After a terrifying spate of fatal shootings in London and on Merseyside, culminating in the heartbreaking killing of nine-year-old Catholic school pupil Olivia Pratt-Korbel, it’s not surprising that gun crime is the new concern of the moment.
Coming after a period when guns seem to have been coming off the streets and out of the hands of criminals, are the events of the past week random coincidences and happenstance events, or the early signs of a worrying escalation in criminal brutality?
It had been thought that the pandemic lockdowns, intense police efforts and recent significant breakthroughs in tackling organised crime were responsible for a statistical reduction in firearms offences, but after the past few weeks this is now in doubt.
On Merseyside the entire city is in a state of very deep shock and sadness over the events of the past week – and the horrific story of how little 9-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel and her mother became entangled in a fatal shooting in their own hallway has shocked not only the city, but the entire country.
It was the third gun killing on Merseyside in a matter of days. On the night of 16th August, 20-year-old Sam Rimmer was shot dead in a cul-de-sac in Dingle as he walked with a group of friends. His alleged attackers were two men who fired from a motorcycle before riding off. Five days later 28-year-old Ashley Dale was gunned down in her own garden in Old Swan, Liverpool in the early hours. Merseyside Police say they do not believe she was the intended target. (In a further tragic twist it was revealed that Ms Dale was the half sister of 16-year-old Lewis Dunne, who was shot dead in Liverpool in another case of mistaken identity in 2015.)
It wasn’t lost on anyone, least of all the press, that yet another tragic coincidence was that Olivia Pratt-Korbel was killed 15 years to the very day that 11-year-old Rhys Milford Jones was murdered by gunmen as he headed home from football practice in Liverpool. Rhys had walked into a gang dispute and was not the intended target.
That crime shocked the nation, and the phrase ‘Crocky Crew’ – the name of one of the gangs involved – opened a window on the dark, brutal world of city gangs and the culture of fear and silence that surrounds them. In the case of Rhys Jones it took Merseyside police more than six months to break the case and the wall of silence almost led to the perpetrators never being caught.
So it’s no surprise that the current police enquiries are being framed in appeals for the community to speak up, and that this is not the appropriate time to become fixated with “no grassing” – the dominant theme that ran through the Rhys Milford investigation. Of course for those living in the midst of these tragic and frightening events, it’s a very tough choice between mistrust of the police, personal safety and the need to rid their neighbourhood of ruthless killers. Merseyside police have said today though that “the level of support from the community has been phenomenal.”
Having to investigate such dreadful killings and the family trauma and wider community destruction they bring is a deeply human and disturbing thing to have to do. For Merseyside Police it’s a particular blow as, following a crackdown on gangs in 2013 and the subsequent work of their gang fighting Matrix squad, there was a belief that the gun culture of certain areas of Liverpool had been broken. Clearly it hasn’t been the case.
Although the focus this week has been on Liverpool, the city’s gun problem reflects a wider new culture that is fast emerging – a new generation of city gangs with a distinct identity, the determination to be visibly intimidating and to kill as a warning to others. Although these gangs are populated predominantly by young men, often just teenagers, it is typically older professional criminals who are driving this culture.
On both Merseyside and in London, as well as in some of our other major cities, there is worrying evidence emerging that these influences have made inroads into our schools where vulnerable teenagers are being groomed into the gang mentality. On Merseyside there is even recent research evidence that a small number of high-risk schools have children as young as seven in possession of drugs and firearms.
What’s particularly worrying about this, and the events of the past week, is that Merseyside has always been a community with uniquely strong and proud familial bonds, and a particularly acute sense of social justice. Division, tragedy and fear do not sit well with its citizens and for me these latest events point to cry of help from the streets – one which is likely going to be echoed in other UK cities if something significant and pretty permanent isn’t done about gang culture and gun crime.
For their part our police forces will no doubt do what they can to deal with the consequences of such crimes, but the real task is to prevent them happening in the first place. It’s nothing new, but the solutions are about addressing the twin issues of social poverty and exclusion, and the education and positive embracing of our young people, with the latter being the most important.
It would be helpful if our upcoming new Conservative government made a meaningful commitment to addressing the now critically urgent issues of poverty and social welfare, but frankly that’s very unlikely to happen. If the recent meanderings of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are to be taken seriously it rather looks like we are heading at top speed towards yet another Thatcherite regime of bashing benefits and bulging prison populations.
It also doesn’t seem like there’s going to be much on the cards over the coming years for the majority of young people, as the meritocratic approach favours disproportionately those with measurable academic abilities. (One only has to look at today’s GCSE results to see the obvious socio-geographical divide between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.)
The rather blunt and naïve assumption of many of our legislators that getting a young person into any kind of job solves not only the economic problem but the social and criminal one is a delusion, and draws the misinformed conclusion that unemployment and crime are linked inextricably. In fact, meaningless, sedentary and unrewarding employment is just as likely to lead to criminality as kicking a can down the street.
What’s needed is an approach to the world of work that links intrinsically the concept of ‘meaning’ and ‘fulfilment’ into the nature of work, and this needs to start at an early age, long before exams and time-measured written tests do their damage. A young person with an early vision of what they might be able to achieve and having the confidence to pursue their dream is far less likely to be swayed by dark and destructive influences.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget those who’ve already been led into criminality. There’s a very negative tendency in society to assume that criminals are criminals – period. Alongside many faiths, the Catholic Church never excludes redemption – how could it when we believe in the intrinsic potential goodness of every human person. In fact it might well be argued that supporting and ministering to convicted prisoners is a fundamental pillar in reforming communities, and societal attitudes to crime.
The majority of those in our prison population have not committed crimes of violence, but have found themselves separated from their families and homes for relatively inconsequential reasons. The irony is that many of them will then find themselves exposed to and manipulated by more hardened criminals, which carries little hope for their prospects when they return to their communities. This is also an area of social reform that our new government needs to recognise and act upon if we are to make any serious impact into the criminal landscape.
In terms of gun crime, it’s fairly obvious to say that the gun is the ultimate end instrument of the criminal process, and that’s why we’re hearing far more about its use. In particular it’s becoming more common in drugs gangs and, with Liverpool being a significant hub in the UK ‘County lines’ drugs network, an increase in gun crimes on Merseyside was perhaps inevitable. What wasn’t expected, and can’t be tolerated, is that wholly innocent members of the public are getting caught up in shooting incidents, and in other UK cities as well.
Steve Rotheram, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, told the BBC after this week’s shootings: “Liverpool is still one of the safest metropolitan areas in the country. Until last week, we hadn’t seen a gun-related death in the city for more than 12 months.
“While this week’s events are not representative of the progress we’ve made, it’s clear that we’ve still got some way to go.”
That’s probably something of an understatement, but the government can’t say it hasn’t been warned!
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and publisher, and founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk
NOTE: this is a live story and may be updated as events change. JK