Justin Davenport, Crime Editor
30 Aug 2011
Children as young as nine will get shock lessons in the horrific consequences of knife crime in a new campaign to combat London gang culture.
Surgeons and police officers are being sent into schools to give “anti-gang” classes after the riots of three weeks ago raised new fears about child gangsters.
Pupils will be told about police delivering “death messages” to bereaved parents and about the possibility of being left disabled for life by a knife wound.
The American-inspired project is the only one of its kind in Britain and comes after evidence that children played a key part in some of the disorder.
Figures reveal more than one in five of the riot suspects held so far is under 17. A total of 452 juveniles have been seized in an overall total of 2,108 arrests.
Today the founder of the pioneering scheme, Nick Mason, said: “Surgeons talk about the consequences of knife violence, about treating children as young as 12 with knife wounds, about what it is like to wear a colostomy bag or about delivering death messages to a mum and dad.
“We are trying to expose the myths of belonging to gangsas well as trying to give young people positive alternatives to gang membership.” So far the scheme, called Growing Against Gangs and Violence, has been running as a pilot in 55 schools in five London boroughs.
Now it is to be extended to 280 schools in up to 15 London boroughs. A key element of the sessions involves London trauma surgeons giving talks in person or on film of their experiences of treating victims of knife crime.
Riot squad officers in the front line of London’s gang war also tell children about the realities of tackling criminals.
The project, funded by the Met and local authorities, is aimed at catching children before they reach secondary school age when they can become vulnerable to recruitment by gangs.
The new campaign follows a surge in knife crime in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham – three of the areas of the capital worst affected by the riots. Inspector Allan Davis, who co-founded the Growing Against Gangs and Violence scheme as part of his work on tackling gangs in Lambeth, said he believed that it would make a “significant difference” in stopping other young people being drawn into gangs.
“We are trying to reach out to young people most of whom have nothing to do with gangs and we are trying to create a tipping point to turn them against gang culture and youth violence,” he said.
The project employs youth workers with local knowledge as well as recruiting police officers to warn children about the consequences of joining gangs.
Organisers say it is important to reach children before secondary school and their early teens when it can be too late. In Lambeth, there were 352 knife offences between April 1 and July 31, compared with 288 for the same period last year.
Knife offences in Southwark were also up by 2.6 per cent over the four month period, while in Lewisham there was a 12 per cent increase.
CCTV images examined by police have shown some younger members ferrying looted goods to gang leaders waiting in cars parked in side streets.
David Cameron has already responded by promising to wage war on gangs with stronger powers to curb their activities and longer term reforms to tackle the underlying causes of their criminal behaviour.
The Prime Minister condemned the “sickening scenes of people looting, vandalising, thieving, robbing”. He warned rioters: “You will feel the full force of the law. And if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment.”
Police today made a new appeal for information about a raid on a Sony distribution centre in Enfield during the riots amid claims that professional criminals could have played a part in the looting.
Growth in gangs: Youngest form splinter groups
By Justin Davenport
More than 100 street gangs are thought to be active in London.
Criminologist Dr John Pitts, whose book Reluctant Gangsters studies London gangs, says it is difficult to give an accurate picture of gangs in the capital.
According to one police estimate there are as many as 257 but many are off-shoots of other gangs or simply not active.
In Waltham Forest, for instance, there are said to be 17 groups described as gangs but they range from a group of youngsters from a children’s home who cause a nuisance to groups who are engaged in drug dealing and serious violence.
In Lambeth research has shown there are about 40 gangs but not all are necessarily active or violent.
Similarly, many gangs have different names. In Brixton a gang originally called the 28s went on to become the Peel Dem Crew, the Poverty Driven Children and the Muslim Boys.
The gangs rarely stay static for long. For instance, the PDC are said to have splintered into different groups now driven by inter-personal conflicts. Dr Pitts says: “What can look like five gangs is actually one group that has mutated. The core members may stay the same.”
One worrying development is the rise of new gangs made up of younger members of groups who have become impatient at not being promoted. One of the most dangerous to emerge is said to be the GAS Gang – Guns and Shanks – from Brixton, which is made up of former members of the Peel Dem Crew.
Members of the gang, all teenagers, are said to have been involved in the murder last year of 15-year-old Zac Olumegbon, said to have been a member of the rival gang TN1 (Trust No One).
Another recent incident said to involve the gang was the stabbing of a 16-year-old boy by a group of up to 10 youths. The victim was wearing a stab vest and his assailants knifed him 20 times.
Research shows that youths are joining gangs at a younger age and staying on for longer.
Dr Pitts says that only about 10 to 20 per cent of street gang members reach the higher echelons of gangs; the others get injured, killed, arrested, or if they are lucky, move on from gang life.