The LA gang prevention scheme with a Scottish twist
By Fleur Macdonald
Murder rates in Glasgow have been halved by an innovative strategy which treats crime like an infectious disease. Set up in 2005, Police Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) takes a public health approach to violence, by teaming up with social workers, housing officers, schools, community groups and mental health workers instead of simply relying on protection and enforcement methods.
In many cases, violent behaviour in young people stems from past trauma. They aren’t criminals to the core, says DI Iain Murray, who’s been part of the VRU since 2011. “The criminality is their solution to the problems they face.”
In 2012, he was given an access-all-areas pass to the Homeboy Industries programme in Los Angeles, which has taken on more than 10,000 former gang members, employing them and training them in various professions. The programme boasts an 80% success rate. “It let me realise what we could do to change people’s lives in a positive way,” he says.
This is just one of the models pioneered across the US, including Boston’s Operation Ceasefire, a collaborative effort between police, black ministers and analysts associated with a 63 percent monthly reduction in youth homicide victims, Cure Violence Chicago and the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence.
In August 2012, DI Murray took a cohort of six ex-offenders to help for a month backstage alongside professional soldiers at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. “They were recognised for being even better than the soldiers they worked alongside,” Murray says proudly.
Under Murray’s direction, the scheme has expanded since then. The social enterprise Street & Arrow (a play on the saying “straight and narrow”) was founded in 2016 and now operates a café in Glasgow city centre and a street food truck. A car wash and sports café are in the pipeline. Murray estimates they’ve helped over 140 people and have an 86% success rate.
In March 2018, Lambeth Council announced they would adopt a similar approach even considering setting up a version of the street truck. “It’s a great initiative … We’ve already got Clink restaurant in Brixton prison of course so why not?” said Gary Trowsdale, the founder of One Big Community and advisor to the Youth Violence Commission. DI Murray is keen for the VRU model to catch on: “We want to reduce violence across the whole planet … The Public Health Approach really does work and we’re trying to beat that drum.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, has also been listening. On 19thSeptember, his team announced plans to establish a VRU in London and have directed an initial £500,000 towards it.Calling it a “long-term” approach, Khan said it was “not a substitute for the investment our public services need if London is to significantly cut levels of violent crime.”
The stories of individuals are compelling testimony to the effectiveness of the public health approach. One of the first men who applied to the Glasgow VRU scheme told DI Murray that he was “a murderer in the making”. His first conviction for serious assault was at the age of 13. He took part in the Military Tattoo programme and excelled. Five years later, and despite his criminal convictions, he was accepted on the Royal Highland Regiment, Black Watch, and has since been promoted Lance Corporal. He has a wife, two children and his own house.
This is just one of the success stories of Street & Arrow. Murray says the initiative allows men and women, whatever their background, “to be the person they were always meant to be”.