News in focus: Spotlight on Newham’s gang culture

Picture posed by a model (PA)

Picture posed by a model (PA) - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Being in a gang isn’t like it is in a video game, is something that Detective Superintendent Andy Mortimer is keen to teach youngsters who are tempted by the seemingly glamourous underworld.

Det Supt Andy Mortimer

Det Supt Andy Mortimer - Credit: Archant

“With games like Call of Duty, you can be killed 30 times in one day, but it doesn’t matter because you can just re-spawn,” the borough’s lead on crime explained.

“But one act of madness can shape your life forever as it has lasting consequences.”

With six in 10 of the Metropolitan Police’s most wanted seniorgang members known to be operating in Newham, he certainly has his work cut out.

The borough is home to one of the capital’s biggest gang units, with known cases of children as young as 11 years old trying to prove their loyalness through drug running and violence.

About 10 to 14 “really key” gang members are constantly being monitored with assistance from Trident Gang Crime Command, the Met’s specialist gang division.

But a major part of the Newham gang unit’s job is to educate youngsters and prevent them from becoming the next generation of gang members.

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“We understand that young children can be impressionable, as we have all been kids ourselves,” Det Supt Mortimer said.

“If your peer group all decide to follow a football team, it is easiest to do the same. With gangs, it is similar thing, so it is about telling them to not make the wrong choices and not to join a gang. But it is very difficult to have that strength of person.”

With help from Newham Council, the probation service and the third sector, officers work to teach and inform youngsters of the dangers.

“We don’t want to criminalise young kids, we want them to make the right choices, educate them help them and support them and to teach those in gangs that there is always a way out,” Det Supt Mortimer said.

“Sometimes it is easy to forget that these are just kids - 14, 15, 16-year-olds thinking that they are young men, thinking that they know everything but really they are very naive. They have pressures growing up in a busy, bustling borough like Newham that I certainly didn’t have.

“We know from our research that some people grow out of that gang mentality, they find work and employment, perhaps after leaving the area or getting married but there is always this risk of new people being drawn in and that peer group pressure.

“That is what our force is trying to stop because once they are on that roundabout, it is much more difficult to get them off.”

He regards the police’s work as almost a safeguarding issue, particularly as it is not just the perpetrators in gang violence who tend to be young.

“The majority of victims are also young people and that’s not a healthy way to be,” Det Supt Mortimer said.

“Often young people don’t think about the consequences of carrying a weapon, and nobody has explained that if somebody bigger takes that off you, then that is going to be used against you.”

He admits that Newham “has a knife problem” but thinks stop and search figures could skew figures as to whether the it is actually are on the rise.

He remains confident that their current approach is the right one.

One of Newham Police’s most eye-opening and effective events has been giving youngsters the opportunity to meet victims’ families and friends, to see the effect that their loss has had.

“You are playing with these guns and don’t realise that these people are now without a brother or sister,” he said.

“That is a real powerful message because you can see the suffering that leaves in the community.”

Coming from a background in counter terrorism and serious organised crime, Det Supt Mortimer is certainly not a soft touch, and is not afraid to turn to enforcement when other avenues fail.

This includes the use of gang injunctions, which limit a person’s actions by banning them from being in a particular place or carrying out certain activities.

“If we can’t get a young person to engage in a postive way, and we give them plenty of options, then we will come down hard on them like a tonne of bricks because we owe it to the people of Newham,” Det Supt Mortimer said.

“We know that they are not engaging with us, they don’t want to go into training and if you can’t dissuade them by any means then there is no other option.”

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