The Monitor's View

Britain's post-riots search for a gang buster

Prime Minister David Cameron wants a plan by October to cure inner-city 'gang culture.' But models already exist in many US cities to reach gang members – in their heart.

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After days of street riots in their cities, the British have awakened to the fact that their society is riddled with gangs of all sorts – black, brown, and white – ready to burst into crime sprees.

Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered two of his top ministers to come up with a plan by October to tackle this “gang culture.”

He needn’t look too far to see what has already worked, mainly in the United States.

Yes, inner-city youth need good parenting, higher education, a steady job, and adequate housing. And yes, police need to be tougher on youth crime, better trained, and more in number on the streets.

But what really turns around a gang member – in his heart?

It usually is not just government action, either police work or a prison sentence. Rather, it is often a member of the community, perhaps a clergyman, who can speak in a moral tone while establishing a trusting, respectful, supportive, and long-term relationship with a young person in a gang.

Think of actor Karl Malden as a clergyman in “On the Waterfront,” trying to bond with Marlon Brando’s character to get him to turn on the mob. Getting a young thug to accept a loving relationship and find a conscience isn’t easy.

The most successful method comes from American academic David Kennedy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has advised many cities with his “ceasefire” techniques. One method calls on police to first target the small number of hardened members in a gang, demanding that they stop their activities or else all of the gang’s members will be arrested on small crimes – with swift justice.

If gang members are arrested – or even not – they are offered genuine help with personal problems – a job might suffice – as an opportunity to change their lives. The goal is to break a gang’s code of loyalty.

Once engaged, then someone close to the offender with a caring spirit – a clergyman, family member, teacher, friend, or ex-gang member – is assigned to reinforce positive values, first of all by careful listening for deep emotional problems. An uplifting bond can then develop, one based on right and wrong – with no drugs or violent rap music – and a new hopefulness.

A religious conversion is common, but grandmothers do wonders, too. Love is the active agent, with boundaries set on proper behavior.

This “cease fire” technique has worked well from Glasgow to Los Angeles – although police don’t easily embrace the “hug a thug” approach. And it must be sustained over years. Boston’s black Christian leaders, for example, worked with police in the 1990s to dramatically curb gang violence. But the “Boston miracle” fell apart as clergy bickered and competed for government dollars and police management changed. Gang killings shot up, usually over petty “beefs” about respect.

The key is a cooperative mix of government solutions with pastoral and community guidance that can reach a gang member – or even a would-be gang member.

“All I know is someone has to engage the youth,” said Darren Way, a longtime worker with gang members in East London, to Reuters last week. “You can’t just lock them up and throw away the key.”

Someone needs to give them a moral compass.

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