How Glasgow Cut Crime After Once Being The 'Murder Capital Of Europe'

Apr 26, 2018
Originally published on April 26, 2018 8:26 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As London struggles to cope with a recent spike in stabbings and other violent crimes, some are looking around to see how other cities have dealt with the problem. One example is right next door in Scotland. Glasgow, once dubbed the murder capital of Europe, has cut its crime rate dramatically. NPR's Peter Kenyon paid a visit to find out how they did it and whether there are any lessons for London.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In the mid-2000s, this city of just over half a million people on the banks of the River Clyde routinely made the national news for its soaring violent crime rate. Glasgow police established a Violence Reduction Unit, and the VRU scoured the world looking for ways to stem the bloodshed. Fast-forward a dozen years, and the picture couldn't be more different. Homicides in Glasgow are down by more than half, and the VRU an established part of Glasgow law enforcement. The unit invited me to see one example of how they do it. I arrived to find of all things a food truck - a 1972 Airstream imported from California, to be precise.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

KENYON: Inside is pretty much what you'd expect - food being chopped, french fries sizzling in oil and chefs calling out orders. What's different is that most of the people in here have criminal records, and this job is a rung on a difficult ladder back to a life on the right side of the law. One of the trainee chefs, Allen Bell, agrees to talk a bit about what his life was like before he came to work here.

ALLEN BELL: I just - chaotic - violence, drugs, alcohol, prison, despair.

KENYON: Bell says he spent time in prison. And after he got out, a friend told him about the VRU program. He showed up not expecting anything more than a job. Instead he found not only culinary training but a mentor he can turn to for help in living up to the name on the side of this food truck, Street & Arrow, which is a play on straight and narrow. Bell says he used to think his future involved a prison cell. But now his thoughts are running in an entirely different direction, perhaps even someday owning his own restaurant.

BELL: I have got ambitions that I want to go further. I'm not perfect yet, but I'm making progress every day.

KENYON: Police Inspector Iain Murray says the VRU's approach, giving jobs to ex-cons whose criminal record makes them otherwise unemployable, takes some getting used to, including for the police.

IAIN MURRAY: So I've been in the police for 24 years now. And if you told me 24 years ago that I'd be doing this now, I would've laughed at you. I wouldn't have believed this would've been something that police would or should have been doing. But I now realize that prevention is probably equal, if not more important, than detection.

KENYON: These days, with London violent crime in the news, some are wondering if there are lessons the British capital can take from Glasgow's experience. The VRU's acting director, Will Linden, says they did borrow ideas from elsewhere, including America, from projects with names like Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles or Boston's Operation Ceasefire. But he also says what works in Glasgow may not work quite the same way in London.

WILL LINDEN: One thing that we learned is that you cannot take models from elsewhere and just copy them. You have to bring them over and understand what your problem is and change them. If London and elsewhere were just to copy what we would do, it would not work.

KENYON: Those on the front lines of addressing violence in London agree. Lucy Knell-Taylor manages a youth violence intervention program at King's College Hospital in south London. There youth workers meet young victims of violence and try to help them get back on their feet once they heal. She says amid the spike in knife crime they're also coming across anecdotal evidence of more guns in London.

LUCY KNELL-TAYLOR: We are seeing more young people who have either been injured by a firearm or have been injured and are aware that a firearm was involved.

KENYON: So London's Metropolitan Police may or may not be opening up food trucks staffed by former inmates anytime soon. But people in Glasgow say if they look around hard enough, they might find something that can be adapted to help make London a safer place. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Glasgow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "IONISM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.