Gun Crime in Lambeth: what are we all doing about it?
Public meeting, SaferLambeth, Assembly hall, Town Hall, Brixton
(Weds 4th October 2006. Report by Hendo. © urban75)
The meeting was attended by upwards of three hundred people at the Town Hall, some professionals, some with axes to grind, others simply concerned residents sick about what's happened.
It was firmly and competently chaired by Devon Thomas who introduced himself as a long term Brixton resident, a businessman, and Chair of the Brixton Forum. We were here, he said: "to discuss how to build a safer Lambeth".
He was joined at the top table by Cllr Mark Bennett, the 'Cabinet Member for Community Safety', the Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Martin Bridger, and Jan Forson who was billed as from the 'Gun Crime Programme', more of which below.
Cllr Bennett described the recent shooting at McDonalds as 'a terrible event'. But the council was committed to working with the police, other agencies and the local community to improve the situation.
He added that "Street Lighting is to be completely changed over the next couple of years" and claimed that "within three and a half years we will have changed people's perceptions of how safe they feel in Lambeth".
But he admitted that "as a Council we have been weak in Community Safety Issues" but "we will deliver services engaging young people".
At this point he returned again to the idea of clean and well lit streets, and then remarked that the local authority was committed to working together with local agencies to stop "vulnerable people" in Brixton getting into problems so that "people just walking down the street will actually feel safe".
Then it was the turn of Chief Superintendent Bridger. Firstly, he said that the incidents at the Fridge and McD's were NOT connected. At the Fridge there were two Vietnamese victims who had been hurt in an incident based around what he called "a respect issue".
He took great care to say that the incident had happened outside the club, the weapon was sourced and used outside the club; there was "no evidence that the firearms were in the club" and explicitly pointed out that there was no suggestion that the Fridge door security staff were incompetent.
He then turned to McDonalds and admitted he'd been "extremely shocked" by what had happened there. It was "a dreadful, dreadful thing". Two people had been arrested; his officers were continuing their investigation. But people in Lambeth should be proud of themselves, he said. "The response from the community has been superb".
Then he turned to the more general problem of firearms in Lambeth and said that when taking up his job he'd made a meeting laugh by saying that his intention was to rid Lambeth of guns. Why was that so, he asked. "There is nothing more debilitating to a community than the fear of gun crime".
"We do have a problem". But the police and others were trying something unique here that was not being tried elsewhere.
Over a year ago it seems that there was a review of some kind into the way Lambeth's various agencies (police, community workers and others), were dealing with Gun Crime. The resulting report was harshly critical, and had apparently made difficult reading for those immediately involved with the situation.
But out of this had come forth the Gun Crime Programme, until now a secret project, aimed at engaging young people either involved in or on the cusp of being involved in gun crime. The objective is to draw them back into the community, educate them and remotivate them.
"It is in the main young black boys who find themselves involved in this criminality" he said. But the courts were now signed up to the project, which seems to identify either actual or potential offenders and when/if they've been bailed, get them involved in retraining and into legitimate employment.
This programme was described as unique.
Jan Forson from the Gun Crime Programme explained to the meeting that her efforts were targetted at around fifty young people who seen as most at risk. "Young people had been disengaging" she added "their needs were not being met". In the past public money had been spent but the results weren't being made accountable.
Talking about other projects in the past which engaged young people in music making, she said: "Music, CD's...these were false promises. Young black males need educating, training and employment".
Time and again it was stressed that this new project had its roots in the community, involved people from the community, and wasn't simply being foisted on people.
Then the father of one of those shot in McDonald's rose to speak. People here "were living in despair and fear". He appealed to "each and everyone here to open our eyes and support the police in their work of reducing gun crime to zero". There was warm applause.
A lot of community workers and councillors then made sure they got their turn with the roving mike. One councillor claimed that the "Adventure Playground" in Railton Road, which another speaker said had been allowed to fall into disuse, was going to have significant funds spent on it and then claimed that it could be a site where London children could start their training for the 2012 Olympics - once Health and Safety Issues were sorted out.
A businessman asked why there were so many drug dealers allowed to work freely on CHL and in other places; the Chief Super replied that 570 people had been arrested since last December and that at virtually any given time in Brixton police station someone would be under arrest and being processed for drug dealing.
But he said the police faced a challenge from what he called "the wider court system". Time and time again offenders would be released, he claimed.
One resident who said he was confronted regularly by dealers on Somerleyton Road operating as early as 4am asked if Brixton was effectively a zone of tolerance for drug dealing, and at this there was a sound of lots of people around him agreeing. But the police officer denied that completely.
"I have taken a Positive Arrest Approach to Cannabis dealing" he said, and there had been significant seizures of crack cocaine in Lambeth recently.
The meeting broke up at just after ten; lots of things were said that were worthwhile and interesting by people dealing with young people involved with drugs and guns which I haven't recorded here; I certainly felt enlightened, but also aware that people in South London face a massive challenge, from education right through to law enforcement and the courts, if this dreadful situation is going to be sorted long term.
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