- An independent academic report entitled ‘From Postcodes to Profits’, compiled by London South Bank University and commissioned by Waltham Forest Council, finds gangs are more money orientated and ruthless in the drugs trade and less linked to postcodes than they were in a comparative report a decade ago (Pitt 2007).
- On the back of the report, Waltham Forest Council has announced extra funding to tackle emerging trends in gang behaviour such as increasing involvement of young girls in gangs.
- Report finds that rising competition in London’s drug market has led to gangs targeting towns outside of the capital where they are less known to authorities, also known as ‘county lines’ operations.
The authors of the report, commissioned by Waltham Forest Council in 2017, spoke to current and former gang members, as well as practitioners, to better understand the behaviour, makeup, recruitment and purpose of gangs so that the council and its partners could build on the interventions and services already in place. Waltham Forest, like all London boroughs and metropolitan areas in the UK, has gangs which operate in the area causing misery and destroying lives.
In its response to the new report Waltham Forest Council Cabinet has decided to:
- Allocate an additional £806,000 of funding over four years to reshape our existing gang prevention programme, on top of the existing £2.2m projected budget over that period.
- Fund its first ever financial investigation team to increase capacity in the borough to seize criminal assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Other key findings of the report:
- Gangs operating on county lines: The report finds that rising competition in London’s drug market has led to gangs moving away from visible turf wars over postcode territories, and towards trading along county lines outside London and below the radar activities that avoid attracting police attention.
- Territory has developed a new meaning: Instead of an emotional sense of belonging to a postcode that needs to be defended, territory is valued as a marketplace to be maintained. As one participant interviewed in the report said, “It’s not about postcodes any more. It’s about money.” 1
- A new emphasis on financial gain: This is exhibited particularly through alliances with other gangs, and an aggressive expansion outside of London into new markets with the development of ‘county line’ operations.
- Women and girls: There is an increasing involvement of women and girls, in particular carrying drugs for gangs, means that they are frequently at risk of being exposed to violence and sexual exploitation. The power of using girls in gang culture is their relative ‘invisibility’ as they are usually not suspected of being involved in gang activity.
- Rise of social media: Gangs are divided about the use of social media. Some gangs operate ‘off grid’, avoiding social media and using old technology, such as Nokia phones, to avoid leaving a digital footprint. Other gangs embrace social media, using music videos to reinforce ‘brand’ and gang identity, but these tend to only feature the younger gang members rather than the elders.
- Emerging threats: There are potential signs of gangs using technology to access new drug markets, and of potential links between street gangs and terrorist networks.
- Evidence of ‘cuckooing’: The practice of occupying a gang member’s home or property for the purposes of continuing drug-trading activity without the need for a gang base or office appears to be on the increase.
- Child exploitation: There are signs the youngest gang members are being trapped and enforced unwillingly into gang membership and then being used as child labour, exploited to perform gang-related activities.
Waltham Forest’s approach to tackling gangs
Waltham Forest has a highly developed crime and disorder partnership that operates a co-ordinated approach to dealing with young people involved in, or on the periphery of, crime. Our Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) consists of professionals from Waltham Forest Council’s children's services working with health, education, police, probation, housing, early intervention and prevention service, youth offending and Victim Support colleagues. This approach ensures that all agencies work together to not only support young people but also their wider families in a ‘Think Family’ approach.
The ‘Think Family’ approach is a model unique to Waltham Forest, which sees the family as the fundamental tool that will improve the chances of young people staying away from crime and enjoying a successful future. Problems with mental health and trauma in young people are common issues which, if left unresolved, can lead to further criminality. We take a “trauma-informed” approach, which is supported by a new programme that offers young people a mental health assessment who have been arrested or identified as being on the periphery of crime.
Leader of Waltham Forest Council, Clare Coghill, said: “Every part of London has seen the devastating effect that gangs have on all sections of our communities. I am pleased that we as a council have made the bold decision to tackle gang crime head on by commissioning this report and acting upon it.
“The added knowledge in the report coupled with the additional funding we are putting in place will help us build on our gang prevention programme to help those in gangs escape them and prevent others from a life of crime.”
Associate Professor of Social Work at London South Bank University (LSBU), Andrew Whittaker, said: “What is striking is how ruthless and exploitative some gangs have become. It’s possible that the situation we’re seeing with gangs in Waltham Forest is indicative of a wider pan-London trend of increasing sophistication in the way that gangs operate now.
“We know that gang members have much higher rates of mental health problems than the general population. Six out of 10 gang members have anxiety disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder and a third will have attempted suicide. We welcome a greater focus from Waltham Forest Council on supporting young people’s mental health.”
Superintendent Paul Clements, of Newham and Waltham Forest said “Crime is always changing and this report shows the sophistication of some of the gangs our officers are dealing with day in, day out. We are absolutely committed to working with other organisations, such as Waltham Forest Council, to divert young people away from these gangs and bringing to justice those who commit crimes.”
Background to the report
The research consists of interviews and focus groups conducted with young people affected by gang activity, including former gang members, as well as professionals from the statutory and voluntary sector.
The second stage involved presenting these preliminary findings to focus groups of key professionals and agencies in order to test and deepen the analysis.
A copy of the report compiled in 2006/07 by Professor Pitt can be found at http://troublesofyouth.pbworks.com/f/reluctant-gangsters%20-%20J%20Pitts.pdf
1Research participant 10, public sector professional.