* Photo supplied. Anybody home? Gang raids by police in the Aston area of Birmingham helped quell criminal activity.
* Photo supplied. Anybody home? Gang raids by police in the Aston area of Birmingham helped quell criminal activity.
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Bermuda police could seek assistance from one of the most effective anti-gang fighting efforts in Britain.

West Midlands Police have turned around a frightening escalation in gun and gang culture in Birmingham's suburbs over the past decade.

And according to a press release, Bermuda's Police Commissioner Michael DeSilva is planning to visit the city's police force to find out how they did it.

Police here have given no details about the trip but if it does go ahead, it is likely that senior U.K. officers will recommend a 'zero tolerance' approach to gangs.

One of the most effective tools in breaking up Birmingham gangs, says Ben Goldby, crime reporter with the Sunday Mercury newspaper, was a crime-fighting unit dubbed 'The Untouchables' that targeted gang members for any offences - from littering to parking fines.

He said the unit had followed the template of the 1930s FBI team that hunted notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone, who dodged convictions for murder and racketeering before finally being jailed for tax evasion.

If deployed here, the tactic would be an escalation of the existing Prolific Priority Offenders' scheme, which uses a league table of the island's worst offenders to target resources.

But Mr Goldby believes the key event which gave police and the public the will and the way to solve gang crime was the murder of two teenage girls outside a hair salon following a New Year's party in 2003.

How one city got a grip on gangs


Many Bermudians are pessimistic about the prospects of quashing our gang menace. Police say they will reach out to West Midlands Police, who have been part of a successful clampdown in the U.K.'s second city. Here's how they did it.

At the start of 2004 Birmingham was a city at war. The drug turf disputes between the city's two main rival gangs, The Johnson Crew and the Burger Boys, had spilled into the mainstream.

A hardcore of violent young offenders who thought nothing of firing a gun in public were holding parts of the city to ransom.

Concentrated in the mostly black neighbourhoods of Aston and Handsworth the violence had reached alarming new levels.

A younger generation of criminals, raised with dyed in wool gang affiliations tied to strictly defined geographical locations, had become more brazen and were growing ever more fearless of the law.

In one incident gangsters peppered the wall of a school with stray bullets during a drive-by shooting attempt. Elsewhere in the city a young bouncer was shot and killed for refusing entry to a gang member.

Six years later things have changed. In the last two years the city, which has a population of over one million, has averaged four gun murders a year, roughly the same as Bermuda.

Perhaps the most significant event, and the tipping point in the city's attitude towards gangs, was the New Year's Eve double murder of two teenage girls outside a hair salon. The killers drove by and fired a sub-machine gun into the crowd standing outside the salon, killing 17-year-old Letisha Shakespeare and her friend Charlene Ellis, 18.

"That was massive national news and it really brought the problem to a head. The standard drug wars were not raising that much attention and it took that crossover murder of two young girls innocently walking home from a party to galvanise the effort," said Ben Goldby, a senior crime reporter with the Sunday Mercury newspaper.

"It was an event that shook a community that was anti-police, anti-gang and would generally not talk to the police in order to keep the peace."

Crime fighters got round the strict code of silence that keeps gangland killers in business by allowing witnesses to testify anonymously, distorting their voices and obscuring their faces at trial. Ultimately four men, members of the Burger Bar Boys, were convicted of the killing.

It was in the wake of that murder and the subsequent public outcry that the organization Birmingham Reducing Gang Related Violence was formed.

It has since been hailed as one of the most successful anti-gang efforts in Britain and its work is credited with a dramatic reduction in gang related gun crime.

Additional enforcement teams, like the 'Untouchables' unit charged with going after a targeted hit-list of gang members, were formed and police began knocking down doors.

Keeley Bevington, project support officer for the BRGV - the umbrella organization which brings together local government, social services, police, probation, prison services and a host of other agencies to combat gangs, said they had used every tool at their disposal.

"What we were seeing was a real increase in the number of young, chaotic offenders who thought nothing of taking a firearm into a public place and letting it off. That is what really started to set alarm bells ringing about public safety."

While police upped the ante on the enforcement side, magistrates began issuing strict anti-social behaviour orders specifically forbidding known gang members from associating with each other.

A multi-agency gang unit was set up to monitor and manage the top 80 gang members in the city and put plans in place catch and prosecute the die-hards and attempt to rehabilitate those that showed a capacity for change.

Bolstered by an influx of funds in the wake of the New Year's Eve murders, BRGV was tasked with commissioning specific services to deal with gangs.

"Mentoring a gang member, for example, requires a completely different approach to an ordinary offender. They are driven by this mentality of 'what I want I will have, I do not respect anybody, I won't think twice about shooting anybody'," said Ms Bevington.

One of the most effective tools in transforming the situation on the streets and encouraging people to share information was to take the police out of the equation.

The Centre for Conflict Transformation, headed by former police officer Kirk Dawes, used techniques first deployed during the Northern Ireland peace process to bring gang disputes to a resolution.

"These are specialist mediators who go out there and broker peace between the gangs when they get a referral from us because we have been informed that something is going to happen. Ultimately their main aim is to get opposing gang members round the table. Usually what is causing the conflict is often based on myth or rumour and it doesn't need to end in death."

Mediators are also called in when a gang member is shot and wounded and refuses to talk to police.

"Usually they will open up to the mediator because they want it resolved, just not through the criminal justice system.

"The mediator will try and initially deal with that conflict and hopefully, later, move along to trying to get them out of the gang life."

The mediation service is now used throughout Britain to deal with gang warfare. Ultimately Ms Bevington believes the real success was to win back the trust of the public: "You will never solve a gang murder unless you get the community talking to you, that's why our organization has three strands - consequences (catching and convicting), help (mentoring and counselling to get out of gangs) and community engagement."

She said crime fighters in Birmingham had looked to other cities, including Boston and Chicago, when formulating their own anti-gang strategy and would be more than happy to share their knowledge with Bermuda police.

Though Birmingham, with a population of over one million people is much bigger than Bermuda, Mr Goldby agrees that the techniques could be just as effective over here. He said many of the same issues fuelling the conflict here - loyalty to a locality and a willingness to kill over petty disagreements - were also present in Birmingham.

"It is a geographical conflict. Those battle lines that were initially drawn by rival drug dealers are now being used as a badge of honour. They tattoo their postcode on their arm and wear it with pride. They will kill to protect it."

He said the victories police had made in the fight against gangs were genuine and could be seen in consistently improving gun-crime stats: "The reason West Midlands police has developed a much better reputation across the community has been their ability to deal with the gang problem.

"They have transformed a problem that was debilitating the city's reputation."

How Birmingham reduced gang violence

* Increased enforcement through specific police units targeting gang members for anything from littering to murder;

* Broke up gang allegiances with anti-social behaviour orders;

* Secured convictions by allowing witnesses to testify anonymously;

* Stopped murders before they happened by sending mediators to negotiate gang disputes;

* Enticed gangsters out of the 'life' through mentoring and counselling.

Details scarce on overseas police outreach

Uncertainty surrounds Bermuda police's proposed trip to the West Midlands. The visit was announced on Sunday along with a host of other measures, including a continued liaison with the FBI, as police sought to assure the public they were getting to grips with gangs.

"We are liaising with FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies. The Commissioner will be visiting West Midlands Police in the U.K. to look at how they are dealing with gang violence in Birmingham," read the police statement.

But police were unwilling to give details or reveal dates for the Birmingham trip and it remained unclear yesterday whether they had even contacted West Midlands Police. Spokesman Robin Simmons said: "At the appropriate time the media will be made aware of the details of the Commissioner's proposed trip."

Asked for any information on the liaison with the FBI, spokesman Dwayne Caines, said: "not at this time".