I have spent most of today chairing an Infomed conference on reducing gang-related crime and disorder. Kit Malthouse (Boris Johnson’s Deputy for Policing) made the personal confession that he had in his youth been a member of two street gangs in Liverpool: the “Mersey Road” gang when he was eight years old and “The Boys” gang when he was fourteen. This turned out not to be so revelatory as it sounded at first: this is what he and his mates had called themselves when they played outside. Nevertheless, it demonstrated two previously unknown facet’s of Kit’s otherwise serious character and demeanour: first, that he had once been a child and, second, that he had once known how to play.
More importantly, it highlighted a theme of a number of the conference presentations that society (and, in particular, the media) are in danger of demonising what has always been part of “normal” behaviour by young people. Apparently, on the rare occasions that there is snow in London (there was a bit last night – the first in London in October for 72 years – but I am pleased to say it didn’t last long) the Metropolitan Police get a large number of calls about kids throwing snowballs – hardly a modern manifestation of unacceptable street violence. Young people will hang out with their friends and that in itself should not precipitate anti-social behaviour orders and the like.
Activity has to be focused on those gangs that are genuinely involved in criminal activity and on diverting young people away from such activity. Impressive work by the voluntary sector was described by Cathy Elliot of the Community Foundation for Merseyside and impressive multi-agency work in the West Midlands was outlined by Kirk Dawes (West Midlands Mediation and Transformation Services) and by Sgt Sharon Norton of West Midlands Police.
The importance of engaging with communities and with young people themselves was rightly emphasised by Ch Supt Sharon Rowe, who is responsible for borough policing in Lambeth. She also described a recent visit to a primary school in the Borough where she had asked the children if they could name the gangs operating in Lambeth and which were the most dangerous – the chilling fact was that most of them could.