No mean citizens: The success behind Glasgow’s VRU

Karyn McLuskey, Director of the Violence reduction unit.  Picture: Robert Perry
Karyn McLuskey, Director of the Violence reduction unit. Picture: Robert Perry
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TEN YEARS ago Glasgow seemed beyond redemption. Now ardent campaigners and reformed criminals alike can take pride in having brought a violent, scarred city back from the brink

IT IS a stiflingly hot morning and Karyn McCluskey is sitting at her desk with the windows closed, as usual, to keep in the heat. She wears a dark dress, a silk scarf and snakeskin-effect heels, and she keeps her blue eyes fixed on the print-out in front of her: a colour photograph of a knife wound, a sick red crescent swooshing upward from the left-hand side of the boy’s lips, so wide you could put a finger inside and touch his back teeth.

Youths hang around in Drumchapel. This housing scheme is one of the most deprived in the country. 'Picture Robert Perry.

Youths hang around in Drumchapel. This housing scheme is one of the most deprived in the country. 'Picture Robert Perry.

“Fourteen,” McCluskey says, giving his age. “This is the eponymous Glasgow smile. That kind of scarring is unique to Scotland. You’ll suffer 60 years of deprivation if you get that because no one will give you a job.” She turns the picture over so only the white underside showed. “I need to think about how we influence that.”

She makes it sound as though this is the first time she has ever confronted the problem, but in fact McCluskey, who is 48, has been thinking hard – obsessively, in fact – about how to reduce violence in Scotland for the past ten years. It was in 2004 that she holed up for three weeks at her home in Polmont and wrote the Strathclyde Police report that led, in short order, to the establishment of the Violence Reduction Unit, the organisation she now leads.

Glasgow had been named as the murder capital of western Europe

The report, ironically, pulled no punches. Glasgow, at that time, had been named as the murder capital of western Europe; far from playing this down, McCluskey’s report suggested that two-thirds of violent crime in the city was going unreported. Most Glasgow murders, she noted, were a “by-product” of a culture of violence among young men from deprived areas which manifested itself in widespread knife-carrying and gang-fighting, often exacerbated by alcohol. The only reason more people weren’t dead was because Glaswegian medics had become expert, through long, bloody experience, in providing emergency treatment for stab wounds to the heart.

There was little point, McCluskey believed, in developing a strategy to tackle the numbers of homicides which, in any case, were often unplanned and unintentional. An aim of decreasing violence overall was, at once, more ambitious and more realistic, and would require cooperation with teachers and medical staff, and a great deal of political will. The then chief constable, Willie Rae, accepted this revolution in thinking, and the Violence Reduction Unit was born, led by a senior police officer, John Carnochan, with McCluskey as his deputy. In 2006, it was rolled out nationally and remains a joint initiative of the Scottish Government and Police Scotland. Its headquarters are in Glasgow, high in a 1970s office block on West George Street, around which the wind moans and seagulls keen.

The statistics are startling

So how, in this tenth anniversary year, has the big idea worked? While it would be too simplistic to credit the VRU with having brought about all the progress, the statistics are startling. There were 142 murders in Scotland in 2004/5; in 2012/3 there were 65. Similar drops have been recorded for attempted murder (828 to 354), serious assault (6,775 to 3,289) and possession of an offensive weapon (9,545 to 4,015).

Legislative changes are an important part of this success: the VRU lobbied successfully for increases in the maximum sentence for knife carrying, and for those caught with knives to be fingerprinted, DNA-swabbed and held in custody until court. But a large number of other creative innovations seem to have had an effect and explain why the VRU is admired beyond Scotland’s borders. McCluskey has the ear of Theresa May, advising the Home Secretary on tackling gangs. The pilot scheme currently taking place in London in which violent offenders out on probation must wear an ankle tag monitoring their alcohol consumption came directly from the VRU.

McCluskey, when we meet in her office, acknowledges that there will be people now alive and living a straight life who would be dead or in jail without her organisation. But she finds little comfort in the crime figures. “People say to me, ‘Oh, you must be delighted there’s only 65 murders.’ How would I be delighted about that? Sixty-five people still dying? It’s not fixed. We’re at a 37-year low for violence. We have come a long way. But this is a long-term thing for me. I’m a restless native. I’m a zealot.”

McCluskey grew up in the former pit village of Redding, near Polmont, the eldest of three sisters, all of whom have become high achievers – “a good Catholic family” living in a council house. Her father, Mike, was a labourer who went to university as a mature student and became a biology teacher. Karyn was a shy teenager, uncomfortable in her own skin. She didn’t know what to do with her life, had a notion to travel the world, but the family hadn’t the money. She trained as a nurse, worked in emergency rooms in her late teens, saw folk badly injured, saw folk die. She learned a lot about compassion and vulnerability and had one of her front teeth knocked out by a drunk patient with a bottle.

