Ex-Trident officer on how to resolve London’s complex violent crime crisis

The last few days have seen the issue of street violence in London and elsewhere unusually occupying headline space as the realisation appears, at last, to be dawning that the thinning blue line are struggling to maintain control of our streets. This has been clearly illustrated by the tragic events on Monday evening when a 17-year-old girl was shot dead in Tottenham. On the same evening two 16- year- olds suffered serious injuries in a shooting and stabbing incident in nearby Walthamstow.

The fact that London’s murder rate has overtaken that of New York has triggered some alarm bells while Cressida Dick’s comments on social media and stop and search should have added to the growing concern.

The statement by the Met Commissioner concerning knife crime and social media was, unsurprisingly, taken out of context as illustrated by the Evening Standard headline which appeared to suggest that social media was somehow the sole factor in the explosion of gang related knife and indeed presumably gun crime.

In fact, those who bothered to read the body of the article would discover that the issue of social media was but one of several factors referred to by Cressida Dick as contributory to what clearly is a disturbing increase in both gang activity and violent crime.

Other media outlets, such as the Guardian, failed to mention those contributory factors, leaving the reader to assume that Cressida was exclusively laying the blame at the door of social media. This led to an outpouring of bile on that self- same social media, primarily from those whose sympathies appeared to be with the extreme right. The sentiment was that the rise in violent crime was the fault of the Commissioner (and Sadiq Khan), that the ‘social media’ issue was a red herring and that she should resign having ‘failed.’

The Genie is out of the bottle.

Many within the police community would point to the policies of Theresa May and, to a lesser extent, Sadiq Khan in relation to their opposition to stop and search, as being responsible for letting the knife and gun crime genie out of the bottle; unfortunately forcing it back is proving no easy task.

The Commissioner and, faced with the realities of office, Sadiq Khan both have indicated their support for police stop and search. Hundreds of knives have been taken off the streets by virtue of Operation Sceptre while dozens of arrests have been made for the possession of guns, knives, and other bladed articles. Such seizures are unquantifiable in terms of the number of lives saved or life-changing injuries avoided yet surely the situation would be even graver without such operations.

Interestingly, despite the increase in seizures and arrests, Cressida Dick has recently been quoted in the Sunday Sun as saying that her officers are still apprehensive about carrying out stop and search just in case there is a career threatening complaint of racism.

In the same edition, former police minister Mike Penning wrote, “How many more need to die before we free our police to tackle this menace?’ The reaction amongst the police community was one of stunned incredulity as Penning clearly was part of the government responsible for curbing police stop and search in the first place; The 2017 Tory manifesto even contained a pledge to introduce legislation unless stop and search was reduced still further. Needless to say, that particular pledge has conveniently been forgotten by the Conservatives including presumably Mike Penning.

The malevolent phenomenon that is gang social media.

Cressida Dick’s concerns in respect of social media revolve around those sections that are gang related, whether on Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, Snapchat or Instagram and anyone who has but scratched the service of this increasing phenomenon will know of its malevolent influence.

Operation Trident, the Met’s operation against gun and drugs crime instigated by the black community, were only too well aware of that influence back in 2010. This influence has grown massively and its reach is now well beyond those ‘on the gang front line’ or even on the fringes of gang activity.

Interestingly the one area of social media where Cressida Dick’s comments have not been attacked is on gang social media itself.

Much is made of the reduction in youth violence in Glasgow and clearly lessons can be learned but the issues are far more complex in London and Birmingham and part of this complexity can be traced back to social media issues.

In London, the gangs that can now be found not just in the ‘inner-city’ but out in the suburbs, thrive on the oxygen of publicity via social media. Late last year a ‘music’ You Tube video which shows a well-known rapper just released from prison ‘calling out’ a still imprisoned rival, has attracted almost five million views. In this video, he mocks his rival and his rival’s murdered brother shot dead some years ago in a famous Trident murder case.

Most London gangs have one or more rappers as their figureheads. A number have died as the result of gang violence while others are serving sentences in prison where their activities are followed as avidly as if they were on the outside. Many gang grime/drill/rap videos attract views in the hundreds of thousands while some, as mentioned above, go into seven figures.

