Hampstead and Highgate Express (Ham and High)
January 31, 2013 Thursday
A new approach to loosening the grip of gang culture and violence among young people in Westminster has caught the attention of top brass at the Metropolitan Police.
Westminster Police's deputy borough commander Det Ch Supt Paul Rickett, who leads on the day-to-day running of Westminster Police, took a tour of the borough's cutting-edge Integrated Gang Unit (IGU) on Monday.
It has seen a promising drop in the level of serious youth violence - although the death of 16-year-old Hani Abou El Kheir in Pimlico the day before cast an inevitable shadow over the visit.
Met Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe was due to attend the briefing as well, but cancelled after Sunday's tragedy.
Despite the reportedly gang-related killing, the number of incidents of serious youth violence has more than halved since the programme, dubbed Your Choice, launched in September 2011 in the midst of a surge in incidents and increasing concern in the community - the biggest fall in London. The programme could be replicated across the capital if its success continues.
Following his visit, Det Ch Supt Rickett said: "I understand that there must be a considerable amount of concern within the local community but I must stress that incidents such as these are very rare on the borough." He said the death was "particularly sad" given the progress made in tackling youth violence, saying the project's success "equates to more than 90 fewer victims" in the last year.
The £1.5million Your Choice programme targets boys and girls transferring to secondary school, but longer-term funding could allow for earlier intervention with children in primary Years 4 and 5.
It targets known youth offenders, giving them the choice of accepting an extensive package of measures to stay away from gangs and violent crime or face up to "swift justice" - eviction from home or a ban from their estate.
It requires various agencies, from the council to police to voluntary groups, to work together in the same office - an approach unheard of until recently. This makes a "gang intelligence desk" possible, building a comprehensive understanding of gang networks, family connections and the services they receive from public agencies, updated every day.
Known gang members are put under police surveillance, dovetailed with police operations and dispersal orders which enable officers to effectively "ban" two or more people from gathering within a certain area. This zero-tolerance approach is combined with a diversion programme for young people at risk of getting drawn into gang-related criminal activity.
It offers "gang exit programmes" for those looking to get out of the culture, mediation services between gangs formed around the borough boundaries with Brent and Kensington & Chelsea, help for their families and support to get young people trained and into a job. Some 70 referrals have been made through its Fresh Start Employment programme, which has found five a job or apprenticeship, with 23 actively looking.
The gang exit programme is dealing with nine high-risk individuals, both in prison and in the community, while "gang-affected" 11 families are being helped by outreach workers.
The second phase of cross-borough gang mediation, Endz United, started this month to train up to 20 young people from north Westminster and south Kilburn in conflict resolution and peer mediation.
The IGU now has a part-time senior probation officer, full time anti-social behaviour caseworker and an independent sexual violence advocate working alongside three PCs.
Det Ch Supt Rickett met with Cllr Nickie Aiken, Westminster Council's cabinet member for community safety, at the facility in the council's offices in Frampton Street, Marylebone.
Cllr Aiken said: "I share local residents' concerns about gang activity and serious youth violence in Westminster, which is why we set up the Your Choice programme."
She said the results of Your Choice "have been encouraging so far", but "Sunday's tragic incident in Pimlico illustrates that there is still much more work to be done on this issue".