“I’m the modern face of British families.”

While continuing to nurse, McCluskey studied for a psychology degree and then a masters in offender profiling. She became a police analyst and later head of intelligence with the Strathclyde force. She raised her daughter, now in her mid-teens, as a single mother, a fact worth mentioning because, as she sees it, “I’m the modern face of British families.” She understands the difficulties in trying to bring up a child alone, and it is often a further point of connection with the people she is trying to help.

That, very basically, is what she does – tries to help. She believes people can change. The VRU’s best known and most celebrated project, the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), known as “the call-ins”, began in 2008 and saw hundreds of gang members from the east end of Glasgow brought into a courtroom and addressed by police, a medic, an ex-con, a mother whose son was killed by a gang with machetes. At the end of each call-in, they were given a choice – keep fighting and get the jail, or sign up for employment training, further education, anger management courses and the like. A 2009 study found that violent offending by those who attended the call-ins had reduced by almost half, weapon possession by 85 per cent, and that violence overall in the east end had fallen by 12 per cent over the period.

That the call-ins ended when the programme was taken over by Strathclyde Police in 2011 has been frustrating for McCluskey and her colleagues. But the hopeful idea embodied within CIRV – that a person and a nation can change for the better – remains at the heart of everything she does.

“My word of the year,” she says, “is redemption.”

Redemption

Redemption. An old idea. An old word. It comes from the Latin redimere, “to buy back”, and means to clear a debt, so regaining possession of something. But long ago it took on a more profound meaning – the idea of being saved from error or evil. What you are buying back, somehow, is your soul.

If you want to hear about redemption then you have to meet John.

He has been a VRU staff member since January. John, who does not want his full name to appear in print out of consideration for the effect on his family, is 36 and comes from the north of Glasgow. He tells his story in a gentle, undramatic voice, so quiet that at times you have to strain to hear the horror. To hear him speak is to understand that violence is not always a choice; that it can be a sickness inherited, a behaviour learned. To hear him is to understand, too, that it is possible for people to return from even the darkest places, carrying only a little of the shadow back with them from the vale.

“My first memory, at five years of age, is violence,” he says. “The way it happened was my da held me out by the ankle and battered me with a belt until I was black and blue. I was upside down and couldn’t get away from him. I was trying to kick off him to get away. Never forgot that. I remember being that angry about it in my teenage years. I’d think about all the stuff he done to me. When I was 14 he held me under the bath water and I thought I was going to drown. I knew it wasn’t right. I told myself that when I grow up I’m never going to treat my weans like that. I don’t want them to feel like I feel.”

He remembers seeing his father strangling her

Both his parents were violent towards him. His mother, an alcoholic, was a victim of domestic abuse. He remembers seeing his father strangling her. His childhood was unpredictable and tense. Sometimes he’d be living in women’s refuges. Asked to recall a single pleasant moment, he remembers his maternal grandfather, a happy drunk and former shipyard worker who would sit John on his knee and sing him songs about the cold wind of Siberia. “But he died when I was quite young, in front of me.” A heart attack. John was nine and would have liked to have gone to the funeral, but wasn’t allowed to, so he sneaked along the street to see the cortege, impressed by the number of people who were there. The old man must have been well liked, he thought, on account of his gentleness. Can you see him? A wee boy, silent, alone and proud, as the hearse slips past.

“Programmed for violence”

By the time he got to school, he was “programmed for violence”. Fighting with other kids. Disruptive. Forever being made to stand in the “bad square” in the corner of the classroom, or, worse, being skelped with a Bible by one particular teacher. Sent home, suspended, that was how it went. He saw a child psychologist but wouldn’t talk about what was happening at home. Loyal to his parents, despite it all, he wanted to protect them.

John started drinking at 13. He was involved in the gangs before even that. His parents split up when he was 17, by which time he felt he didn’t need anybody. The beatings he suffered at home, he was damn sure wouldn’t happen on the street. He’d be the aggressor, no longer the passive victim. He’d be the boy at the front throwing bricks, or squaring up to the biggest. “I wanted to show everybody I wasn’t scared, but deep down I was terrified.”

Still, he felt he was Somebody, and enjoyed his reputation as a hardman. “But the thing about having a reputation is you have to live up to it.” He had this pal, Chris. They’d grown up together, been to the same school. One night, they fell out, fought in the park, and John ended up with a fractured cheekbone. During a short spell in prison for another fight, his face healed, but the slight still hurt, and on release he sought to avenge his wounded pride.

“I ended up fighting with him at a bus stop and he fell under a bus and lost his life. That was the moment when I saw how fragile life was. He fell under the side of the bus. It was turning a corner. It cut across the kerb and crushed him.”