This means that the activities of the gangs and rappers are very much part of a youth culture in that they are followed in the same way as are footballers, ‘mainstream’ pop stars or other celebrities. If individual gang members especially well-known rappers, are cheffed/shanked/splashed (stabbed), or rushed (attacked or made to flee), caught ‘lacking’ (unaware without a weapon) or ‘slipping’ (straying into a rival gang’s ‘endz’) the news spreads rapidly with individuals or gangs themselves gaining or losing credibility.

Recently at Bedford University a well know north London rapper who was actually performing there, was surprisingly ‘rushed’ by ‘opps’ who were also away from their ‘endz.’  He fled and his courage or lack of it was the subject of intense debate across gang social media.

The rapper quickly released his own response in the form of a rap video which has accrued, to date, views approaching four million. These well-publicised events however were followed by a series of violent incidents in north London including the tragic recent murder referred to above, which may or may not have been connected.

The same rapper gave an interview just days ago which thus far has attracted more than 90,000 views and indeed some criticism, with complaints that many of his responses were of the ‘no-comment’ variety as if he were being interviewed ‘by the feds.’

Cressida Dick’s assertions that gang videos which provoke rivals into responding in kind and/or with violence are not an exaggeration and can be evidenced; indeed, gang videos have been used to assist in securing convictions.

Most gangs rap videos now show many or all of the participants masked as they are only too well aware that individuals could well be identified by ‘the feds’ eager to confirm gang associations.

It’s not just about the ‘music.

However, it not just gang rap/grime/drill videos which are an issue. Youth/gang social media also has its own language which can be almost impenetrable to those of more mature years. In addition, gang SM discusses ‘hood politics’ and apportions blame to transgressors, the most loathed of whom are ‘snitches.’ Police statements are not infrequently displayed which show details of the ‘snitches.’ The maxim, ‘snitches get stitches’ is no idle threat and indeed whilst hospital A&E staff are supposed to refer knife injuries to police, an A&E doctor told me recently that they won’t do this if the victim convinces them that he/she will be in even worse difficulty if he/she is seen talking to police.

Those taking their first tentative steps into the world of gangs and gang social media would do well to browse the You Tube website. A search on South London gangs for example, will produce a number of eye-opening videos as to the current state of affairs south of the river as well as providing an interesting historical perspective.

Gangs are like shifting sands. Allegiances change as do the names. Some have survived the test of time, others are relatively new. Some gangs now refer to themselves by numbers only, perhaps to confuse police but most have alliances with other gangs and major issues with others.

Again, some You Tube videos could almost be described as educational: If you want to know which gangs ‘beef’ with each other, You Tube can tell you. If you want to know which UK rappers have died violently, You Tube can tell you; if you want to know which UK rappers are currently at Her Majesty’s pleasure, You Tube can tell you.

Gang ‘ethics’ and ‘trappin.’

Gang SM also has some sort of code of ethics. Snitching, as stated, is a major sin and, surprisingly acid attacks are frowned on. Also incurring displeasure are attacks on those with no gang links bizarrely referred as ‘civilians.’

Circulated on social media, the image of a ‘civilian’ who suffered a horrendous knife wound.

Not surprisingly, You Tube and other social media outlets refer not just to gun and knife violence but to other activities notably drug dealing or ‘trappin.’ A You Tube video entitled ‘Trappin ain’t dead’ received an astonishing 9 million plus views.

Most established London gangs are involved in drug dealing. It is from these gangs that children are recruited to move drugs around parts of London using pedal cycles or, in case of older teens, mopeds. This has led to the recently well publicised issue of ‘county lining’ whereby London and other city gangs spread their activities to county towns and more rural areas. The reason for the recent concern is the fact that ‘county lining’ now involves children of school age.

Whilst the rappers may be the figurehead of the gangs and may indulge in ‘trappin’ themselves, many gangs are in fact controlled by ‘olders.’ These are gangsters in their late twenties, thirties and even forties who have ‘got the tee shirt’ when it comes to drugs, violence and serving prison time. They are now content to remain in the background as ‘executives’ organising ‘business’ through the ‘youngers.’

