UK riots: Cameron looks for lessons from LA to tackle homegrown gangs
David Cameron has announced he will extend US-style gang injunctions as he claimed there was clear evidence that gangs had been at the heart of some of the violence in Britain's cities in recent days. He said he believed they had co-ordinated some of the attacks on police.
The prime minister said gang injunctions – introduced in January in some areas – would be extended to the rest of country, and would cover juveniles as well.
The civil injunctions can bar individuals from consorting with gangs, wearing regalia or using the internet to organise meet-ups. The first injunction was taken out by Southwark council in March.
Cameron said: "Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, the gangs are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes. They earn money through crime, particularly drugs, and are bound together by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader. They have blighted life on their estates, with gang-on-gang murders and unprovoked attacks on police."
He said he has asked Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, to co-ordinate plans with Theresa May, the home secretary. Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham welcomed the initiative but warned cuts to youth services will make it harder to intervene with gangs.No 10 officials will examine a June 2010 report commissioned by the Youth Justice Board – which looked at the failure of prisons, probation service and police to co-ordinate an approach to gangs.
Cameron said he would also be drawing on the success of anti-gang initiatives in Boston, Los Angeles and Strathclyde in Scotland. "I will be discussing how we can go further in getting to grips with gangs with people such as Bill Bratton, former commissioner of police in New York and Los Angeles," he said.
Bratton, now overseeing a private security firm, said he would be "honoured" to provide counsel and believed experiences in the US had "significant relevance to the current situation in England". The Pembury estate in Hackney, east London, the scene of severe violence on Monday, had seen police raids targeting the Pembury Boys gang a week earlier. Police claim to have arrested senior gang members and to have recovered crack, heroin, and thousands of pounds in cash.
The Strathclyde initiative has been credited with a near 50% reduction in gang-related violence in the east end of Glasgow and the blighted housing schemes on the city's eastern and northern fringes.
The scheme aimed at rehabilitating gang members provides mentoring tailored to individual needs, with advice on finding work, how to present themselves in interviews and gaining access to education and training. Adapted from a US system tested among the gangs of Boston and Cincinnati, it also arranges football matches, to replace gang fights on Friday or Saturday nights.
Much of America's current policymaking arises from the aftermath of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, when gang members took over a busy intersection in the South Central area of the city and encouraged a growing band of marauders to attack anyone passing who was not African American. TV images of a lorry driver, Reginald Denny, being beaten were played ceaselessly over the next several days.
As in London now, the concern in LA was that the violence spiralled to the point where the original trigger of rioting became irrelevant. The heavily armed marauders on the corner of Florence and Normandie Avenues had little or no connection to the community outrage that greeted the acquittal of four white policemen who had been caught on video brutally beating Rodney King, an African American driver they had chased for miles.
The LA riots forced a general rethink of policing in the city, where a relatively small force covering a vast geographical area had traditionally resorted to heavy-handed tactics – essentially, using fear as a substitute for strength in numbers. African-American gangs were legitimately outraged by officers routinely grabbing suspects in a chokehold and, not infrequently, killing them.
Some of the mantras were taken up by Bratton when he was LA police chief from 2002 to 2009. On the enforcement side, the city issued dozens of court injunctions against specific gang members severely limiting their movements and the people they could associate with, and banning them from carrying potential weapons like pocket knives and screwdrivers. Today, the injunctions cover more than 10,000 gang members in 57 different city gangs.
That, though, went hand in hand with numerous conciliatory initiatives. Police and community groups organised activities for at-risk children like football games and even a surf camp. And the city appointed gang-intervention specialists, some of them reformed gang members themselves, who made it their business to negotiate truces in some of the city's hottest spots like South Central and Watts, seen of rioting at the height of the civil rights era in 1965.
Every aspect of gang policy has proved controversial. Civil liberty groups have expressed deep concerns about the injunctions, which curtail the freedoms of people who have not been arrested, much less tried or convicted. Hardliners, meanwhile, have pointed out that a handful of gang intervention participants have slid back into violent crime, raising questions about their sincerity or effectiveness.
LA gangs are much more heavily armed than their London counterparts, but they divide their terrain similarly – using freeways and railroad tracks as boundaries rather than post codes. Gang violence has proven maddeningly difficult to address even when the crime rate more generally has gone down. Gangs account for almost all the murders in Los Angeles and about 70 per cent of shooting incidents.
Shortly before he left the city, Bratton was clear on what needed to happen to solve the problem – increase the size of the LA police force by 20% or more, and a big expansion of the intervention initiatives. Severe budgetary strictures, then and since, have made that prescription impossible to fill, however. "The irony," Bratton told the LA Times in an exit interview, "is that we know . . . how we can get to the point where gang crime and violence would no longer be debilitating to this city."
LA has an estimated 80,000 gang members and more than 700 gangs – about 10% of the numbers across the entire United States. LA remains the epicentre of gang violence in the US for reasons that find some echo in the British capital – the city's sprawling size, the limited reach of law enforcement, a thriving drug trade and, above all, the vast disparities in wealth and opportunity between rich and poor, leaving tens of thousands of young people with little or nothing to grow up for.
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