John pled guilty because he felt guilty. Chris’s partner had been pregnant with a son at the time of his death. John wanted punished. He went to prison for culpable homicide. Full of remorse, he was determined to live straight and stay sober. He started seeing a counsellor who helped him “join the dots” and understand how childhood trauma had influenced the way he felt and behaved. On release, he was done with his old life, but it wasn’t done with him. “People wanted their revenge for what had happened. I got hit with a machete. Got stabbed with a bottle off another guy. Any time I left the house I felt hunted. It’s like when a rabbit comes oot its hole its ears go up.”

He decided to leave rather than be drawn back into violence. He moved into a homeless unit. He began to think he’d like to use the experiences of his past to help others, and that was when he came into contact with the Violence Reduction Unit. We’re sick of watching young people dying on our streets, a cop told him, and we’re sick of locking them up; we need to do something different and we need guys like you to help us do it. “It’d been a long time since anybody had said they needed me for anything,” John recalls. That was how he found himself standing up in Glasgow Sheriff Court, on 24 October, 2008, and telling his story to 129 gang members at the very first call-in.

“Caught up in a cycle of blood and booze and fear”

His association with the VRU has continued, and since January of this year he has been employed by them as a “navigator” – mentoring young people who, like himself, were caught up in a cycle of blood and booze and fear.

John is in a good place. He is in a loving relationship and is a father of three. His relationship with his parents is also positive. He has forgiven them and apologised for the trouble he brought to their door.

How can he forgive himself for the death of his friend, though? Is his work with the VRU a way of making amends? “Aye,” he says. “It’s kind of a private thing. It’s not something I voice very often. But if I live out my life trying to help others away from perpetuating violence against somebody else, then hopefully Chris’s life wasn’t in vain.”

Chris’s son is a teenager now, and has had his troubles, growing up without a dad. John keeps an eye on him, from a distance. He hopes to speak to the boy one day, perhaps even help him somehow. It would be a difficult conversation, no doubt, but there was a time when John himself was wee and lost and could have used a loving word.

“Some people,” he says, “just need an airm roond them.”

“I would have walked on ma haunds and knees”

ON 25 June, his birthday, a young man called Scott, lacking bus fare, set off from his home in the Drumchapel housing scheme on the western edge of Glasgow and walked five miles along the canal and down side streets to an ugly concrete building in the city centre. He was hoping for a job. More, he was looking for someone to believe in him, and for that, he says, “I would have walked on ma haunds and knees.”

Because of his history of theft and violent offences, because he has spent time in Polmont Young Offenders Institution, Scott finds it difficult to find and keep a job. But the ugly concrete building was the headquarters of the Violence Reduction Unit, and there he was given a chance: to work on a VRU project during the Commonwealth Games, keeping the Games volunteers supplied with maps, water, foam fingers, and the like. Many of those in the programme had drug and alcohol issues; all had convictions, the men for violence, some of the women for prostitution. It would mean employment training and a bit of extra money on top of their benefits, in return for which they were expected to stay sober and drug-free, to reflect in group sessions on the struggles of their lives, and to work hard.

It doesn’t sound like much, but to Scott and the other 30 or so people accepted into the programme, it was a lifeline. He punched the air as he left the building and started walking the five miles home. “This,” he says now, “has changed my life.”

That kind of language has become devalued in our X-Factor culture; it sounds like empty hyperbole, but it’s not. These are people whose lives have been extreme. Some of them, in their twenties, talk like shell-shocked veterans of the deaths they have seen. They would make you think the schemes of Scotland should be strewn with poppies. One woman, Samantha, who is 26 and a recovering addict, shows off a picture on her phone of her three-year-old son. “I met my wee boy up the toon the other day. I had my Games uniform on, and I had to get my photo took with him because I felt that proud. I’ve never seen my parents working, but he knows I’m at work. That was amazing for me for my son to see that. It gives you a bit of self-worth. I want to show him a good work ethic. I don’t want him to grow up thinking it’s okay to sit on the buroo.”

Worklessness and poverty feed violence.

Barlinnie is full of men from the poorest postcodes in Glasgow

Barlinnie is full of men from the poorest postcodes in Glasgow. John Carnochan, the former murder detective who was the first head of the VRU, likes to talk about violence as “a wicked problem” – a sociological term meaning that it is difficult to solve because it has numerous complex causes – but it is difficult to hear the phrase without thinking of devils and idle hands.

The VRU response to violence has, over the years, grown increasingly nuanced. They have an ongoing project in Alloa in which a police officer embedded in a deprived area helps and encourages locals to restore a sense of community through various projects including a shared garden. The point is to focus on the positives in the area, rather than the usual social work approach of parachuting in and throwing money at a particular problem – until the funding runs out. The results of an evaluation are awaited, but, anecdotally, the local crime rate does seem to be falling. One street, nicknamed The Bronx for its street-fights, is said to have quietened right down.

