Violence as a virus: the treatment

Following the riots in 2011, the UK government pledged to treat violence as a health issue. Niki Seth-Smith reports on a project that is doing just that, while millions are wasted in public money on surveillance, enforcement and gang crime.

Niki Seth-Smith
18 February 2014

 After the riots that raged across England’s cities in 2011, Iain Duncan Smith declared a new approach to violent crime. “Violence is a public health issue,” he said, “we must start seeing and treating it as such.” A recent report, Violence Prevention, Health Promotion, shows how widely this approach has been recognized, with health boards including youth and gang violence in their strategies. It is part of a Coalition commitment to combine a strong criminal justice system with a renewed focus on preventing young people from becoming involved in crime.

One charity in the UK has been treating violence as a health issue since it launched the same year as the riots. It's called Chaos Theory, and uses a model of violence prevention developed on the streets of the ultimate gun and gang state, Chicago. The model is the brainchild of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who had worked for a decade in Africa on infectious diseases before developing a theory that violence worked in a similar manner. He founded Cure Violence, which aimed to interrupt incidents of violent crime before they spread, exactly as one might control a virus.

Chaos Theory relies on “violence interrupters”, most of whom are themselves ex-offenders, to act quickly once violence occurs, thus catching what they call the “Golden Hour” after an incident. Their base is in Waltham Forest, a borough with a high incidence of youth and gang crime. Pam Hothi, the organisations' founder,  became a youth worker following her own involvement with a criminal crew. She became disappointed with the lack of grassroots and community-embedded organizations in London and was convinced that there must be more effective ways of dealing with the problem. She found the answer in Chicago, where she met Gary Slutkin and received training in his method.

A murder trial in the UK typically costs the state one million pounds. Chaos Theory runs on around £250,000 a year, and in the  past two years has worked with 82 people involved or at risk from violent crime to interrupt the chain of violence and stop it spreading.

Julian is one of the violence interrupters who do this job. He took it on initially as a volunteer with no pay. As  a black man growing up in North London, he began dealing drugs and ended up serving a 12-month sentence. He decided in prison that he wanted to help others steer clear of crime and today works full time with the charity. He believes that it is all about “breaking the cycle” of violence and changing minds. To do that, violence interrupters have to gain the trust of the community. “It’s about relationship building,” he says “I’ve been in their position… they might not listen at first but they’ll learn that I’m not a bad guy, I’m not trying to set them up.”

The group has dealt with four major incidents in the last three years. In 2011, there was a shooting in the borough on a family house with three young children inside. By intervening on the ground immediately after the shooting occurred, the team ensured that the seemingly inevitable – a violent retaliation – never occurred. Most incidents are more banal, although potentially deadly. Julian describes a recent call from a man “talking very erratically” about someone who was bad-mouthing him in the community. Julian calmed him down, talked to the guy accused of the insults, and discovered that it was all hearsay. A simple phone call with both parties had averted possible bloodshed. Meditation is central when helping clients in the immediate aftermath of violent or high-stress incidents. This can mean “babysitting” or removing people from the scene of conflict.

“Violence interruption” might well have helped to contain the 2011 riots, which spread virus-like from Tottenham and other boroughs around Waltham Forest to hotspots in London and then on to Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and several other towns. Since then, the Government has been accused of not doing enough to address tensions between black and ethnic minority communities and the police, but Pam Hothi says she has made several attempts at contacting the police, most recently after the Mark Duggan verdict, but received no response. Now one of Duggan’s cousins works with Chaos Theory as a peer mentor.

Hothi says the British government is too focused on gangs, and not sufficiently attentive to the majority of young offenders who are not gang members. The cross-government report published after the riots ‘Ending Gang and Youth Violence’ has been criticized for making the same mistake. It states that one in five of the rioters were known gang members, and 22% of all serious violence is carried out by gangs.

Yet prominent voices at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Manchester University have claimed to show it “elided gangs, gun and youth crime in flat contradiction to its commissioned work, and committed £10 million to a range of ill-defined projects.” Another study argued that gangs are being constructed as a “suitable enemy… obscuring the wider, structural roots of youth violence.” Last year the Home Office provided £10 million under the ‘Ending Gang and Youth Violence’ strategy to a programme rolled out across 33 areas, one of which was Waltham Forest.

Julian was a victim of this kind of elision. At the age of 22 he was called a gang member by the media and police after a nightclub fight in which he was stabbed ten times. That was not a turf war, he tells me, but a commonplace brawl that turned near-lethal because of knife-carrying. Hothi sees the wrongful labelling of young people as ‘gang members’ by the police as a race issue. Waltham Forest is consistently ranked one of the most deprived local authority areas and roughly 40 per cent of residents are black and ethnic minority. "Why are our boys, because they're black and from estates, called gang members?” she asks. “Conflict often relates to criminal behaviour, but much of this is between individuals rather than groups". 

Another issue is surveillance. Since 2011, Waltham Forest has become a blueprint borough for the ‘Ending Gang and Youth Violence’ strategy. Rather than favouring the Chicago method, the borough is piloting a “carrot and stick approach to support and enforcement” based on the Boston Gun Project (London Assembly report, 2012). This entails a multi-agency approach involving the Met police, Council, probation service and community groups. For example the gang prevention programme Enough is Enough, designed to support and protect young people involved or at risk from gang crime, works closely with Operation Connect, whose aim is intelligence gathering and enforcement. The Evening Standard has recently accused a gang exit programme operating in the borough of refusing to move people vulnerable to attack if they don’t inform on their peers.

Hothi believes the Boston model is “ineffective” as it can make support contingent on informing, whereas the Chicago model works separately from the criminal system and refuses to share information belonging to its clients. They say that violence interrupters get such excellent results because the community trusts that they don’t work in this way with the police. One client said: “I trust my violence interrupter and know that they are here to help. This is a great thing, a saving grace that we can turn to someone without worrying about being judged or not supported and the most important thing is we can trust him.” 

Last month, a report was published on the ‘Ending Gang and Youth Violence’ strategy. British Home Secretary, Theresa May, said the programme was a success as violence by 10-19 year-olds had fallen since 2011, while in the last year knife crime by this group fell by a quarter. However, the report stated that these results could not be “directly linked” to the project, while the government’s former advisor on gangs, Shaun Bailey, said that “violence hasn’t subsided. It’s probably worse”.

For Chaos Theory, dealing with violence as a “health issue” means separating it from the criminal justice system, and embedding work deep in the community. While crime stats and arrest figures may be important, the charity focuses on breaking cycles of thinking and acting.

The cycle was broken for Julian. He was on an exercise wheel in prison, treading round and round, and he remembered a schoolteacher friend having asked her pupils what they wanted to be. One child piped up: “I want to be like Julian. He has the cars, the watches, the money.”

“At the time I was chuffed. But then I thought, where am I now?” He is certain that a Violence Interrupter could have helped him long before. “I wish there had been some-one like me,” he laughs. Someone to empathise, keep his confidences, and not label him as a ‘gang member’. Someone to interrupt the violence.



Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData