Page last updated at 13:34 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Gangs and guns on Liverpool's streets

By Becky Kelly
BBC News, Liverpool

Police have a 10-year plan to cut gun crime in Croxteth and Norris Green

Guns are the weapon of choice for the teenagers in the gangs of north Liverpool.

Footage of boys, hardly out of childhood, wielding revolvers, shotguns and jumping on police cars was posted on YouTube just two weeks after Rhys Jones was killed.

Yet it was the 11-year-old's murder during an unprecedented feud between youths in Croxteth and neighbouring Norris Green which brought Liverpool's gang violence to public prominence.

The battle between the Croxteth Crew, to which Sean Mercer belonged, and the Strand Gang, operating in the city's L11 postcode, formed the backdrop to the schoolboy's murder - an innocent victim caught in the crossfire of gangs blighted by a hatred for one another.

But this rivalry stems from petty turf spats rather than organised crime, police revealed.

Leader executed

Ch Supt Steve Watson, commander of Liverpool north, said: "They (incidents of gang violence) tend to crop up on the most petty of arguments.

"They can be disagreements about girlfriends, arguments about having stolen someone else's pedal cycle that unfortunately bubble over into people accessing firearms and actually demonstrating a propensity to use them."

These (gang members) are a growing number of people growing up without a lot of hope in their lives
Dr Karen Evans, the University of Liverpool

The feud dates back to New Year's Day 2004 with the killing of the Croxteth Crew's Danny McDonald, 20, who was shot several times by a masked gunman in the Royal Oak Pub.

His death sparked a series of attacks.

During the trial over Rhys's killing it emerged there had been 17 shootings and 70 acts of criminal damage involving the two gangs between 2004 and 2008.

The police impetus to reduce gun crime suffered a setback when Strand Gang leader Liam 'Smigger' Smith, 19, was executed after visiting a fellow gang member at Altcourse Prison on 23 August, 2006.

Rhys's death almost a year to the day since Smith's killing was a link not lost on police.

In fact the bullet which killed Rhys was intended for a rival member of the Strand gang.

Gang members are recruited from an early age. One 12-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of shooting a van driver in the face in 2004.

Rhys Jones coffin
Rhys Jones' murder thrust Liverpool gangs to national prominence

Four years on, the same child, known only as Boy M had become a member of the Croxteth Crew and was convicted of helping dump the gun used to kill Rhys, as well as the bike used and clothes worn during the killing.

Demonstrating his hostility to other gangs, he told police during one interview: "I hope all Norris Green people die."

Mercer himself was just 16-years old when he shot and killed Rhys.

Ch Supt Steve Moore, commander of the Matrix team, said: "Many gang members are the third generation of families who have never worked.

"Crime is all they know and so have no normality to be rehabilitated back into."

Dr Karen Evans, professor of Sociology at the University of Liverpool, said: "These are a growing number of people growing up without a lot of hope in their lives.

"Around their teen years they lose the aspirations that can change their lives for the better."

'No hierarchy'

While Merseyside Police recognise the issue of territorial feuds and gun-fuelled violence, the force is reticent to label these groups as "gangs".

The preferred term is "loose networks".

Mr Moore insisted the L11 criminals amount to no more than 100 people in a population of 300,000.

Their instinct, behaviour and moral compass is far off what we describe as normal
Chf Supt Steve Moore, Merseyside Police

"These are young people from similar backgrounds and similar geographical locations, but they are not gangs.

"Elements of the media have bagged them gangs and they have taken that title because it gives them recognition that they don't really deserve.

"We have to be careful about the term 'gang', it implies a level of organisation. There is no hierarchy."

Mr Moore believes the problem escalated with the progression from anti-social behaviour to guns.

He added: "My personal theory is that these teenagers have accessed guns through older, more mature criminals, passed on to siblings to sort out petty disputes.

"Of course once guns are in circulation it is conceivable that some would be acquired by younger people."

In light of the death of Rhys, Merseyside Police have focused their resources on hitting the heart of Liverpool's gun crime.

But senior officers conceded their plan, which includes visiting schools to inform youngsters before they are recruited to any gangs, will take 10 years to see results.

"It's about a culture change for these kids, but for one or two individuals I think it is too late," admitted Mr Moore.

"Their instinct, behaviour and moral compass is far off what we describe as normal."

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