Police are drawing on experience and expertise from around the country to tackle the problem of gangs in Northamptonshire.
After seeing an increasing problem with violence in Wellingborough and East Northants, Operation Worcester was launched last year.
It came after work by police had led to voids in the drugs market which other groups tried to move into.
Violence rose, including the use of firearms, with one man being shot in Rushden in July 2015 and a 15-year-old boy shot in Wellingborough in September.
The incidents weren’t linked, but police had to find a way to stop the violence escalating.
Insp Lara Alexander-Lloyd became sector inspector for Wellingborough last June and said she has never faced the problems they have been dealing with during her 13 years in the force.
She said: “I have never had to deal with this serious threat of harm.
“We have had to become more creative and more innovative.”
Sector inspector for East Northants Julie Mead said: “We do have an issue but we have recognised that and are addressing it.”
She added: “Our gangs are not as established as other areas so we can still stop these gangs getting worse and taking them out of the equation.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s a long-term issue.
“But we need to put measures in place before it becomes a lot worse.”
The work they have done since then is being shared at three ‘ending gangs and youth violence’ workshops in Wellingborough and East Northants this month.
Organisations including education and social services, councils and church groups have been involved to hear about the work Northants Police is doing to tackle the problem and to see how they can play a role.
With about 180 people due to attend the workshops, it is hoped all of these groups can work together to make a difference for the youngsters involved, as well as for their siblings and families and the communities they live in.
Speaking at the first workshop Det Insp Lee McBride, who has been running the investigative side of Operation Worcester, said: “It would be naive to think that Northamptonshire is a sleepy little village.”
He described what has been happening as ‘really serious stuff’ and said officers have had to look at what they’ve done in the past to see what works and what doesn’t to try to find a solution to these current problems.
He had only been in the role for 10 days when a woman and her son were shot on their doorstep in Salford, Manchester, and he said: “It brought it home to me, that we are dealing with some serious stuff and this sort of stuff can happen anywhere.”
Det Insp McBride said there are five known gangs in Wellingborough and Rushden, with about 35 people involved. When Operation Worcester was launched, the risk of an incident involving groups which could result in fatal consequences was deemed highly likely, but this has since fallen.
There have been other successes too.
Det Insp McBride said: “We have made more than 50 arrests since we started, 15 remanded in custody and five guilty pleas so we are getting in there and getting it right.”
Officers have also seized cash and £28,000 worth of drugs, but the work being carried out has shown police that they can’t tackle this on their own, they need to work with those who have dealt with it themselves and those who are part of the communities affected.
This had led to the force working with more organisations in the affected areas as well as people from outside the county who can advise on good practice with gangs. They have devised strategies and models to ensure they are dealing with those immediately involved with gangs, and also the people around them, including siblings, friends and professionals.
As part of this work, 114 children in Wellingborough and Rushden have been highlighted as potentially needing safeguarding.
More than 20 families have been referred so support can be provided to them. Three families have been re-housed outside of the problem areas, and three children have been taken out of the county through interim care orders.
Det Insp McBride said: “We have taken some positive strides in removing some families from key areas and that has helped with confidence.”
But he admitted they still need more support.
He said: “We can’t do it alone, we have to work through it. Lara and Julie have been doing a lot of work.
“We have tried to use everyone with a specialism to give us some knowledge and skills.
“I would rather have too much information than not enough information because I can deal with too much information, but I can’t deal with not enough. We will not arrest our way out of this, we all need to contribute to partnership working because it is the key to success.”
‘My childhood memories are of my family preparing drugs in my home’
People who have been involved with or worked with gangs have been sharing their experiences with Northants Police to help tackle the issue here.
Lloyd Robinson is involved in work to reduce gang violence in Birmingham, and he spoke at the first workshop held on the Hemmingwell estate in Wellingborough last week.
He said there are many reasons why youngsters end up in gangs, it could be because of their fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins, peers, neighbourhood friends and school friends.
Financial pressures could be another reason, or they are from a fatherless or dysfunctional family.
A void relationship with parents can also play a part.
Lloyd said: “But it’s not always dysfunctional families.
“We have young people who just get drawn into it because the parents are busy so not keeping an eye on them or giving them support so they look elsewhere.”
Lloyd spoke about Birmingham and the types of problems seen there in the past, as well as more recently, and said: “What we have to be careful of is sometimes it takes just one incident and the whole thing can morph into something you were not expecting.”
He described gangster culture as a popular culture, with Class A drugs being the main driver behind it.
But there are other reasons too, including gang culture in schools, influence of family and peers, a sense of belonging, lack of opportunities and jobs, defending areas in a neighbourhood, music and media.
Mentoring is a way which Lloyd says has been used in Birmingham, and he said it is crucial that anyone trying to help youngsters in Northamptonshire needs to ‘replace the person that is influencing them.’
Cherie Johnson, director of Shared Intense Support in London, has also been working with Northants Police in recent months.
She spoke passionately about how her life has gone from being in gangs to helping others caught up in it at last week’s workshop.
Her mum was jailed for 13 years for drug trafficking and later deported.
But she said: “This wasn’t a shock for me because I came from a family of organised crime.
“My dad has 20 children and most of them are involved in crime.”
She never told anyone about her parents, telling friends that her mum was ‘away’ because she was an air hostess.
She said: “I left school with no GCSEs because all my peers were two years older than me and when they fell out of school, I left.”
Memories of her younger years include seeing her brothers and her dad preparing Class A drugs in their home.
She said: “I drove £20,000 cars and changed my car every year, but I was on a salary of £3,000 to £5,000.”
She made sure she looked the part with designer clothes and expensive jewellery, and said she could do a drug run and get more than £3,000 for two hours’ work.
But her life changed when she had her daughter.
She said: “When I was giving birth, I felt emotions that I have never felt.
“I felt love and vulnerability.
“That’s the time I knew I had to change my life.”
This inspired her to change the way her life was heading.
She went to college and then university before setting up SIS, a 24-hour service working with high risk women.
Cherie told the workshop: “I felt like there was a gap in the market, nobody was speaking the raw truth.
“I am not going to bury the truth with you, I am going to tell you the truth because I am from that world.
“If you don’t listen, you are going to have youngsters falling through the gaps every day.”
Cherie’s aim with SIS was to work with the perpetrators, and she has now been sharing this knowledge and experience with Northants Police.
She said: “Gangs are not new, they have just taken a new shape.”
And she added: “Gang culture changes like the weather.
“Local knowledge is so key, you should know the hotspot areas.”
She said it is easier for women to slip through the net and that authorities need to realise that women are just as likely to be concealing drugs and weapons as men.
And while people in Northamptonshire may not have heard of SIS, some SIS clients have told Cherie that they have been to Wellingborough for drugs.
It is hoped that by working with Cherie, Lloyd and others like them, the force will be better equipped to deal with the issues in Wellingborough and Rushden as well as elsewhere in the county if needed.