Public Works: Fighting Gangs, Guns, and Youth Violence
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Public Works: Fighting Gangs, Guns, and Youth Violence

After a summer of headline-grabbing gun crime, officials are paying renewed attention to strategies for combatting violence. A new strategy from the U.K. might provide some insight.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by {a href=""}AshtonPal{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr pool{/a}.

Last August, cities across the United Kingdom were rocked by days of looting, burning, and rioting. While Brits take for granted a certain level of lager-fuelled mayhem, the scope of the disturbances and the degree of violence led to calls for strong action. The British Home office undertook a review, and in November of last year issued a report called Ending Gang and Youth Violence [PDF].

The key recommendations in the report dealt not just with more aggressive policing, or adding to the 1.85 million CCTV cameras already surveilling the land that birthed George Orwell. The report proposed three key strategies:

  • Prevent youths from becoming involved in gangs and criminal activity in the first place (while less than 20 per cent of those arrested in the riots had gang affiliations, gangs are disproportionately responsible for violent crime in the UK, especially in London) through active intervention by social workers and support from “Troubled Family Teams,” beginning when kids are in grade school.
  • Offer youths who have already become involved in the gang lifestyle a way out through continued family intervention, education, training, and even relocation.
  • Arrest and punish youths who are “refusing to exit violent lifestyles.”

The last approach is the most expensive of the three, involving as it does the tacit acceptance that some kids are likely to remain wards of the state for life. When it comes to reducing crime, studies show that cops are more costly than social workers, and tear gas more expensive than education.

There are two critical factors needed to translate the report into reality: money and inter-agency co-operation.

The first proved to be an issue immediately. Days after the report was issued, it emerged that only £1.2 million over three years would be added to existing funding to combat youth violence.

Close co-operation between levels of government, social workers, police, health care workers, and others is also essential. (Interaction between different groups working with at-risk youth, at first ad hoc and later formalized, has been cited as a key factor in reducing gang and youth violence in Boston in the ’90s. The “Boston Strategy” has since become the template for anti-gang programs around the world.)

To that end, the British Home Office plans to divert £10 million in existing funds towards agency coordination and even agency co-location in high-crime areas.

It’s too early to tell what kind of success the U.K. program will have, but Toronto would do well to watch it carefully.

We experienced our own wake-up call this summer, when several high-profile shooting incidents, including the one at the Eaton Centre food court, killed five people and wounded 27. Mayor Ford delivered the expected platitudes about the city being safer than a Sherman tank swathed in bubble wrap, which, while statistically true, didn’t buy much with a public not used to dodging bullets while enjoying a teriyaki experience.

Since then, a couple of key initiatives have been announced by the City and province, under the auspices of the Youth Action Plan (YAP) slapped together in response to Toronto’s Summer of the Gun II.

The first is the permanent allocation of $12.5 million to the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) which had previously been funded only through March of 2013.

TAVIS is a Toronto Police Service program [PDF]. It puts officers into at-risk neighbourhoods on an ongoing basis and sends what are known as Rapid Response Teams to violent crime scenes.

Besides having a nifty acronym, TAVIS makes sexy TV and is good at suppressing crime as long the cops are around. But what about long-term solutions that address underlying social issues, similar to those defined in the U.K. report?

Back in 2008, well before the latest outrage, Ontario had already commissioned its own report, Review on the Roots of Youth Violence. This report focused on what it identified as the social causes of youth crime: poverty, racism, broken families, lack of opportunity, and dysfunction in the justice system.

None of this was news in 2008, and it’s not now. But it’s easier to send an ETF team into a crack house than it is to turn gangbangers into hair stylists or graphic designers, so that’s mostly what we did.

YAP was built in part on the 2008 report, so in addition to policing recommendations, it advocates a set of social solutions to youth violence broadly similar to those proposed in the U.K. report.

In that vein, Child and Youth Services Minister Eric Hoskins yesterday announced $20 million in new funding for youth crime prevention. It will go mostly toward summer job programs and the hiring of more youth outreach workers.

These remain baby steps. Assuming the programs as described would work, the big question in both Canada and the U.K. is whether the will and the dollars exist to follow through. Long-term commitment will be the key.

It’s a familiar pattern: some criminal atrocity raises the public ire and is followed by stern speeches about horsewhipping malefactors and less stern ones about how all kids deserve an education and a chance to work at the Gap. But over time, fiscal restraint and electorate attention deficit take their toll. Governments change, priorities shift, and programs quietly disappear, until some new outrage catches our attention and the cycle starts over.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen this time.