When I was investigating the unsolved Brixton murder of 20-year-old Adrian Marriott in 2004 for the Evening Standard, I interviewed his mother Ruth. At the time, Ruth’s five-year-old grandson, who lived with her, was severely traumatised: he had heard the gunshots that killed the uncle he adored like a dad.
Fourteen years later, while delving into London’s rising knife crime, I would again meet her grandson and spend several weeks understanding his life. By then, Dianni Marriott was a strapping 19-year-old who walked with a swagger and had a reputation for being fearless. He told me he carried a knife “to keep safe”, was prone to mood swings and was desperate to leave his “on road” gang life. He had never received counselling and there seemed little trace of that frightened five-year-old, except for one thing: when Dianni felt anxious, he stuck his thumb in his mouth and sucked it like a baby.
That was when I grasped what those reformers on the youth violence commission were talking about. They understood there was often overlap between the victims and perpetrators of violent crime and concluded that “a new way” that addressed underlying causes in addition to police enforcement was needed. They called it “the trauma-informed public health model” and they reported how it had been applied in Glasgow over 10 years with spectacular success.
This week, as the Prime Minister announced his new Beating Crime Plan — whose main planks are to sanction more police stop and search and for anti-social behaviour offenders to be shamed by wearing hi-vis vests in “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs” — there was frustration among campaigners that, once again, he was reaching for the same narrow tactics that have failed us so miserably in the past.
Yes, stop and search, used judiciously and intelligently, is a critical tool in tackling violent crime and has been supported by this newspaper. But it is a double-edged sword, because black youths are 19 times more likely to be targeted and because for every 100 stopped, 80 are innocent and end up feeling stigmatised, further damaging relations between the police and the community.
Police chiefs have criticised Johnson’s strategy as “gimmicky”, “a waste of police time” and for ignoring the evidence. But it was Boris’s rhetoric that made me wince. He claimed stop and search was “a kind and loving thing to do”. And for those sentenced to unpaid work for anti-social behaviour, he said: “I don’t see why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society.”
His “chain gang” analogy conjures up images of black slaves in America and could be seen as dog whistle racism. Campaigners I spoke to condemned it as racially charged and not thought out. One said: “What happens when upstanding members of the community see their child or father or mother in the ‘chain gang’? It’s demonising — the last thing we need.”
I experienced Johnson’s tone-deaf approach when he was Mayor and I introduced him to a reformed gang member at a Standard event. This youth — call him Frank — was keen to tell Boris about his social enterprise that went into schools to educate kids about the dangers of knife crime, but Johnson turned to him and said: “Why don’t you get a proper job like at McDonald’s?”
When I invited Boris to talk to gang-affected youths, he refused and began to scream at me because I suggested it was important to hear their voices. Frank put his hand on Boris’s shoulder and said: “Calm down Boris. You are behaving like I used to behave in the hood.”
Boris would do well to listen to the likes of Charlie Ransford, director at Cure Violence and expert on how they cut shootings in Chicago by 73 per cent, who once told me: “There’s a tendency to think of violence as about bad people, but we need to understand high-risk individuals differently. We need to see the rationality of their choices in a world not entirely of their making and approach them as human beings.”
The Prime Minister, it appears, prefers to cast the problem in simple terms of good guys versus bad. He eschews the public health model as touchy-feely. Meanwhile, 22 teenagers have been killed in London this year putting the capital on course to surpass its worst total of 29 deaths in 2008. Until this Government tackles underlying causes — rising exclusions, lack of mental health support, wholesale closure of youth clubs — I have little faith this new strategy will turn the tide.
What do you think of Boris Johnson’s comments on anti-social behaviour? Let us know in the comments below.