Another innovation has been the establishment of Medics Against Violence, a group of healthcare professionals, sick of simply stitching and staunching, who attempt to educate young people against violence by giving presentations in schools. It is a rather sour boast that this country has some of the best maxillofacial surgeons in the world, specialists in injuries to the face, mouth, jaws and neck. In 2008, when MAV was established, doctors in the west of Scotland were treating around 1,000 serious facial injuries each year. That the figures have now dropped to about half of that is at once encouraging and dispiriting. Eighty per cent of those who come into A&E with facial trauma sustain their injuries as a result of violence; 80 per cent of those were drinking at the time of the attack. “Alcohol is the problem,” says Dr Christine Goodall of Medics Against Violence.

The battered, shattered and half-blind

CCTV footage in the possession of the VRU shows the savage reality of street fighting. To spend time in the “maxfax” trauma clinic at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital is to be confronted by the aftermath. All day they come, by appointment, the battered, shattered and half-blind, to be examined by Ian Holland, a brisk, business-like consultant surgeon in his early fifties, who looks at their faces with an expert air, and decides whether he need peel the flesh from broken skulls and bolt them back together with titanium plates.

Most patients do not require quite such invasive treatment, but even common injuries such as fractured cheekbones and eye-sockets can have serious consequences. Soft-tissue wounds, the slashings of gangland legend, can leave nasty scars; sherricked shibboleths which, in the eyes of straight society, seem to denote membership of a malevolent underclass. Down the corridor in a laboratory a group of technicians are busy making prosthetic facial features to replace those lost, sometimes bitten off in fighting. “Eating ear seems to be something we’re keen on in Glasgow,” says Fraser Walker, the lead prosthetist. Each year, his team craft around 80 ears, 24 eyes and a dozen noses.

One boy in for a consultation is 17 and lost his left eye a few days previously. He was admitted to A&E with the bottom of a glass bottle sticking out of his face. During the examination, he keeps his arms folded tight across his Adidas top, body language that is half “F**k you”, half “I need a cuddle.”

Another young man comes in handcuffed to a prison officer. He has a fractured skull and broken cheekbone, the result of being hit by a baseball bat. “It was a square go,” he says, “but they took it too far.” He had been having a few beers with pals; the next thing, he was regaining consciousness in somebody’s garden with the police staring down at him. He’s been on methadone for ten years, and had managed to stay off the drink for weeks, he says. The fight was a dispute over the fact he had moved to Clydebank from Drumchapel, a rival gang territory. He’s anxious about having to go through surgery.

“I’m 31 now,” he says, “and it’s all caught up with me.”

Moira’s Run is organised by the VRU

QUEEN’S Park, Glasgow. A wild morning in October. This is the place where, in 2008, the 40-year-old businesswoman Moira Jones was raped and murdered, and it is the place where, now, a 5km race is being run in her memory and to celebrate her life. Moira’s Run is organised by the VRU, hundreds of runners braving the weather for a good cause: money raised will go to support those bereaved through violence.

Bea Jones, Moira’s mother, is here to give commemorative medals and thanks to all the runners. She has no horror of the park. She finds it beautiful. “I’m very emotional that the run is here,” she says. “But it seems right.”

It was Karyn McCluskey’s suggestion that they stage the event here. She had visited this place with Bea in May on the anniversary of Moira’s death, and found it a shattering experience. That’s surprising in a way, given the many difficult things McCluskey has seen in her work from her nursing days onwards, but there is something about the ripple effect of violent death that she finds especially hard. Forensics experts sometimes fire into large blocks of soap in order to demonstrate what a gunshot does to a human body; from its small entry point, a bullet will tear open a ragged chasm, and that’s what murder does: pain spreads from the initial act, fanning outwards through friends, family and beyond.

“You feel their grief so keenly”

“You feel their grief so keenly,” McCluskey says. “But you can’t get overwhelmed. It reminds me why I do this. It makes me work harder. It makes me want to do more.”

In the wind and rain, at the end of the race, John from the Violence Reduction Unit is one of those who bows his head so Bea Jones can slip a medal round his neck. Does she know his history? Would it matter if she did? It’s a quiet encounter, it lasts but a second or two, and then both move on. Yet it feels important, somehow; a coming together of two hurting people in a hopeful, human moment. There are some wounds you can’t see, but those heal, too.

“This is a demonstration of community,” McCluskey says, looking round at the rain-soaked runners. “There’s a lot more good people than there are bad.”

• Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss

For further information on the Violence Reduction Unit see www.actiononviolence.co.uk. Some names have been changed