As of 2020, Gang crime was the leading factor in over 46,000 recorded offences . As these offences continue to rise, the need to understand the causes of these crimes is more important than ever.
Simon Harding, Professor of Criminology at the University of West London, has a wide range of experience in crime reduction and community safety. Building on his work as a Regional Crime Advisor within the Home Office and his involvement in urban regeneration across housing estates, Simon has explored the multiple causes behind the significant increase in gang and knife-related incidents.
Simon explained the four main influencing factors in gang crime; if we are to tackle gang crime, we must first understand these.
1) The Evolution of Street Gangs
Over the years, Simon has observed changes in how gangs operate.
“These gangs have become much more vicious and more oriented towards making money through things such as street robbery and through buying and selling drugs. They live on income from areas of multiple deprivation.”
According to his research, the most significant change appears to be in the average age of gang members. Previously, once older than 21-22 members would leave the gang. However, gang members are now beginning to stay on and, as the gangs attract younger members, the groups are getting bigger and more crowded. This also means there is more and more competition for those who want to get to the top.
Simon explains, “The changes mean that these young people are struggling to build their status and reputation, aspiring to become top boy within this arena of competition. Therefore, violence is now much, much more prevalent.”
2) The Emergence of County Lines and the Drug Market
County Lines are drug distribution and supply networks that run from large, metropolitan cities and out to provincial towns, smaller cities and seaside resorts. According to the National Crime Agency, there are approximately 800 lines running from London and approximately 2500 county lines running nationally . Each one of those is a mini drug distribution network.
Behind the operations of these county lines, urban street gangs are engaging in criminal exploitation. Through the grooming and recruiting of young people, groups employ children and youths to operate for them in localised areas.
According to Simon, gangs often set themselves up in local cuckoo properties (a property taken over from a vulnerable individual) and use them as a hub to deal drugs from. This, in many ways, creates ripples of violence in local towns and backs up the line into the parent gang who may be in central cities.
Simon paints a disturbing picture- “County lines are heavily and tightly controlled. So, violence is endemic within that marketplace. This means an increase in knife crime, violence and intimidation, not only in the metropolitan cities but also in the much smaller towns and provincial rural areas.”
3) The Impact of Social Media
In Simon’s opinion, the influence of social media is pervasive and exacerbates the severity of the situation.
“I’m often asked ‘what is the impact of social media on county lines and urban street gangs?’ Well, social media acts as what I would call ‘an accelerant’. What I mean by that is, it will effectively pour petrol in the flames of something that is already underway and it acts as a mechanism for involving a much wider audience. Certain opinions are then readily shared and there is a kind of ratcheting up the effect of whatever is ongoing, whether it’s an argument, a difference of opinion or an ongoing online beef.”
This, he says, has a way of making people very emotionally connected to an incident.
He compares the situation to when he was younger- “It used to be, if you were at school and you heard there was a fight, you would hear about it at lunchtime or after school. Not anymore. Now, you can have a fight live streamed on your phone directly to you as you’re sitting in the class.”
4) The ‘Landscape of Fear’
A mixture of all these elements can lead to a ‘landscape of fear’ for young people who live in deprived communities. Even if they are not in a gang it can lead to young people feeling that they need self-protection and thus the need for a knife.
Simon has found this to be the case from his conversations with young people: “When I interview them, they tell me that they are fearful of the spaces they live in. That’s not just the physical space, but also the online space and, subsequently, the mental headspace that they’re in. They feel as if social media can reach them 24-hours a day. So, there’s no off switch for these young people. They have opinions and views and disrespect coming up all the time and it makes it difficult for them to plan ahead and make decisions rationally and logically.”
They also say to Simon that while they fear their environment is unsafe for them, they don’t know who to speak to and, when incidents happen, they don’t tell the teacher, they don’t tell their parents and they certainly don’t tell the police.
This anxiety and the feeling that there is no place to turn has created what Simon feels is a dangerous myth: ‘They believe everybody is carrying a knife when in fact they’re not. And as a result of that, they think that the correct thing to do is to carry a knife themselves. So this leads to an escalation amongst their peer group, which of course is very unhealthy. So it becomes a very difficult space for young people. A space that is very stressful, full of fear and anxiety and, for some young people, they feel that carrying a knife is the logical response to all of this. So, they’re weaponizing these spaces. And that’s very worrying.’
These four interrelated factors have created a perfect storm each ramping up the importance of each other in intensifying the gravity of the situation and the situation does not look like getting any better in the near future.
In Simon’s view, we must recognise the importance of joined-up, multi-agency working to tackle both the causes and effects of gang crime.
 Simon Harding, Gang Crime Conference, Government Events, September 2020
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