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How Islington team is successfully facing up to the gangs

Innovative approach by police officers, case workers, Jobcentre staff and an NHS psychologist, has helped buck trend with a fall in serious knife crime among youths

10 August, 2018 — By Emily Finch

A still from a Cally Boyz gang music video that was used as evidence in court following the killing of 27-year-old Nashon Esbrand in August last year

ISLINGTON’S innovative approach to tackling gang crime, which has seen case workers hit the gym with their young charges and even organise a skiing course for one, grew out of a “dark place”, according to a leading councillor in­volved in its creation.

Since its inception two years ago, the Integrated Gangs Team (IGT) has seen serious knife crime among youngsters drop by 13 per cent in the borough, while the rest of London has seen an increase in the crime.

The team, which comprises police officers, case workers, Jobcentre staff and an NHS psychologist, is based at the police station in Tolpuddle Street. Instead of just arresting a gang member and leaving their future mostly in the hands of the courts, the team find young people in gangs or at risk of joining a gang and seek to find “holistic” solutions.

Cllr Joe Caluori, the Town Hall’s executive member for children and young people, said: “In 2014 and 2015 we had four young people killed and we had two who died in tragic circumstances. It was an absolutely horrendous year.

“The IGT set up at the end of that year after real soul searching.”

One high-profile murder which shocked the borough was that of ­Stefan Appleton who was just 17 years old when he was stabbed to death with a machete in front of children playing in Nightingale Park, Canonbury, in June 2015.

Each death leaves ripples in the community, often resulting in retaliatory attacks and a further circle of violence, especially where gang members are involved in the killing.

Islington has several active gangs including Cally Boyz, named after Caledonian Road, where members operate; Easy Cash, centred in the EC1 area, and Red Pitch, in the east of the borough.

While Islington’s approach has been praised, there is still a way to go. In June, eight young people aged 25 and under were seriously wounded with a knife, according to police figures. It was one of the worst months for stabbings this year.

Above: the scene of the brutal stabbing in Canonbury that claimed the life of Stefan Appleton (below)

Up until June, there were 34 knife victims aged 25 and under, compared to 50 for neighbouring Camden. It is unknown what proportion of these were related to gangs, but the Met Police say the London-wide rise in knife violence is in part due to increased gang activity.

Two members of the Cally Boyz gang, which is now believed to be affiliated with the Essex Road gang, were involved in the hunting down and killing of Nashon Esbrand, 27, in August last year. Mr Esbrand was chased down by youths who had accused the new father of being a “grass”.

Cllr Caluori accepts that gang-related violence has yet to be completely stamped out, but he said: “We’ve come from such a dark place in Islington but we feel we are moving in the right direction.”

The Town Hall pumps half-a-million pounds into the gangs team each year with funding secured until 2020. The team are currently working with 70 gang members who have agreed to the help – the service is voluntary, not statutory.

Some of the “holistic” approaches include case workers meeting up with criminalised youngsters in a gym and discussing the pitfalls of their lifestyle while lifting weights. A case worker even organised a skiing course for a gang member last year who has now stopped reoffending. It’s also about showing hardened gang members or at-risk youth – often the victims of abuse themselves – what a “normal” life looks like.

“The way IGT works is by changing mindsets – it’s not normal to carry a knife. It’s awful it’s become so normalised that people can get stabbed,” said IGT manager Jenny Duggan.

The team targets the siblings of gang members as well as children as young as 11 years old to steer them away from joining a gang.

Clinical psychologist Dr Bella Obi helps case workers identify the trauma experienced by youngsters and works to reverse the damage.

She said: “Once they’re in their peer group in the gangs, what is the norm can be hugely traumatic. I assess that.

“A lot of these young people may have not accessed mainstream services. They may have difficulties with their emotions and how they interact with other people. There is often an unmet need.

“We then support them to access other services and we are very therapeutic in our approach. This is not necessarily one-to-one therapy but it may be how can we get them involved in something positive or a routine that is outside a gang world to give them a sense of purpose.”

The Town Hall said it cannot give detailed examples of how exactly they steer youngsters away from gangs, but say the numbers speak for the effectiveness of the team. Since 2016, they say 25 youngsters have left gangs altogether while there was a 20 per cent fall last year in the number of young people entering the criminal justice system for the first time.


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