Behaviour - Subtle superheroes tackle youth crime

20th September 2013 at 01:00
Adopt a Clark Kent persona to turn boys off gangs, expert says

Teachers should join police officers on evening patrols if they want to find out why children get sucked into gang culture, an expert on youth violence has claimed in a new book.

Ross Deuchar, a criminologist and former teacher, also said that inspirational figures brought in to steer young people away from violent crime should be understated "Clark Kent" personalities rather than charismatic "Superman" characters.

In his book Policing Youth Violence: translatlantic connections, the University of the West of Scotland professor compares how violence is tackled in Glasgow and Cincinnati in the US.

Officials from Strathclyde Police first visited the Ohio city in 2008 to learn about the pre-emptive approaches to youth violence that had been developed after Cincinnati's race riots of April 2001. At the time, Glasgow's homicide rate was 4.1 per 100,000 head of population - one of Europe's highest but still well below Cincinnati's 2006 rate of 29.3 per 100,000.

Working with schools and other services, police in Glasgow adopted similar techniques to the US city - supporting offenders, sending fewer to prison and communicating better with other services - which have met with considerable acclaim.

Professor Deuchar told TESS that teachers could play a key role in turning young people away from gang violence.

"Sometimes you can drive in and out of your school and think you know a lot of things about a young person, when you actually don't," he said.

"An initiative I heard about in one Scottish school, which I thought was really good, was teachers going out with police on the streets in the evening. They see different aspects of young people's lives and may be better able to recognise warning signs early on."

Slightly different approaches to youth work have emerged in the two cities. In Cincinnati, reformed criminals have become "street advocates" who go into the city and try to help young people by taking on "the role of Superman". They talk about the identities they had in their gang and draw on their damaged pasts "to save the lives of others", Professor Deuchar writes in his book, which is published later this month.

These personality-driven tactics have worked well in Cincinnati, where young people have often grown up listening to charismatic Baptist preachers. In Glasgow, however, a lower-key approach has been more appropriate.

"Youth and community workers and volunteers resisted the tendency to publicise and celebrate their former gang or offending identities, where they may have existed," Professor Deuchar writes. "Their subtle, unobtrusive approaches were more akin to the role of Clark Kent than Superman."

Tom, a community agency manager quoted in the book, recalled a reformed murderer, Graham, being seen as a hero by the boys he was addressing, "and he went, 'Don't applaud me... a real man is somebody that's got a family, gets up at 6 o'clock in the morning and goes to his work every day in life, hail, rain or snow. That's a tough guy - that's a man.'"

Three and a half years after Cincinnati's police department adopted a preventative approach to violent crime, there was a 42 per cent reduction in group or gang member-involved homicides and a 22 per cent drop in non-fatal shootings.

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