth right through school to when someone becomes a parent.
“Another successful idea we took from America was campus cops,” Linden says. “These are police officers based in schools who get to know the kids, their parents, the teachers. We had one young girl who was kicking off in the classroom because she didn’t want to take her coat off. The campus cop took her aside for a chat and discovered she didn’t have a shirt on underneath. There was no washing machine at home. He took her out shopping for new school shirts.”
Getting to victims of domestic violence is difficult because they are often afraid to speak out and the abuse is generally hidden from view. However, the VRU pioneered a scheme to train hairdressers, firefighters and vets to spot women at risk and point them in the direction of help. Vets are useful to the process because violent men will often attack the family pet as a way of punishing their partner.
Another important intervention point is hospital emergency departments. Less than a third of emergency patients who are victims of violence report the incident to the police. But if you can speak to a young person just after they’ve been stabbed, it may be possible to persuade them not to seek revenge. The VRU employs teams of “navigators”, who wear bright pink T-shirts and work overnight and at the weekend in A&E departments in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Ayrshire.
Sam Fingland works as a navigator at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. A slim, dark-haired woman in her thirties, she exudes a quiet calm and is the kind of person you’d like to find at your hospital bedside. She explains how the triage nurses tip them off about which patients they should visit. The umbrella of violence is pretty broad — it could be a teenage gang member or a middle-aged woman whose partner is beating her up.
“I don’t ask why they’re in hospital. I try to find out about them as a person, their dreams and fears, whether they’ve got issues with alcohol or drugs,” Sam says. “It’s a very friendly, supportive approach. We’re a listening service, really, because quite often they’re frightened of the police.” And the listening doesn’t stop once they’ve been discharged: navigators will text victims within 48 hours of them leaving hospital.
Sam spends a lot of her time networking with people in other services. “We act as advocates for our clients. We don’t want them to have to tell their story over and over again to a lot of different agencies. I can ring up an addiction counsellor in their area and explain the background. I might even go with them to the first appointment.”
On the third floor of Glasgow Dental Hospital is another pilot project supported by the VRU to provide employment for ex-offenders. The Street & Arrow cafe is staffed by former gang members who work there in 12-month blocks. It’s run as a social enterprise and all the staff get a proper salary, weekly counselling and a mentor.
The only woman on the team is Rebecca. She’s pretty, with long, straight blonde hair and thick, black false eyelashes. I know she has done two stints in prison for offences involving a knife, GBH and permanent disfigurement. I’m asked by the police not to go into specifics for the sake of her children. The busy lunch hour is just coming to an end when we sit down for a cup of tea. With the ACE score in mind, I ask her to tell me her life story.
She was seven when her father died from cancer. Until then she’d had a fairly stable family life, with both parents in work. “We never talked about my dad’s death, but my mum fell to pieces, turned to drugs,” she says. “She was chaotic, emotionally unstable … I stopped going to school. I developed anxiety about going back, and when I did, I lashed out, got suspended and was sent to a special behavioural unit.”
Rebecca started drinking and taking drugs when she was 12. From time to time the police would pick her up off the streets and take her home, but her mother was often violent, keeping a baseball bat behind the door, which she would use on visiting boyfriends as well as her daughter. “My mum never said ‘I love you’. When I saw mothers being affectionate with their children, it made me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t used to it.”
Aged 14, she ran away to live with her boyfriend’s family. “At first it was nice — he had a mum, a dad and a grandad. There were big family dinners, which I liked, but he started being very violent towards me. I wasn’t allowed friends or internet access.” She had her first child at 18, but by then the situation with her partner had become unbearable. She ran away while he was in prison, but because she was homeless her son was taken into care.
While on remand for her second offence, Rebecca discovered she was pregnant again. And this was her pinch point. “I was adamant I wouldn’t lose another child and was looking at a long sentence, so I wrote to the judge explaining that I had already lost one baby and I couldn’t bear to lose another. I pleaded with him, promised to change.” Her baby was born in prison and removed after four days, but the judge was merciful and Rebecca was out in less than a year. She gave up drinking and, with the help of her navigator, applied for a place on the Street & Arrow scheme.
She has learnt to cook and interact with customers, and the pride on her face when she talks about having a job with a regular wage is touching to behold. “I have my wee boy living with me, as well as my 14-year-old brother. He goes to school every day,” she says, beaming. “They’re not growing up skint, like I did. I can buy them nice things and cook meals for them.”
Back in Easterhouse that afternoon, I visit Fare just as a group of primary school children turn up for a homework club. The charity is now housed in a large, yellow purpose-built building with a cafe, play areas, kitchens and offices. There’s a bouncy castle in the corner, one of many that Fare rents out to make money as a social enterprise. Staff are busy in the kitchen preparing food for the after-school club and the cafe resounds with the sound of children’s laughter. I think of Kimberly and Rebecca growing up and how they had nowhere to escape the violence that plagued their childhoods.
Easterhouse looks very different now from how it did in 2004. Many of the old housing schemes have been torn down and replaced by family homes. The old primary schools where baby gang members first absorbed their territorial identities have been demolished and replaced by newer, bigger schools with larger intakes that cross the old gang lines. It’s still a bleak, litter-strewn landscape under Glasgow’s low, grey skies, with very high levels of child poverty. But at least the kids who visit Fare’s after-school clubs don’t have to risk their lives every time they leave home.
Tackling London’s knife crime
Could Scotland’s approach be replicated south of the border? Dozens of politicians from Boris Johnson to Sadiq Khan and Theresa May have approached the VRU for assistance. Some aspects of the Scottish model have already been adopted in Nottingham and Northampton, while London now has its own VRU at City Hall, with a navigator scheme operating in hospital A&E departments. But given the limited political powers of the London mayor, it’s difficult to see the measures having the same impact as they have in Glasgow. For example, school exclusions, which are a key driver for gang violence, have fallen by 59% in Scotland since 2006-07. Achieving similar results in London is not within Khan’s power.
Unfortunately, the issue of knife crime in England is tied up with race. In Scotland, the street gangs are white, while London gangs are multicultural. Black and minority ethnic teenage boys are disproportionately affected by knife crime in the capital, both as victims and perpetrators. The murder of a young black teenager doesn’t attract the same kind of media attention as the death of a white youngster, and that means less pressure on the state to do something.
Since I began work on this article, an 18-year-old boy of Somali origin was stabbed to death inside my local corner shop in west London. While on an errand to buy milk for his mother, he was chased down the street by two other teenagers, dived inside the store to take refuge and was murdered right in front of horrified staff.
Throughout the recent Tory leadership campaign, Johnson consistently claimed that as mayor from 2008 to 2016, he halved the murder rate and credited the reduction in knife crime with a rise in police stop and search. What Johnson omitted to point out is that violent crime went down nationally during that period and that knife crime in London had started to rise again towards the end of his tenure. The number of offences were only marginally lower in 2016 than they had been in 2008. A report commissioned by the Home Office in 2016 concluded that the increase in stop and search that began in 2008 had “no discernible crime-reducing effects”.
Replicating the Scottish model will require significant support from across the political spectrum. It’s no coincidence that the founding of the violence reduction initiative came after devolution and coincided with the election of an SNP government that was not afraid to take a radically different approach. While the rest of the UK was undergoing austerity cuts, with youth centres being shut down left, right and centre, Scotland poured money and people into a multi-agency approach. It’s difficult to see a toxically divided Westminster following the same path as a small, united country of just 5m people.