Page last updated at 08:36 GMT, Wednesday, 26 August 2009 09:36 UK

Is Britain really like The Wire?

Comparative crime statistics for Baltimore, Manchester and Liverpool.

By Mark Yates
BBC News

It's a TV series featuring murderous villains, cynical politicians and corrupt, lazy detectives. Fans of The Wire say it's a realistic portrayal of American poverty, violence and hopelessness. But what, if anything, do the mean streets of Baltimore, Maryland, have to do with Britain?

The shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, says that parts of Manchester, Liverpool and London have similar problems of violent gang culture.

Above you can see how Baltimore compares with the cities of Liverpool and Manchester on a number of key crime measures. Below, we asked three people with first-hand experience of these areas what they thought.

THE BRITISH FORMER GANG MEMBER

Tony Winter
Tony Winter says 'no go' areas don't exist in the UK

Tony Winter was a drug dealer and heroin addict in Moss Side in Manchester. He served 12 years in prison for various crimes, including possession of firearms and violence.

He said of Mr Grayling's comments: "Of course at first glance it sounds preposterous. But I think what he was getting at was the feel of some areas of the country."

But Tony said you could not compare the scale of the problem in the two countries.

"When Moss Side was at its worse there was maybe only a dozen streets either side of the main road where there was pressure.

"I have seen bits of The Wire. It seems to me like a lot of chasing and shooting. That's not what I experienced. I don't think it happens like that. It wasn't like everybody was hiding in their homes all the time."

Tony now works with an organisation called Street Pastors to stop young people turning to crime.

"I wasn't a gang leader as such. I just had a little crew who sold drugs for me.

I have seen bits of The Wire. It seems to me like a lot of chasing and shooting. That's not what I experienced
Tony Winter, ex-gang member

"Back then people realised there was money to be made in dealing, then the dealers started getting robbed so the gangs were formed so people could protect their money.

"At the time I didn't think there was any hope, any happy ending for me. But my faith gave me hope.

"Because I was a drugs supplier I could move around freely between different parts of Manchester. There are kids in areas like Longsight and Moss Side who feel they can't do that. I am not sure how true that is but it's the perception, people talk themselves into there being a problem.

"There aren't any no-go areas. It's not like America."

THE BALTIMORE EX-GANGSTER

Ted Sutton
Ted Sutton says gangster life in Baltimore is worse than on TV

Ted Sutton joined a gang at the age of 14 and for the next decade watched people around him die in some of Baltimore's roughest districts.

He said: "I got caught up with a rough crowd, I started carrying a gun, then a sawn-off shotgun. I felt I belonged but I didn't know the price you paid for life on the streets.

"I got into my early 20s - then bad things started to happen all around me. My best friend died in my arms, he was gunned down. Another friend got a life sentence plus 20 years in prison. He'll never be out.

"My other friend was paralysed from the neck down by a bullet. Someone else got through $175,000 of crack cocaine in a year.

"That same year my girlfriend died of cancer."

Ted thinks that there are up to 3,000 people involved in gangs in Baltimore at any one time. And he's trying to help them change their lives.

He said: "I was looking at a 15-year sentence for something I didn't do - instead of for all the things I did do wrong.

[The Wire] has done an injustice to us and to Baltimore
Ted Sutton, ex-gangster

"But the judge dismissed all the charges. I went on to get two Masters degrees. I was given a second chance, most people aren't going to get that."

Ted thinks The Wire has been a mixed blessing for his city.

He said: "It's done an injustice to us and to Baltimore. It's glorified that lifestyle but it has let the world know how it went down."

Ted said the life of gang members was even worse than portrayed in The Wire: "Along with the money comes all the legal issues - we weren't out partying all the time. You always had to watch your back."

And he rejected the idea that some young people had no choice but to join gangs.

"I don't ever feel that people are forced to join gangs but if you are not strong then you will join. The problem is the kids' reality has been twisted.

"They think that if you get good grades you are a nerd, or if you put your hand up in class you are a punk.

"We are trying to change that."

THE CRIME EXPERT

John Pitts is Professor of Criminology at the University of Bedfordshire and has watched The Wire.

He said: "It's not a fit comparison at all."

He pointed out that last year Baltimore had nearly five times the murders committed in Manchester.

Professor Pitts helped the former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, produce a report on gang violence, called Dying To Belong.

He said: "It's interesting that Chris Grayling doesn't appear to have read that, otherwise he wouldn't have said what he said."

The professor said gang culture in the US and the UK were not comparable: "They are different worlds, the discrepancy between wealth and poverty are different in the two countries.

There are some gangs in Britain, but then there are a lot of wannabes
Prof John Pitts, crime expert

"We are talking about a very different country with very different forms of crime," he said.

But he did add that, for some people living in certain parts of Britain, the experience could be similar.

"Inevitably gang and drug crime affect many more people in the US.

"I think if you live in an area of the UK where there is drug dealing and firearms crime then you are in a state of constant anxiety.

"And it depends who you are, I am an older white man I can go where I like, but if I was a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time I could be in a lot of trouble.

"Young black women are also vulnerable on certain housing estates."

Professor Pitts said the gangs were very different in the US and UK.

"There are some gangs in Britain, but then there are a lot of wannabes.

"But initiation ceremonies, gang charters, these things don't exist here. American gang membership goes back 50 or more years. I don't think we are going that way."



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SEE ALSO
Parts of Britain 'like The Wire'
25 Aug 09 |  UK Politics

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