Treating violence as a disease: can a public health approach succeed?

Knife crime, especially deaths of young people, has been making the headlines in recent weeks. And an approach which has a proven track record in Glasgow is now being adopted by the GLA, MOPAC and the Met police to try to tackle the growing levels of violence being seen on London’s streets. Learning from the experience in Glasgow, the police and other agencies are being encouraged to see violence as a public health issue, related to poverty, wellbeing and social deprivation and which, if identified and tackled early, can be prevented.

Contagion: a new way to think about violence

The Violence Reduction Unit was pioneered by Strathclyde Police (now part of Police Scotland), working with health and social care practitioners. Launched in 2005, the approach aims to make earlier identifications of those at risk of becoming involved in violence, and to take a more holistic view of the reasons for violence of all types. The long-term strategy looked at more social and wellbeing interventions to tackle gang violence in Glasgow, which at the time was among the worst in Europe.

The VRU in Glasgow took its inspiration from a scheme in Chicago, which sought to use a World Health Organisation (WHO) approach to tackling the spread of disease but applied it to communities in the hope of curbing the significant rise in homicides in the city. The approach was three-pronged: interrupt transmission, prevent future spread, and change group norms.

In addition to changing the approach to tackling violent crime, the VRU also used a multi-agency approach, involving social services, health care, housing and employment support, to give people a route out of violence and opportunities to find work or training opportunities. One of the key elements to ensuring the VRU is successful are the relationships these people build with individuals in communities.

Identifying young people at risk

Another important aspect of the VRU strategy is to intervene early to identify children and young people who are at risk of joining gangs or becoming involved in gang violence. Research supporting the creation of the VRU suggested that violence (like a cold) is spread from person to person within a community, that violence typically leads to more violence, and that one of the key identifying factors in someone becoming a perpetrator of violent crime is first being the victim of violent crime themselves.

In order to prevent this, staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.

There is also a broad view of what a culture of violence is. Work in schools focuses strongly on contemporary issues such as sexting, bullying and gender-based violence. It challenges the attitudes and beliefs that underpin such violence, and encourages young people to recognise and reject these.

A new approach to drug abuse too …?

In November 2018, the Scottish Government launched its new drug and alcohol strategy. One of the notable additions to the strategy was the acknowledgement that (like violence) drug abuse and addiction should be seen, not as a crime, but as a public health issue – an illness which people need support and treatment for.

Looking at how drug abuse is tackled within the criminal justice system and the interactions of addicts, policymakers have identified that many have had adverse childhood experiences, are exposed to drugs and/or alcohol at a young age, and are also at significant risk of being unemployed and homeless.

Creating a holistic package of support which seeks to identify those at risk and directs them towards a range of services to tackle not just the addiction but other trauma or socioeconomic barriers earlier, will, in a similar way to the VRU, give people a sense of purpose and value, and help them to see an alternate route that will allow them to contribute positively to society and improve their own outcomes.

A new way to tackle social issues in the UK?

Tackling the spread of violence through communities is not an easy task, nor is breaking the cycle of crime that many find themselves trapped within, often as a result of family allegiances or geographic location. It is often the case that either you participate, or you become the next victim yourself. More and more young people are feeling the need to carry knives for protection, due to the high levels of fear of becoming a victim.

Identifying those young people who are at risk of turning towards a life of violence at the earliest possible stage is difficult, but has been shown to be effective in helping to tackle violent gang-related crime. Although it is not the only tactic available to police, used effectively in conjunction with other outreach programmes it can be an effective tool in preventative policing, helping to keep communities safe.

The outcome in Glasgow has been largely positive, following the roll out of the Violence Reduction Unit programme. Whether this approach has the same success in London, operating on a larger scale, with different economic and social variables, and in a very different budget climate, remains to be seen. In particular it is worth noting that the Glasgow approach recognised there were no quick fixes, and was based on long-term planning covering ten year periods.

It is to be hoped, though, that changing the way we think about violence within communities may offer a route to tackling it.


If you liked this, you may also be interested in other articles exploring policy lessons from other countries:

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