Page last updated at 06:30 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

'Words not weapons' tackle city gangs

By Guy Smith
BBC London Home Affairs Correspondent

Hooded top
Mediators will mostly deal with disputes over drugs and disrespect

"Respect, Revenge and Revenue" - the three 'r's which are the most likely motives for gang-related violence.

Thirty Londoners have been killed for one or more of these reasons in the past two years.

Home Office figures show that every murder costs the authorities about 1.5m to investigate and prosecute and consequently, preventing a fatal stabbing or shooting has gained more currency.

Next month, a new gangs' mediation service called Capital Conflict Management will begin work in London to try to tackle the problem.

With 300,000 funding for two years, mediators will use the art of "straight-talking" to resolve potential conflict, liaising with gangs, community, police and councils.

The idea has been in practise in the West Midlands for the past five years where deaths reduced from 27 to three.

The project began after gang-related violence in Birmingham in 2003 resulted in 27 murders, including that of two girls.

It works because kids don't want to die. Parents don't want them to die
Kirk Dawes, WMMTS

Kirk Dawes, a former detective with West Midlands Police, is a founder member of West Midlands Mediation and Transformation Service (WMMTS).

"When we first started, it was claimed to be fluffy," he said.

A core team of 10 mediators now work across Birmingham and come from varied backgrounds - from firefighter and forensic psychologist, to bank worker and students.

They go between and within gangs talking to members dealing with "trivial issues" like name-calling to extreme violence like stabbing.

'Death sentence'

Mr Dawes said: "If someone survives then they often want 'compo' (compensation).

"They want paying. It can be 5,000, it can be 15,000.

"But if the individual agrees and then can't pay up, he's putting a death sentence on himself."

An experienced mediator can help the individual avoid these pitfalls.

Knives collected during a knife amnesty in London
Thirty people died in gang violence in London in the last two years

Mediators use techniques which draw inspiration from the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and a gang project in New Jersey.

Mr Dawes said: "It works because kids don't want to die. Parents don't want them to die."

Marcus (name changed for fear of reprisals), aged 19, was a former gang member in Birmingham who "used to run" with the Johnson Crew - one of the two main gangs in the city.

It was like living with a ticking time bomb
Jane, Marcus's mother

Hailed as one of the project's success stories, Marcus is now studying performing arts.

"Due to the gangs and fighting and all that rubbish I have lost 11 friends."

"If it wasn't for the service, I would definitely have been given payback without a shadow of a doubt.

"Most likely I would have been the next life to go. Mediation taught me to think differently," he said.

His mother Jane (name changed) said: "It was like living with a ticking time bomb.

"You never knew what kind of moods you would encounter, when he would come home, where he was.

"It was an emotional roller-coaster. And it affects every member of the family."

'High impact players'

She said the service also helped her deal with Marcus's volatile behaviour.

"Thank God now we can see a massive turnaround and a different young man," she said.

To tackle the problem in London WMMTS has trained 24 mediators who have been on a six-day intensive course where they were taught to deal with "high-risk" situations.

Mediators learnt counter-surveillance techniques and were told how to stay safe, including being given stab-proof vests.

Police at a crime scene
Metropolitan Police have identified more than 100 street gangs in London

Recently, the Metropolitan Police identified more than 100 distinct street gangs which have about 1,600 so-called "high impact players", who display extreme, violent behaviour.

A further 2,000 "associates" are closely linked to each gangs' criminal activity.

Mediators in London will mostly be dealing with issues like drugs or disrespect but would step in to prevent a grievance from turning nasty or intervene after a violent incident to try to stop retaliation attacks.

And, like Marcus, help young people escape the gun and gang culture.

Len Duvall, former chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, supports the idea in principle but warned: "We cannot afford to legitimise criminal activity or to confer some status to those gangs in our communities."

Mr Dawes is confident that mediation will have an impact in London.

"If you put your hand on a gun or a knife," he said.

"There are two things that can happen. One, you go to the grave or the other, you can go to prison for a very long time.

"If you use words rather than weapons, and get in before the conflict gets going - then you stand a chance of stopping it."

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