Making sense of “senseless” youth violence

Blog post

Making sense of “senseless” youth violence

Watching the final episode of Channel 4’s 3-part documentary Murder Detectives last week I was struck by the fact that the murderer’s motive was merely speculated about, and much of the wider context in which the murder took place was left unexamined. One teenager, previously unknown to the police, had murdered another, apparently in relation to a firearms purchase that hadn’t worked out. As is typical with youth murders of which there have been 15 so far this year in London, the events appeared senseless.

I want to examine that perception of senselessness and suggest that it is at least in part a consequence of not seeing the world through the eyes of the young people involved, although that is not to justify their actions; my intention is to try and explain, but certainly not excuse. I then want to focus briefly on what that means for the policy responses to youth homicide.

In 2002 I started work as the in-house criminologist for Brent Council, in North West London, seconded from the University of Portsmouth. For several years Brent had been making the headlines as a result of violent crime, and in particular gun violence. An economic war between rival groups of drug dealers was playing out, most notoriously between the Lock City Crew from Harlesden and the Mus Love Crew from nearby Kensal Green. A succession of murders followed as robberies, debts, territorial disputes, reputational grievances and revenge attacks piled up. In total there were 17 gun murders and 69 attempted gun murders in the borough between 1999 and 2003. Indeed, Brent was one of the boroughs where Operation Trident first started, at the behest of local communities horrified at the violence on their streets and the apparent inability of the police to secure convictions.

Two notable murders in Brent in 2003 attracted particular revulsion. First, 21-year-old college student Kavian Francis-Hopwood was gunned down in broad daylight in the middle of the Stonebridge estate, despite having no apparent connection to local feuds. Then 7-year-old Toni-Ann Byfield was shot dead alongside her father. Bertram Byfield was a convicted drug dealer, while his killer Joel Smith who reportedly specialised in robbing drug dealers was a member of the Mus Love Crew, three other members of which were jailed after murdering a man at the Carnival in 2004 who they accused of having disrespected them. The 15-year-old half-brother of one of the killers was later jailed for shooting a woman dead in 2010, for which he was paid £200, while another half-brother was jailed for murdering lawyer Tom ap Rhys Price during an attempted robbery in Kensal Green in 2006.

In 2004 I undertook a research project on gun crime in Brent with my Portsmouth colleague Daniel Silverstone, funded by the local authority. That involved detailed analysis of police data and interviews with 15 convicted gun offenders from the local area. I was also involved in the local Not Another Drop anti-gun crime initiative. Daniel and I later teamed up with Chris Lewis to conduct a study of gun crime for the Home Office, based on prison interviews with 80 convicted gun offenders. Since then I have spent periods of time in and around policing, including a year working for the Metropolitan Police Strategic Research Unit, where amongst other things I was involved in research on local drugs markets and the policing of cannabis possession, and strategy-level work on gangs, gun crime and violence. I later spent two years embedded in the Metropolitan Police at a borough level, with a desk in the intelligence unit.

Drawing on all of that, here’s how I think you can start to make sense of many of the apparently senseless murders involving youths in places like London.

First, these are very often young men with limited resources to build a secure and resilient sense of (masculine) identity and esteem. They are often from broken homes that lack positive male adult role models, have poor levels of education and uncertain economic prospects. It is my view that this is the first reason why ‘disrespect’ is so often given as (at least part of) the motive for assaults and even murders: the young men concerned often have a particularly fragile sense of self-worth.

Second, they often have very low and narrow horizons. In my time in Brent I was told of residents who rarely if ever left the neighbourhood in which they lived and its immediate surroundings, something compounded by postcode territoriality that placed young people at risk if they crossed into the wrong area. Things that might appear trivial to a privileged observer can apparently take on existential proportions in the confines of a tiny social and geographical world.

Third, these young men very often live in communities where there is an active and visible criminal economy into which there are low entry costs, which is cash based, and which actively recruits young people to fill risky positions (notably carrying and selling drugs, but also carrying weapons). This recruitment can be exploitative and targeted at the most vulnerable. It can also be encouraged or not discouraged by family members and others who benefit from the profits.

Fourth, the street criminal economy and the networks that often facilitate it (gangs, peer groups, kinship networks and the like) have certain seductions, particularly if there are criminals visible in the local community who display the material signifiers of success to which the young men aspire. Offending such as robbery can seem to provide credible shortcuts to satisfying unmet wants while group membership can confer identity, status and esteem on members, who may perceive a sense of safety in numbers. It also exposes them to risks of peer pressure (including to carry weapons), collective responsibility and revenge, and the boundaries between victims and offenders are often blurred. Our gun crime interviewees described the way that rivalries with trivial origins can persist and escalate across generations.

Fifth, the criminal economy is by definition illicit and unregulated and participants do not generally have recourse to the law (or to do so they may have to implicate themselves). It is also cash-based and generally involves the physical delivery of commodities. All of this means that participants are especially vulnerable to criminal predation, but also that contracts are enforced to a lesser or greater degree by the threat of violence, or actual violence. In this world reputation is absolutely critical and signs of vulnerability may be ruthlessly exploited by others. This is a second reason why there may be an acute sensitivity to perceived ‘disrespect’ – to allow someone to disrespect you without consequences is to admit weakness and invite trouble.

Sixth, expectations about weapon use by rivals and potential criminal predators can influence decisions about whether and when to carry and use weapons, while group membership can facilitate access to less common weapons such as guns. In our Home Office gun crime study, offenders described the way that at times they felt their choices were constrained to ‘shoot or be shot’, which implied early recourse to extreme violence. Some also expressed the view that their risk of being injured or killed outweighed the risk of arrest and imprisonment for carrying weapons.

Seventh, the communities from which these young men are often drawn such as those in areas like Harlesden and Stonebridge in Brent have had a history of difficult relationships with the police. Explicit anti-police norms are not uncommon, and indeed may be underpinned by intimidation with very real risks to anyone identified as a ‘grass’. Dealing with issues such as drug dealing and violence, against a background of poor community support, policing has tended to be adversarial in nature and typified by high levels of stop and search, with all the risks to police legitimacy and community confidence and co-operation that can result. Among other consequences, these factors can combine to promote informal retribution.

None of this is deterministic, and most young people from afflicted communities will steer a path away from the worst or indeed all forms of crime and violence. But for those who do not, the cumulative impact of their circumstances can have devastating consequences that, when understood, go some way to making sense of the apparent senselessness of many youth murders.

As to the policy implications, it is clear that the factors outlined above are deeply rooted and not amenable to quick or easy fixes. Longer sentences may offer some deterrence, as may tactics such as stop and search, but ultimately policy makers aspiring to prevention must meaningfully address opportunity, esteem and the world view held by vulnerable youngsters. For a young person whose life is dominated by fear and survival, carrying and even using a knife may seem completely rational and indeed essential. Talk of consequences is only meaningful if understood from the young person’s perspective and backed up with credible alternatives.