Just how serious a problem are street gangs in the UK? To what extent are street gangs an important component involved in serious criminal activity or is it more a case of groups of young people ‘hanging around’ with one another who get involved in what is referred to as the occasional ‘petty crime’? To what extent are street gangs that gather together involved in organised crime within their localities or has the media exaggerated their criminality?


What exactly is a gang? Is it a group of friends who gather together but who also wear similar clothes simply because they happen to like that fashion? Is it a gathering of more than ten youths or a group of five to ten? What number of people actually constitutes a gang? At what number does a group morph into a gang? The author John Heale has studied British street gangs. He has defined a gang as “a group of about 10 or more individuals who have a name and who claim an allegiance to a geographic area but the reality is that it’s a lot more messy.” One thing that makes it “messy” is that some youths may feel it is ‘cool’ to admit to being in a gang as they might, in their minds, get kudos for this. However, in reality their ‘gang’ is simply a gathering of friends who come from a specific area. 


In 2009, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) described a typical gang member as being aged between 12 and 25; being predominantly male; living in large cities invariably near or in deprived areas; the majority (aged 12 to 16) truant from school or aged from 16 to 25 had a history of truancy when at school; come from families where there is a history of unemployment or where there is just one parent; many have been in a family where there is no adult male role model. The CSJ claimed that gangs in Glasgow and Liverpool were mainly made up of white youths while gang members in Manchester and London were mainly made up of black youths


The August 2011 riots and looting in English cities were initially blamed by the media on local gang members contacting one another via mobile devices and effectively organising the riots. While in some high profile court cases social networking sites were highlighted as a tool of contact between youths, it is now more accepted that many involved themselves in opportunistic crimes because they happened to be in the vicinity at the time rather than as a result of any sophisticated mode of communication. 


However, many still think of gangs as a source of trouble especially in run-down inner city areas. Gang membership gives a sense of belonging that may well be missing from a child if that child has been brought up in a single-parent family or a socially dislocated family. These gangs may give themselves names that seem to be more appropriate for American cities – as well as the names adopted by gang members – but to what extent are they involved in wholesale criminality often associated with gangland bosses and crime syndicates who make fortunes out of organised crime? 


In the immediate aftermath of the August 2011 riots, the Prime Minister David Cameron stated that he would wage an “all-out war” against street gangs. The coalition government appointed Bill Bratton to advise it on gang issues. Bratton has been the police chief of New York and Los Angeles, two cities that have been plagued with gang violence the likes of which has yet to be seen in the UK. Bratton’s primary task is to advise the Home Office on the way ahead.


One of the major problems faced by anyone studying gangs is the chronic lack of information and data about them. No one can categorically say how many street gangs exist in the UK. Therefore no one can say with any accuracy how many youths are actually involved in gang activity. A barrier has developed between gangs and effectively anyone outside of these gangs. Gang members rarely talk to anyone outside of their gang and anyone who approaches these gangs in terms of research are treated with extreme caution. In 2007 a BBC research team went to the Toxteth/Croxteth area of Liverpool to examine the extent of gun use among street gangs in the area in the aftermath of the murder of Rhys Jones. The general public on the street did not want to be interviewed in front of the cameras and the team itself was subjected to bottles being thrown at them by gang members who suddenly appeared on the streets coupled with threats that they should leave the area for their own safety. Ross Kemp, reporting for Sky 1, had more success in terms of meeting gang members from Toxteth/Croxteth. However, it had to be done on their terms and all of those interviewed wore disguises. The interview swiftly ended when one of the gang members saw a police car in the vicinity and they immediately left.


The one body that would be expected to have access to some accurate data on gangs would be the Home Office. In theory it should be able to collate all the information acquired by numerous police forces across the UK. However, while it has access to knife crime statistics, gun crime statistics etc. it has no figures for gang membership or crimes committed by gangs. The latter would be all but impossible to prove and no one, if caught, would admit that they committed a crime on behalf of a gang. It is assumed by the Metropolitan and City police forces in London that many of the ‘black on black’ crimes committed in London are gang related – but in the majority of cases this is all-but impossible to prove. Many of the gangs seem to have developed almost a Mafia style of ‘omerta’ – a code of silence whereby the integrity of your gang takes precedence over any one individual. If anyone appeared in court charged with an offence, it is highly unlikely that he/she would admit to being in a gang. Another major problem faced by both the police and researchers is that many gang-on-gang crimes do not get reported as gangs themselves will seek to ‘resolve’ the issue.   


Local research has given up some data and from this the Home Office has estimated that 6% of the population between the ages of 10 and 19 belong to a gang. In 2007 the Metropolitan Police estimated that there were 171 known gangs in London and that half of all the 27 murders of teenagers in London during that year were thought to be gang-related. In 2008 the Strathclyde Police claimed that there were 170 gangs in Glasgow with 3,500 gang members. However, the figure does not look so large when it is considered that the population of Glasgow City Council is 592,820 while the total population of Greater Glasgow is 2,500,000. Using these figures, for Glasgow City Council the number of gang members as stated by Strathclyde Police would only constitute 0.6% of the urban population and considerably less for the whole of the city’s population.      


The police forces that actively combat youth gangs believe that the average member of the public will have almost no contact with gangs and that the vast majority of crimes committed by gangs are against other gangs. However, experts in gangs believe that the culture of gangs has changed in recent years and that the ‘punch-ups’ associated with the likes of Teddy Boys in bygone years have been replaced with greater violence. Guns are easier to acquire in inner city areas. Guns can be hired out from “armourers” for a specific use and then returned. This has led to an escalation in specific gang-on-gang violence. However, it is thought that the chance of an innocent being involved is rare, though it does occur. The growth in knife crime is linked to gang members carrying knives. Those who are caught carrying a knife claim that they do so for their own protection if they accidentally come up against a rival gang. 


The Metropolitan Police believe that gangs are not an “epidemic” in London but that they are a “stubborn problem”. Gang-on-gang violence usually occurs when one gang is thought to have “disrespected” another gang or gang member. This may be as seemingly insignificant to outsiders as someone from a gang being in another gang’s postal code ‘turf’. However, to gang members of this ‘turf’ this is disrespect that has to be redressed. The problem is then escalated by the victim’s gang having to address this redress. Such occurrences can lead to a cycle of violence that could continue for years. Bill Barton fears that the UK gang structure may become multi-generational as in America. This is where someone in a gang has a son/daughter who eventually gets to belong to the same gang once they are old enough and when they have children the same happens. In Los Angeles, for example, many members of the Cripps or Bloods gangs have had fathers and grandfathers in the same gangs.


To what extent these gangs are involved in crime is very difficult to judge. Gang crime in London and Essex escalated during the 1980’s with the use of Ecstasy in night clubs. The amount of money that could be made was very large. But those involved came from organised gangs – those linked to crime syndicates etc. The extent to which they were helped by youth gangs acting as ‘foot soldiers’ in the streets is not known. However, there does appear to be a link between the growth in street gangs in UK cities in the last twenty years and the drugs trade. Linking the two and proving it, however, is all but impossible. Former gang members have alluded to it and to the profits that can be made but there is little concrete evidence that can specifically link the two.