Change in drug trade caused rise in violent crime, says Suffolk criminologist
An academic whose 63-page report examined gangs and county lines in Suffolk believes a shift in the drug market caused a nationwide rise in violent crime.
Dr Paul Andell explained the spread of city gangs in terms of cold, hard economics – likening it to a franchise with a public relations arm of extreme violence.
The senior criminology lecturer at the University of Suffolk finished the report in August 2017 after being commissioned by the county council to examine the issue with Professor John Pitts.
Research initially focused on the Jubilee Park and Nacton Road areas, and followed an earlier assessment by the police, which observed the supply of hard drugs to Ipswich and other towns being dominated by London gangs.
“The story starts in northern cities and south London, where young people were going missing and popping up in the countryside,” said Dr Andell.
“Before 2011, prevailing policy was that gangs didn't exist. Post the London riots, everything was blamed on gangs and we had a policy pendulum.
“In Ipswich, practitioners reported young women going missing and being found in London with older men. There were stories of exploitation and of young men carrying drugs secreted on their person.
“Two main gangs operated at street level in the drugs business. In order to survive economically and culturally, they resorted to pretty hideously violent acts like scalding, kidnapping and atypical behaviours for young people.
“We found significant changes in the drugs business, which accounted for those behaviours.
“It was not just about financial reward, but the cultural aspect of respect. In the alternative economy, instrumental violence replaces legal remedy to settle disputes, and rates of violence indicate levels of organised crime.
“We found drugs coming here via metropolitan cities, operated by a mobile phone, with local dealers given a choice of being part of the franchise or part of the problem. When the public relations arm is extreme violence, it might be wise to take part.”
Research found local forms of organised crime becoming part of a larger network, with banks of phone numbers traded for large sums of money.
At the bottom of the network, 'youngers' earned their reputation by building 'street capital', while others were groomed into the business; to be part of 'cuckooed' accommodation serving drugs to runners, with older gang members replenishing stocks and taking the proceeds – all in an atmosphere of threat and instrumental violence.
“It has a devastating effect on those who get swept up in a search for respect and financial reward,” said Dr Andell, who found that the availability of stronger, cheaper class A drugs indicated significant supply levels for a small but prolific customer base in Ipswich.
“The modus operandi is little and often,” he added.
“This is a new phenomenon, in that young people are exploited by a demand led problem growing stronger by the week.”
Overreliance on enforcement was not working, said Dr Andell, who suggested a 'multi-modal' strategy to reduce harm and alter the market to be less pernicious, as well as rethinking drug policy to prevent criminalising young people at the lower end.
“We need to replace the kinship people feel in gangs,” he said.
“For those young people without a stable family, we previously had youth and community work.
“Detached youth work was a way of helping young people make less harmful decisions. But we don't have the same service we had, so the neighbourhood becomes a much riskier place.
“For many, it's safer to be in the gang, where they have a functional way to make a living.
“We need to alter the alternative market to make it safer – to target people within the network that will make a significant difference.
“Our neighbourhoods need to be looked-after. We need to ensure our vulnerable can't be preyed upon, and we need to exit those who have been groomed into the apparent glamour of gang life.
“This will take a coordinated effort. We can think about macro economics, but we need to think smarter about extracting these young people and getting one or two to be paid peer workers.
“We need employment contracts to include that companies will provide apprenticeships for young people and give them a chance to thrive in the legitimate economy.
“We need a live feedback loop while these interventions are taking place. The input of residents groups, which are often not invited to the table when strategies are being developed, is crucial to helping communicate what issues are developing.”