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Turning away from crime
Steering teenagers out of harms way

By Peter Gould
BBC News Online home affairs

Gun crime is an increasing problem

If you are young and black, itís one of the more dangerous parts of the capital in which to live.

The location: Brent, in north-west London. Over the past three years, 38 people have died violently here.

Among them were victims of what the police describe as "black-on-black" shootings.

On the Stonebridge Park estate, dealers in crack cocaine and heroin are not only a threat to each other. Their lifestyle has an impact on the whole community.

Those who know the area well, say the crimes committed here have become more serious, and the criminals younger.

Click here to watch a film on the Stonebridge Park estate

Robert Beckles is the leader of a youth project, and has lived on the estate for 30 years.

"It is not just a baseball bat or a knife any more," he says.

"You are hearing about bullets found here, or a gun used, whether it is a blank or the real thing.

We have got to get the respect, the confidence in the community. We have not had that in the past.

Andy Walker
"Now you are getting 15 and 16-year-olds who have access, which is a worry."

In September last year, hundreds of police officers raided the estate and arrested a number of young men dealing in hard drugs.

Mounting such a large operation was a reflection of the scale of the problem facing the police and the neighbourhood.

In an effort to improve relations with the community, the police recently opened a police shop.

Smaller and less formal than a police station, it is a key element in the strategy of working more closely with local people to tackle the crime taking place in their midst.

One of the officers here, Sgt Andy Walker, believes that the raid in September was a turning point in establishing better relations between police and public.

"The opening of the police base was a big success. We are here all the time and we are more accessible.

"We have got to get the respect, the confidence in the community. We have not had that in the past.

Background and analysis

Question: What is being done to tackle gun crime?

"We have carried out further drugs raids on the information gained since the September raid. People can see action is being taken by the police.

"They are not wasting their time by telling us things. They see results."

On his beat, he pauses to chat with some local children. When he asks them about the drug dealers on the estate, they express their approval for the police raid.

The way in which drug use had become an everyday occurrence was brought home to Andy when he talked to a seven-year-old boy on the estate.

The youngster described in detail the methods used by crack cocaine addicts to smoke the drug.

"I was shocked," Andy recalls. "I did not know exactly how they did it, but this young boy knew only too well."

They are not prepared to go to school and go through a long process of getting qualifications and getting a job

Andy Walker
He says children as young as nine are being used as drug couriers by parents who are dealing in crack cocaine. It is a horrifying example of how children can become drawn into a criminal lifestyle.

Not surprisingly, Andy sees part of his job as educating young people about the dangers of drugs.

"It is important that we do get across to them at an early age, and direct them away from a life of crime," he says.

"They see all this money that these drug dealers have and they want the money. They are not prepared to go to school and go through a long process of getting qualifications and getting a job.

"They want the money there and then, and they see it in their peers, by dealing drugs."

In an area which has problems with drugs and gangs, the danger is that young people, especially teenage boys, will become innocent victims of the violence.

This was starkly illustrated on the nearby Church End estate recently, when 15-year-old Kayser Osman found himself caught up in a gang fight, and was stabbed to death.

Fabio Preciosa: Peer pressure is a danger
Fellow pupils at Willesden High School are being encouraged to stay away from trouble, and find leadership roles within their community.

A project called the Black Male Forum teaches the boys computer and public speaking skills. The aim is to give them a positive focus for their lives outside school.

One of the teenagers, Mario Spencer, believes that initiatives like this can help to keep youngsters out of trouble.

"The Black Male Forum occupies their time and teaches them skills. I think it takes their minds off crime."

Another of the boys on the project, Fabio Preciosa, believes that it is all too easy for young people to find themselves drawn into trouble.

"I think itís really easy because of peer pressure. Youíre trying to look good in front of your friends so you do things that you donít really want to do."

The problem of peer pressure on youngsters is also highlighted by the leader of the Forum, Ms Bisi Akiwumi Jones.

Other factors holding back black teenage boys have also been identified. They include poor communications skills, not having the right qualifications to find jobs, and a general lack of confidence in themselves.

"Most of the issues centred around social skills," she says.

"Last year we ran the pilot of the public speaking workshops and we got quite positive feedback from parents and teachers.

"Parents reported that their boys had become a lot more confident, and were involved in a lot more discussions with the family.

"These are very short term benefits, but I must stress that our approach is long term, because we would like these boys to become future leaders within their communities."

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