Gangs – What can psychology offer?

Laura Bolger – a Trainee Forensic Psychologist and ex-police officer – gives us her perspective on the newly adopted ‘public health approach to gangs’. She explores gangs as structured, hierarchical groups involving role-transitions. Is an identity framework the key to addressing knife crime?

Giving a speech at the National Rifle Association in Dallas in May 2018, Donald Trump referred to knife crime in London. A prestigious city hospital was depicted as a ‘warzone’, with blood all over the floor. His comments caused outrage, but Trump was not the first to draw on images of war: headlines such as ‘This war won’t end: London gang murders on this rise’ and ‘Postcode wars have made London a murder capital’ are nowcommonplace. Psychologist Patricia Kerig and her colleagues have considered how international research on child soldiers informed gang research, by identifying similarities in experience of exploitation, initiations and inter and intra-group violence. Whilst some researchers argue that the media coverage is sensationalist and disproportionate, the statistics indicate that lethal gang violence within the UK has reached an unprecedented scale.

Violence is a central element of gang membership and is often more complex and damaging compared to non-gang violence; it involves younger participants, greater use of weapons, and carries increased risk of victimisation. Looking beyond violent crime, there are further links between gang membership and drugs sales, sexual violence and exploitation of others through ‘county lines’. 

An estimated 21 per cent of violence in London is perpetrated by gangs, and the government reports that 52 towns and cities in the UK are experiencing difficulties as a result of active criminal gangs. To address the problem, in 2012, the Home Office launched the ‘Anti-Gangs Strategy’ which defined the gang as ‘a relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who see themselves as a discernible group, engage in a range of criminal activity and violence, identify with or lay claim over territory, have some form of identifying structural feature and are in conflict with other, similar gangs’.

In defining gangs as a group of young people, the strategy emphasised the implementation of early prevention and intervention strategies primarily aimed at two specific demographics; those at risk of gang involvement, or those who are gang involved and wish to exit gang life. The efforts of organisations who work with gang affiliated youth have demonstrated some success in diverting young people away from gangs and criminal activity, yet seven years on and with rates of violence continuing to rise, it could be argued that the ‘Anti-Gang Strategy’ has failed to fully address the problem.

Enter psychology

Inspired by the success of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has announced plans to take a public health approach to addressing the issue of knife crime and violence within the capital. Led by psychologist Karen McCluskey, the VRU triggered a paradigm shift whereby violence was reframed as a disease. This moved the onus away from the criminal justice system as being the entity solely responsible for dealing with violence, and encouraged a systemic approach where all agencies had a role to play in changing behaviour and societal norms. McCluskey talks about interrupting the spread of violence by taking a bottom-up approach, focusing on parenting and early years to equip children with the positive skills to get through life and avoid becoming swept up in the endemic of violence.

The implementation of the VRU saw homicide rates drop by 47 per cent in 10-year period, and the mayor plans to direct half a million of funding to establish London’s own unit – backed by a multi-disciplinary team of specialists from health, policing and the local government. Khan has emphasised early intervention work to prevent young people becoming involved in violent crime: an approach strikingly similar to that employed by the earlier nationwide Anti-Gangs Strategy. But what about the existing generation who are currently embedded within a gang, who have no desire to leave and who may to continue to pull young people into the lifestyle inspired by the promise of status, glamour and easy money?

Prevention strategies

Typically, any public health approach is spread across three levels:

- primary prevention, e.g. the adoption of strategies to prevent young people from associating with or joining gangs;

- secondary prevention, e.g. controlling and reducing gang related offending as it occurs;

- tertiary prevention, e.g. rehabilitation of gang members, with long-term plans put in place to assist the individual with their desistance journey.

This latter tier is notably absent from current government strategies. There is little in the way of prison or community-based interventions, specifically for individuals immersed midway in the continuum of gang involvement. Once a gang member been arrested, prosecuted, imprisoned and released, they will likely remain a gang member unless that concept is addressed, challenged and reframed.

The Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIVR) formed part of Scotland’s tertiary gang intervention programme, seeking to change the way organisations thought about gang violence. It offered interventions to those affected by gang violence who wanted to change their lives and included a four-week development course which offered awareness sessions, conflict resolution, motivational modules and employment support.

There are, however, differences with London’s gang culture. The issue tackled in Scotland largely involved white teenage boys around the Glasgow area who predominantly perpetrated violence for recreational reasons. There were no organised, hierarchical groups and firearms were rare. In London we see a much wider pattern of offending along with a wider demographic, inclusive of race and age. The scale of the problem in the capital is also magnified, with an estimated 250 active gangs in the capital compared to Glasgow’s 86 (in 2009). If the mayor is to implement a similar approach to that used in Scotland, then it is imperative that these differences are considered so that effective interventions can be designed and delivered. Also, a government report from 2015 notes that current UK intervention strategies lack a robust evidence base. We need a better understanding of the individual processes that perpetuate and maintain gang membership over time. For that, we’re going to have to consider what we really know about gangs and how they work.

Looking to Criminology

Through carrying out ethnographic fieldwork and immersing themselves in the social context in which gangs operate, criminologists have provided an insight into how different gang members can be. At a basic level, two types of membership have been identified; core members, who are committed to the gang and thought to be most criminally active, and peripheral members who are loosely associated and drift in and out of gang activity. Different levels of gang membership may require different rehabilitative approaches.

However, a distinction between core and peripheral members may be too simplistic. Criminological research from the likes of James Densley and John Pitts points to a hierarchical role structure, where authority stems from established organised crime figures and flows down across tiers of ‘elders’, ‘youngers’, ‘tinies’ and ‘wannabes’. Each role comes with rules and responsibilities that influence behaviour.

This structure is likely to be familiar to those with experience of working with gang affiliated young people, yet it has not yet been explored psychologically. If a young person joins the gang in adolescence and remains with the gang until they reach adulthood, arguably their sense of self will evolve as they transition between the roles in this hierarchical structure, influencing their values, beliefs and behaviours. Future research therefore could look to unearth the psychological dynamics between separate roles and identification to understand how a gang member derives their sense of self from the social context of the gang.

The value of identity

To date, there is limited research that looks to explore the identity narratives of gang members. Criminologist Shadd Maruna argues that we are only able to understand offending behaviour if we analyse individual narratives and connect those narratives to the roles held within a particular social context. Similarly, David Canter and Donna Youngs conclude that individual narratives influence criminal activity and provide a basis for differentiating offenders according to their particular roles and offence patterns.

A focus on identity has also become central to the desistance literature, in terms of encouraging a shift towards a pro-social, future self. This approach is being piloted by Medway Youth Offending Team, where I am based, following approval from the Youth Justice Board. We have moved away from the conventional intervention plan of targets and goals and are instead are working collaboratively with our clients to support them in defining their own future-self, before helping them to map out the steps they need to take to get there. As practitioners trialling this approach, we are given greater professional autonomy to foster the creativity of our young people, tapping into their own interests and goals to create individual desistance plans that inform all future work. Although the pilot is in its early stages and no formal evaluation has yet taken place, we have certainly seen an increase in engagement. We hope other youth offending teams across the country will soon start to work in similar ways.

Also worthy of note is the success of Healthy Identity Intervention, a programme that was designed to address extremism by encouraging and empowering individuals to disengage from an extremist group, cause or ideology. There are undoubtedly parallels between gangs and extremist groups with regards group dynamics and behaviour, specifically how strongly individuals identify with others and the group.

An Identity Based Perspective on gangs

So, what do we already know? By applying the principles of social identity theory to gang membership, we know that those who identify strongly with the gang will disregard their own moral standards and engage in criminal and violent behaviour in line with group norms. This is similar to the concept of gang embeddedness: how an individual comes to identify more strongly with the group as they become increasingly immersed and involved in the gang’s activities. Yet we know little about the psychological processes that lead to this point.

