After the riots in England last summer, Prime Minister David Cameron pointed to Glasgow as an example the rest of Britain should follow.
Cameron was talking about the Scottish city’s success in reducing gang-related violence over the past four years. Glasgow though, borrowed much of its strategy from Boston and Cincinnati.
It’s after dark in the Glasgow neighborhood of Castlemilk, often a dangerous time in this gritty part of town. But this community center, packed with 13 to 25-year-olds, is buzzing with the energy of youth who are playing pool, watching television or taking cooking classes. The center has worked with six local gangs to ensure youngsters coming here have safe passage.
Upstairs, Charles Lang, 16, is starting his online radio show. Lang grew up in the neighborhood. He can list off a list of friends and family who have been attacked by the community's gangs, without batting an eye.
“My father has been jumped, my cousin has been jumped me and my friend get jumped just before Christmas, my sister’s been jumped," he said. "It’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I think.”
And that’s just off the top of his head. Lang is happy to be able to come here, to go anywhere really. There was a time when he wouldn’t step outside his house at night and a time when he thought about joining a gang in order to fit in.
“Well I almost did get in a gang and I’ve witnessed gang fights, when I was 12 or 13,” Lang said.
In fact, gangs have been part of Glasgow’s violent subculture for decades. Then as now, young men armed themselves with knives, machetes or broken bottles and set upon each other in housing projects, parks and sometimes in the city center.
In 2004, Glasgow was the murder capital of Western Europe. That was when police intelligence chief Karyn McCluskey decided to travel across the Atlantic.
“We’ve stolen quite a lot from America and we’ve embraced the philosophy that no one is safe until everyone is safe. We’ve tried to get everyone involved and get everyone to realize they’ve got responsibility,” McCluskey said.
She met in the United States with David Kennedy, who is the driving force behind successful anti-gang violence initiatives in Boston and Cincinnati.
McCluskey returned convinced it could work in Glasgow. It was a new approach that mixed a zero-tolerance policing policy with broad-based community efforts: Get gang members into education, find them jobs and a new way of life. She said it was not an easy sell among Glasgow officials.
“But what these people were saying was 'but these are African-American men predominantly who are being dealt with in Boston.' Well when I saw them, they were exactly the same as the ones we had in Glasgow," she said. "They were deprived. They had no aspiration. It was all about respect, a whole range of things that the violence came out of. Race wasn’t the key thing. “
What was key, she said, was reaching out to disaffected young men. With about 170 gangs across the city, hundreds were at risk of violent encounters.
Emergency room doctors estimated someone was knifed, often in the face, every six hours.
James is one of them, the jagged scar near his mouth a telltale sign of his troubled past.
“By the time I was 12 I was carrying a knife," he said.
James fits a familiar pattern. Growing up poor, both his parents were alcoholics. He said his father began beating him when he was five. James said he felt safer on the streets with the gang than he did at home.
“By the time I was 15, I had already used a knife and I was doing a two-year prison sentence. I cut a guy’s face with a knife and I went to prison for two years and then I got out and went back to running with a gang,” he said.
At the age of 20, he was sent back to jail after a man he was fighting with fell under a bus and died.
But James's story has a different ending. Now 33 and out of jail, he's the father of a young daughter. He is also one of the Violence Reduction Unit’s secret weapons, lending some street credibility to a gathering, a “call-in,” first held in 2008.
Gang members are summoned to a meeting where they face stark police warnings and graphic photos of slashed faces. Men like James deliver vivid, powerful stories about their traumatic past and what it’s cost them and their families.
Mothers of murdered boys offer painful testimonies. John Carnochan, a grizzled veteran cop wasn't certain this touchy-feely American style talking would work.
“And the call-ins, Karyn was always convinced were a key component of it. I wasn’t convinced, I thought this is to do with America, this is a bit too much of a theater for me. I am now absolutely convinced they are a fundamental part of how this works,” Carnochan said.
Deputy Chief Superintendent Carnochan now heads up the Violence Reduction Unit. He’s watched the crime statistics go down.
Among the 500 or so gang members who signed a pledge to work with the unit since 2008, violent offenses have been cut nearly in half. Carnochan recalls one moment when he knew it was going to work.
“A fellow stood up who was maybe 20 or 21 scars on his face, the stereotypical east end Glasgow man and he pointed to another table," Carnochan said. "And he said, ‘See the guys at that other table over there? I’ve been fighting with them since I was 11. I want to know why.’”
Glasgow’s success has led to plans to expand into other neighborhoods it hasn’t been able to reach. And McCluskey is now looking to intervene before boys ever get close to gangs such as at a daycare center that offers sanctuary for children who are classified as vulnerable.
There's also a program to offer parenting courses for young, often single, mothers trying to break the cycle of violence. McCluskey sees this as a priority for a community where the problem is still far from being fixed.
“We will have to have huge resilience to keep this going. We’ll have to keep partners interested," she said. "So, I am delighted at the initial impact that we’ve had but this is a long journey we’re gong to be on."
Key to that will be continued funding and government support. Otherwise, she warns, the gains in Glasgow could disappear in the flash of a knife blade.