Occasionally there will be a falling out resulting in violence but police figures will show that those involve in gang related violence tend to be getting younger. Gang ‘olders’ will even cooperate with each other whilst their respective ‘youngers’ do battle on the streets.

There could however be new battles ahead for London’s street gangs as feared Albanians gangs are now taking an ever-increasing share of London’s drug markets. Quite how Albanian gangs are becoming such a threat given that they are not in the EU is perhaps a question that could be answered by the Home Office.

Please: No rioting.

With escalating knife, gun and other violent crime and the inescapable fact is that whilst there are no ‘no go areas’ gang writs run through many areas of London and other major cities. Whilst the deaths of Rashan Charles and Edson Da Costa in Hackney and Newham respectively saw disorder on the streets, concern that gangs in those areas and indeed across London would forget their differences as they did in 2011 and turn on police, proved unfounded.

There is grave concern however that a repeat of the 2011 riots would see police hopelessly overwhelmed because of the cuts. Forces are now frequently having to call on ‘mutual aid’ from other forces when faced with a high-risk football match, a large or potentially violent demonstration or an incident such as Salisbury. In the event of rioting on a national scale it is unlikely that police chiefs would release officers to assist elsewhere fearful of what may happen within their own force areas.

Panaceas, cuts, stresses and strains.

No-one involved in policing would suggest that curbing gang social media and increasing stop and search are panaceas for the very real issue of knife, gun and other violent crime. Those involved in policing know only too well that issues such as inadequate housing, poor education, a lack of job opportunities, parenting or lack of it together with often inferior health care especially in relation to those suffering from mental health issues, all play a major part.

Police cuts too are a key issue. Community policing is suffering and in gang-controlled areas two police officers, laden with taskings, will make little difference. In the Met, response officers now have to investigate crime which presumably will restrict still further their ability to engage in pro-active policing including stop and search.

Whereas most murders in the Met are in fact solved, the Homicide units must be feeling the strain with doubtless fewer officers dedicated to each murder. Most non-fatal stabbings and shootings however do not enjoy a similar success rate. Figures produced last year showed that almost 80% of reported stabbings remain unsolved yet of course many more would be if a full murder team were able to be assigned.

Of course, we have just had further official knife crime initiatives which have become as repetitive as Groundhog Day. Extra cash is promised although we never quite seem to see exactly where it’s invested, be it in relation to gangs, NHS or counter-terror.

That’s not to say that across London, there is not some superb work being carried out by various groups and organisations such as The Crib, The Ben Kinsella Trust and Gangsline without whom the situation would be even worse. Their complaint is a lack of funding and a lack of coordination. As for the official ‘knife crime’ videos, they have to compete against the violent, well produced gang videos as discussed above and I’m afraid they don’t.

The Met; Please tell it how it is.

Finally, whilst I am a supporter of Cressida Dick and have nothing but positive memories of her as the head of Operation Trident, I believe she needs to be ruthless with those in her senior management team and communications directorate who prefer to re-assure the public by not telling them how it is. There are between 300 and 400 non-fatal stabbings a month in London yet only a tiny fraction of those make it into the public domain. Of course, there will be sound operational reasons in a few cases but not in the majority.

It could well be argued that the media are already showing signs of violent crime fatigue despite recent headlines while the public could become desensitised, but surely the public have a right to know when and where stabbings and shootings are taking place. Perhaps a weekly publicised summary of events would suffice but the periodic shock of statistics every few months together with the occasional statement, surely is not in the public interest. In addition, given that, as we have seen, the majority of non-fatal stabbings are never solved therefore surely early ‘disclosure’ would assist re witnesses and information.

Meanwhile, to the frustration of those officers doing their best to keep people safe on the streets of London and indeed elsewhere, there is the constant background noise of complaints from both the left and right; perhaps one day those activists will get the police force they deserve although that would be very unfair on the generally silent majority who appreciate the police and the challenges they face.

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