Scotland’s murder rate is lowest in 40 years – and that’s why

Rae agreed and assigned McCluskey and Chief Superintendent John Carnochan to do so. In January 2005 they established the Strathclyde Violence Reduction Unit. “We were in the police, but on the sidelines,” she smiles ironically. “We could innovate, but that also meant that if we failed, it wouldn’t make the headlines.”

They found a 2002 World Health Organization report on violence and health, which laid out the idea that violence was a public health problem. Public health considers disease to have four stages: susceptibility, subclinical disease, clinical disease, and recovery. Clinic is when doctors prescribe antibiotics. Public health teams work in the other three areas, preventing disease through vaccination, clean water, screening programs and rehabilitation.

A later report (Prothrow-Stith and Davis, 2010) defined ‘initial’ (primary) prevention, which aims to prevent acts of violence by targeting socio-economic deprivation and exposure to family violence; “in the heat of the moment” (secondary) prevention, which addresses risk factors such as anti-social behavior and gang membership; and ‘consequences’ (tertiary) prevention, which focuses on the consequences of violence to prevent it from happening again.

In the United States, there were two notable programs addressing violence with public health strategies. Harvard University researcher David M Kennedy’s Operation Ceasefire tackled gun crime in Boston with the ‘call-in’, where known gang members were invited to a face-to-face meeting at face-to-face with police teams, who offered a moral message against violence, a law-enforcement message about the consequences, and a genuine offer of help for those who wanted it.

American epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, meanwhile, had traveled to Somalia to try to contain the spread of cholera in refugee camps. Back in Chicago in the late 1990s, he thought law enforcement might be part of the problem, and his Cure Violence used classic epidemiological mapping to identify violent areas and hire credible people in the community – former gang members or former delinquents – to calm things down. They are based in hospital emergency rooms and community centers, spend time with recently released offenders and work with families using mediation, following up for months.

Slutkin’s method is now used in the United States – including New Orleans, New York, Atlanta and Washington – in Latin America and several other parts of the world. It has a good record of reducing violence, with a 53% drop in shootings in a South African community and an 80% drop in shootings and killings in its target area in Honduras.

McCluskey and his team took inspiration from all three approaches and estimated that the problem would take a generation to solve. One of the unit’s first interventions was the roll call. Around 100 gang members were summoned to Glasgow’s Sheriff Court and Justice of the Peace Court – a dark, modern concrete bunker on the banks of the River Clyde. A helicopter hovered overhead and police boats patrolled along the river. They crowded into a brightly lit courtroom and the day opened with CCTV footage of each of them.

Willie Rae stood up and said, ‘I don’t want to go to your mother’s doorstep and tell her you just got stabbed or tell her I just arrested you for murder. The community has had enough, we have had enough. Starting tonight, the next time one of you commits an infraction, I will eliminate your entire gang.

Mark Devlin, a maxillofacial surgeon, showed them pictures of stab wounds and said: “When you come in like that, you go to the top of the queue, so I can’t treat the babies because I take care of you.” Then a mother stood up and spoke about the death of her son. “You boys may not care about yourselves,” she said, “but I go to my son’s room every day and cry.”

“You could have heard a pin drop,” McCluskey recalled. “They don’t like themselves, don’t like a lot of people, but they do love their mother. She is the only one who takes a bus 50 miles to visit them in prison year after year. You could hear them sniffling and crying. McCluskey offered them a way out – a number to call 24 hours a day. “We’ll send someone to you and we’ll have a plan for you within seven days.”

The force had lined up hundreds of local businesses who agreed to take on ex-offenders – but the financial crash paid off. So McCluskey sent longtime officer Iain Murray to Los Angeles to investigate Homeboy Industries, which employs former gang members. Murray suggested a similar program: Braveheart Industries, an unprecedented police-run employment program. They took the toughest repeat offenders and gave them jobs, provided they stayed sober and worked hard – in return, Murray helped them solve their problems and prepare them for the job.

Braveheart Industries launched Street & Arrow, which in 2016 opened a high-end food store in an Airstream trailer in Glasgow’s affluent West End. In 2018 he opened a cafe at Glasgow Dental Hospital and another trailer powering a construction site with 700 builders working for seven years, all paying themselves and costing the public not a penny.

That seems a world away from Robert Peel’s intentions when he created the Metropolitan Police, I say. “It’s interesting that you say that. She smirks. “Peel’s Nine Principles conclude with ‘the test of police effectiveness is the absence of crime and disorder, not visible evidence of police action to deal with it’.

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