How a city infected by violence took back the streets
People from Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, are often typecast by the British media as violent drunks.
The stereotype has truth to it. Or had. Just like Australians, Scotsmen love to drink and punch people. Glasgow’s got one of the highest rates of alcohol-related violence in the world. Someone having their face slashed from the corners of their mouth to their ears is known as the “Glasgow grin”, which says a lot about the industrial city’s problem with knife crime.
And in 2004, the UN found it to be the murder capital of Europe. Not really a title you want your city to have when you’re a top cop with the local police, as Karyn McCluskey was at the time. Ms McCluskey has been key in turning Glasgow’s fortunes around – and as king-hit violence leaves young men clinging to life around Australia every weekend, there’s plenty we can learn from what this city has achieved.
It all started with a senseless murder. A young boy was stabbed, crying for his mum as he bled to his death in a 74-year-old female bystander’s arms.
“I thought it would be a ‘Rosa Parks’ moment,” Ms McCluskey explained when she sat down with The Punch in Sydney yesterday. “You know: we’ve had enough.”
It wasn’t. There was no real public outrage. “That was all the boy was ever going to be” was the attitude at the time, Ms McCluskey says. Glasgow? The place has a long history of violence! It’d never stop.
McCluskey was incensed. So she set about to change things. Violence was a disease that had infected Glasgow, she says. A virus, largely driven by young people who had suffered some misfortune, who had never learned empathy and who fell in with people just like them. Authorities needed to treat it like an illness if they were going to change things for the better.
Cops are just the people who stabilise the patient – and while great policing is key, they alone couldn’t stop the “recreational violence”. And local education and health professionals, who spent too much time with disaffected youth, were looking for solutions too.
They set out planning a ten-year strategic plan to tamp down the violence. McCluskey and a similarly passionate colleague spearheaded a Violence Prevention Unit with the local police in 2005. Her program mixed a combination of tough policing and comprehensive preventative measures.
When police see young people breaking the law their parents don’t just get a warning—the youth can have their front door broken down and be hauled to the station.
Professionals young people deal with all the time have had a key role to play in preventing further violence. Troubled students going off the rails can be picked out by teachers, she said. A GP can tell if you’ve been beaten. A dentist if you’ve been punched in the face. They can all make a difference. “We need to use every teachable moment,” she told The Punch.
In 2008, local gangs were bussed into a huge meeting. You can imagine it was raucous at the beginning. They were addressed by the local police chief, who said enough was enough. Then a surgeon who told the youth how he preferred to spend his time fixing baby’s cleft palates, not the faces of beaten young men. Then a mum of a victim. “No matter how bad they are, they love their mums,” Ms McCluskey said.
It was an opportunity for many young people to change. Most had never had a chance to change from where they were born or what gang they were in or school they went to in their lives.
Some did. Some went to prison instead.
Since McCluskey’s unit started tackling the problem, there have been some startling changes in Glasgow.
Violent crime was down 49.2 per cent between 2009 and 2011. The murder rate, halved. People are calling the cops because their dogs are fighting, not because people are fighting on the street. McCluskey’s unit has gone national.
Glasgow’s results came about because of big investments. And Glasgow’s problems aren’t Australia’s by any means. It’s doubtful that many of the one-punch criminals are in gangs, for instance. But there are similarities. Our authorities could have a comprehensive approach to recreational violence. To save future Thomas Kellys and Matthew Stanleys and the ongoing list of victims, living and dead, every weekend.
But wouldn’t it be great if some of those tough-talking politicians, the premiers and prime ministers who have gotten on board Real Heroes Walk Away, put their money where their mouth is and introduced their own ten-year plans? We’re never going to stop all the boofheads, but we could stop a lot of them.
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