‘Prevention is better than cure’ we say, when we are thinking about diseases. It’s better to get the population vaccinated against measles than to have to treat people who fall ill.
What applies to disease could apply equally to violent crime. It would be better to get upstream of crime and prevent it happening in the first place.
But this is easier said than done – for two reasons.
First, we don’t necessarily understand what drives people to violent behaviour. And second, we are reluctant to take resources from dealing with crime now to use for tackling root causes, even though that might bring crime down in the long run.
But over the summer the government made it possible for us to do something about the causes of crime and not just the aftermath of crime, without having to use existing resources.
They offered us £1.6m to set up a Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) whose purpose would be to understand those factors that draw people, especially young people, towards violence, and take measures to prevent this happening.
They did this because they have become increasingly concerned at the nation-wide rise in serious crime, particularly knife crime.
But they wanted a new approach.
So they looked at hospital data on knife incidents and identified eighteen police force areas where rising numbers of people had been treated for knife wounds. South Yorkshire was one.
Our police had already begun to do this in Sheffield through the work of Chief Superintendent Una Jennings – now the district commander in Rotherham. The new grant enables us to develop this further across South Yorkshire as a whole.
A VRU looks at crime as you would a disease. You plot where it is happening and the sort of people who are involved. You then figure out why they resort to violence – what are the common factors – and what can be done to prevent it. It’s called a public health approach.
Many of the measures you will need to take will involve agencies other than the police, which is why the VRU will bring together a whole range of people.
The co-ordinator, Rachel Staniforth, has a background in public health. The executive board, which I chair, includes representatives of South Yorkshire’s four district councils, clinical commissioning groups, public health, youth offending teams, police, educational establishments and the community and voluntary sector.
The approach is modelled on what has worked north of the border. In 2005 Glasgow was called the ‘murder capital of Europe’. Serious violence seemed out of control. Then they adopted the public health approach and reduced violent crime significantly.
Over the next few months, we shall be looking at the kinds of violence we have faced here. We shall also look at the measures that were used in Scotland to bring crime down to see what might work here.
I think that will probably fall into two broad categories.
First, we can intervene to stop young people being drawn into violence in the first place, working in schools and supporting various forms of youth provision, from sports to the arts.
When I went to Glasgow to see the VRU, I was taken to Paisley Grammar School, a comprehensive school serving deprived communities. They run a peer mentoring scheme where young people are trained to speak directly to other young people about the type of risky situations they need to avoid.
Second we will support work that enables offenders to break out of the cycle of alcohol, drugs and violence that many of them are in.
One initiative I saw was a social enterprise cafe that employs former prisoners, giving them what they need to turn their life round – principally a job, help with drugs and an ex-offender as a mentor who sticks with them. The cafe was in Glasgow’s dental hospital – one of the partners.
The VRU represents a new, positive approach to crime. Its success will depend on partners working together to prevent young people being lured or bullied into crime in the first place. It also gives hope to ex-offenders that there can be a way out for them.
We need the people of South Yorkshire to support it.