In the Media

England riots: top adviser warns against overplaying role of gangs

PUBLISHED November 11, 2011

Karyn McCluskey, who helped tackle youth violence in Glasgow, says disturbances were about greed not anger A government adviser helping to shape the policy response to the summer's riots in England has downplayed the role of gangs in the violence and robberies and said that focusing solely on criminal groups would "hit the target but miss the point". Karyn McCluskey said she believed that only a "small percentage" of the summer disturbances could be put down to gang activity and cautioned against a simplistic approach that blamed hardcore criminal groups. McCluskey, a joint director of the violence reduction unit in Scotland, who after the riots was drafted in by ministers impressed with her results in Glasgow, said only "a strand" of the overall policy response should focus on gangs. "People offend on their own ? in pairs and in groups," McCluskey said. "They weren't all out there as a group. I think what [the riots] showed was there's a very fine veneer between a lawful society and an unlawful society." She believes the rioters were greedy people not angry people. David Cameron, has called for a "concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture", which has become centrepiece of the coalition government's response to the disturbances. But the extent to which gangs were actually instrumental in the disorder is in doubt. After initially claiming as many as 28% of those arrested over the London riots were gang members, the Metropolitan police later revised the figure to 19%. Ministry of Justice data suggests that only around 13% of those arrested across are gang members. Gangs and gang culture did not feature prominently in the Cabinet Office's own research into the involvement of young people in the riots. McCluskey, a former nurse and forensic psychologist, whose unit within Strathclyde police has been credited with achieving significant reductions in violent crime in some parts of Glasgow, said there were potentially "catastrophic" consequences from misuse of the label "gang", which she suggested was mostly useful to academics. "Does the average person who is in middle class suburbia know what the definition of a gang is? When they open their curtains and they look at a group of young people outside, they are automatically going to think that they are a gang because they don't know what the term is. And I don't want them to be frightened of young people, 99% of young people live good lives, they aspire, they want exactly the same as us," she said. "I've found that particularly some of the gang members, they commit offences on their own, they commit offences in pairs and they commit offences in groups, so they don't just wait until they're in a group or a gang to commit an offence." McCluskey has advised the government's anti-gang taskforce, led by Theresa May, the home secretary, and Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, that was set up in the aftermath of the August disturbances. McCluskey said good policing went some way to explaining why widespread rioting in England did not spread north of the border into Scotland. But she also pointed to a lack of "aspiration" among Scots who might otherwise have got involved. "I'd love to tell you the positive things, but somebody had made a great comment on the television and I've stolen it ever since. He said: 'We were policing greedy people, not angry people.' We [in Scotland] didn't aspire to greed, which is a really interesting thing - maybe that's a negative thing. "Now that may be to do with geography, but I think that is a bit to do with aspiration and I suppose there's probably some more thought that needs to go into that about why it didn't happen in Scotland." Although she identified differences in Scotland, McCluskey maintained that her community-based approach to tackling violent crime could reap benefits south of the border. McCluskey joined Strathclyde police in 2002 ? a time when Glasgow was ranked as the most violent city in the world. Her solution came from emulating the Boston Ceasefire project, in which serious offenders are made to forced to attend mass forums where they are confronted by members of the community. In Scotland, a judge presided over a group of health workers, police and victim's mothers. McCluskey's latest plan to prevent violent crime also involves an import from the US: bracelets that monitor alcohol levels in offenders who are released on community sentences. Typically used for drink-driving offenders, McCluskey said she was planning to use the bracelets on Scottish offenders whose crimes have been drink related."It measures the ethanol in your sweat and takes a testing every 30 minutes," she said. "So there's a whole range of reasons and when you look at it in the States, there's some really interesting things about using it for young people who're very involved in drinking and committing violent offences." In the US, offenders are forced to maintain 120 days of complete sobriety. A support network would be put in place to help offenders avoid drink and alcoholics would be exempted from the scheme, McCluskey said. She added the social consequences of alcohol abuse demanded serious measures ? saying there was no "human right to drink". "If you're a violent, dangerous person who drinks and commits offences, I think the rights of the victim also have to matter. And the rights of society, so I have to be able to say to you, the rights of the victim have to matter more than your right to drink. "You may be causing harm to yourself, but you start to cause harm to others, that is a different issue." UK riots Gangs Police Crime Communities Young people Paul Lewis © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds