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How Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit breaks the cycle of crime

It’s no secret that Glasgow once had an unenviable record on violent crime – but a pioneering approach has been transformational

In 2005, Glasgow was named the ‘murder capital of Europe’. With spiralling violent crime rates, Scotland saw 137 homicides in that year alone. It pushed Strathclyde Police to rethink their approach to the problem. What emerged was the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) – a groundbreaking project set up to treat violence as a disease, with a root cause to be cured.

Its empathetic approach – working with deprived communities and letting go of a punitive view on fighting crime – produced remarkable results. Scotland’s homicide rate had dropped to 59 by 2018 while authorities across the UK and around the world took inspiration from the VRU’s public health approach to stemming knife deaths.

“That approach we see elsewhere – high-vis yellow jackets, stop and search, high-tariff prison sentences for offenders – it works for a short time in stopping the carnage but it doesn’t bring long-term change,” VRU director Niven Rennie tells The Big Issue.

It’s like looking for a vaccine. If it works, you roll it out. If it doesn’t work, back to the drawing board

The VRU began life as a policing initiative, but it soon partnered with the health, education and social services sectors. Its Navigators project, spanning Edinburgh, Glasgow and Ayrshire, works in hospitals to identify people caught up in a cycle of violent crime. From victims of gang violence to domestic abuse survivors, they offer support to those who need it and connect patients to services outside the NHS that can help them.

Director Rennie sees parallels between how the VRU operates and how the Covid-19 crisis is being tackled. “When we say we treat violence like a disease, it means we research how it’s being transmitted, just like the pandemic. You hone in on the factors that are causing it then come up with a solution.”

He adds: “It’s like looking for a vaccine. If it works, you roll it out. If it doesn’t work, back to the drawing board.”

Another VRU project seeing continued success is Street & Arrow, a Glasgow social enterprise established to cut reoffending. Serving up high-quality street food, the business hires people with convictions for 12 months during which time a staff member receives round-the-clock mentoring and support with issues reaching far beyond employment. It has been unable to operate fully during the pandemic, but trainees have been kept busy volunteering in local foodbanks.

It embodies the VRU’s focus on providing hope and opportunity to those who have been dealt tough cards. The unit’s success meant “abandoning the idea of locking someone up and throwing away the key”.

People are very judgemental of those who have had tough lives

But the biggest obstacle to the VRU’s operation is poverty. Violence has not been cut as effectively in deprived communities as it has been elsewhere, Rennie tells The Big Issue, and it continues to be where they see the highest level of drug and alcohol deaths, plus gambling addiction among “people trying to have a better life”.

“Life is so difficult for a lot of people in poorer communities, they turn to alcohol and drugs to blur the sense of despair and lack of hope they feel,” he says. “Poverty is the real driver for so many of these issues. We need to actually present people with opportunity and investment.”

It’s similar thinking that has had people with lived experience, whether of violence or addiction, involved in the VRU from the start. Their input is “essential”, Rennie says, and “unique in something that originated as a police organisation”. It allows people from at-risk communities to ask for the support they need, rather than being told.

And the support on offer reaches as many people as possible. The One Community initiative recruited ‘champions’ from Glasgow’s Horn of Africa community and trained them to help BME families new to the city to build happy lives there. Meanwhile the MVP (Mentors in Violence Prevention) is a hugely successful school programme helping kids develop the confidence to safely challenge abuse. ASC is a partnership between the VRU and Medics Against Violence, training professionals like vets, firefighters and hairdressers to spot the signs of domestic abuse.

“Empathy is at the heart of everything we do,” Rennie says. “Compassion, understanding. Words you wouldn’t normally associate with something that was once a policing unit. But we talk about love!”

Two years ago, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan invited the VRU to help establish a similar project in the capital. It has now been running for 18 months, and more than a dozen other units like it have been created across the rest of England. Many have asked for Rennie and the team’s support. Representatives from Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada have visited the VRU to draw inspiration and apply it in their own countries.

“We haven’t done this alone,” Rennie emphasises. “The drop in violence is not solely down to us. Our partners across the public sector, like Education Scotland, have been absolutely key, and this approach wouldn’t work without them. It is an army of the willing.

“We’ve got a view in this country that we’re very kind,” Rennie adds. “But in many ways we show the opposite in relation to violence and those who have had tough lives. People are very judgemental. Challenging those attitudes is something I’m trying to do in my time at VRU, to get people to be more understanding. That is how Scotland will make more progress.”

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