I am conducting a research project which hopes to offer some insight into this seemingly grey area. Underpinning the research is a theoretical framework that integrates aspects of social identity theory, identity theory and Blake Ashforth’s concept of role transitions to explore how identity narratives of gang members are constructed as an individual transitions across roles in this hierarchical structure.

Although the project is in its early stages, insights are emerging that correspond with the accounts of the gang affiliated young people I work with in the Youth Offending Team. Initial affiliation with a gang occurs in early to mid-adolescence, around the same time that young people are experiencing an identity crisis. We often hypothesise that youths join gangs to fulfil a sense of belonging that is often absent within the family home, but it is important to remember that identity development at this stage is influenced by the desire to learn more about themselves and the importance of being accepted amongst their peer group. This becomes the primary focus as they strive for autonomy and responsibility.

Young people often describe how their early experiences within the gang are characterised by ‘easy money’ and the opportunity to build status and respect. This skews their ability to make realistic decisions regarding future vocations, disrupting their ability to imagine a pro-social future for themselves.

As the young person begins to value that identity as a gang member, they will internalise the accompanying goals, beliefs and norms. Becoming established within the social system, the role elicits greater meaning. This results in a role-based ideology that warps their perception of what is right and wrong. It becomes difficult for the individual to imagine a future life outside of the gang. Instead, in late adolescence, gang members strive to achieve control and mastery with their particular role, allowing for progression across the gang’s hierarchy.

Then there’s moral development. In Kohlberg’s terms, mid-adolescents are only capable of conventional reasoning – upon entry into the gang, their sense of right and wrong will be influenced by the expectations of this particular social groups. As capacity for moral reasoning continues to develop to a postconventional level, moral decisions become influenced by the principles of the gang ideology rather than democratic norms. As an ex-police officer, I have witnessed first hand that these individuals have a lack of respect for the law and the systems which uphold it. I recall one gang member, arrested for possession of a knife, saying that the police had consistently failed to protect him and so he felt the need to protect himself. We see a significant number of people within the criminal justice system carrying knives for their own protection, reflecting the gang’s own moral principle that society is an increasing dangerous place.

In using a sample of ex-gang members, my research also looks to explore the changes in identity as an individual transitions out of the gang. In young adulthood, our thinking becomes less constrained by contextual factors and we are able to generate new questions. This ability might be central to potential identity reformulations and finding a way out of the gang.

Moving forward

My research is founded on a qualitative study and I hope that, once complete, the findings can advance the psychological literature and complement recent criminological insight. If more psychologists look to understand the experiences of gang members from an identity perspective, this could pave the way for new prevention strategies to support the government’s multi-agency, public health approach to violence. As with the Healthy Identity Intervention for extremists, we could begin to challenge gang members to reflect on their current and future selves, whilst encouraging them to reconsider and renegotiate their relationship to the group and others within it.

Of course, gangs are an inherently hard to reach population and shrouded in secrecy. Yet the ethnographic work of criminologists has shown that it can be done. We need to be more imaginative about how we access participants. We should be building relationships with community figures who may act as gatekeepers. We must draw on samples of gang affiliated and gang involved adults as well as youths, to be able to draw comparisons of gang membership and associated behaviour across different ages. We also need to think about drawing on community-based samples instead of focusing on those within secure establishments.

The role that psychology plays in influencing social justice should not be underestimated. We simply cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We need to position our own research to influence and inform government policy, whilst encouraging a robust, multi-agency approach that addresses the issue of gang violence from many angles. Only then will we be able to help better understand and ultimately advance more holistic solutions to address the violence epidemic that continues to sweep the streets of the UK.

- Laura Bolger is a Forensic Psychologist in training on the Professional Doctorate at the University of Portsmouth. [email protected]

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