Britain's Gang Violence Is Not A 'Quick Fix Issue'

Originally published on August 29, 2011 6:27 am
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It's been an ugly summer for youth violence. Philadelphia's mayor recently extended what's become known as the city's flash mob curfew. The City of Brotherly Love has seen several out of control flash mobs, you know, when groups of people assembly suddenly using mobile phones and social media to establish the time and place. It's supposed to be surprising, whimsical, fun. Some of them haven't turnout that way.

And of course, that's a small deal compared to London where police are still struggling to draw lessons from the city's riots a few weeks ago. Officials are wondering what role organized gangs played in the violence, and the British, in a controversial move, turned to an American for help.


And his name is Bill Bratton. And as the former police chief in New York City and later Los Angeles, he spent years combating gang violence with a strict no-tolerance approach that many people viewed as overly aggressive. Bratton's been named now, an advisor to the British government on gang violence, and we reached him in his office in New York. He said he's eager to start helping Prime Minister David Cameron, though he hasn't gotten started yet.

Why has he not called you a few times a week already? Why has he held up?

Mr. BILL BRATTON (Former LAPD and NYPD police chief): Well, first off, they have a lot of expertise already. In other words, they're not sitting on their hands over there. It's not a quick fix issue. Los Angeles has been dealing with gangs now into the fourth generation, 80 years. Just because Bill Bratton arrives on the shore of England, the waters are not going to part.

GREENE: What did you - let me ask you, do you think it's useful to draw some sort of parallel between the flash mobs that we've been seeing in Philadelphia and the mobs responsible for the riots in London and much of the rest of England?

Mr. BRATTON: Oh, I think it is, that it appears now, at least based on the press reports, that there was some organization to the movement of crowds to certain locations to participate, both in the activities of the violence as well as the looting of stores. And in some sense, some of that was some unorganized crime basis and some from others who were just seeking to use the power of the social media to move large bodies of people around.

That's based on the fact that so many of the people who were arrested at locations came from quite some distance. And that many of the people who were arrested, actually had no previous involvement with the police. They were kind of wannabes who basically were taking advantage of a breakdown in social order.

GREENE: It sounds like social media is drawing new people into crime in a way.

Mr. BRATTON: Oh, well this seems to be the experience that the Brits have just recently experienced. It's also some evidence, if I understand it correctly, here in the states, with some of the flash mob issues we've had here. All of the sudden you'll get 500-600 bicycles show up for a night of bike riding, on mass, around the city.

The concern we all have certainly is that in cities like Philadelphia, you get a lot of young people gathered together in a compressed space and you end up, oftentimes, unfortunately, with the violence that we've seen.

GREENE: Do old rules of policing apply if we're dealing with social media, or is that just a brand new tool that you're going to have to find new solutions to?

Mr. BRATTON: Well, what's very interesting, the old expression, the old adage, everything old is new again. The creation of organized police forces really began in the 1830s, 1840s, particularly in London. And what they were responding to was a lot of mob type violence. Similarly in New York in the 1850s, they really began to organize its police forces also based around law type activity, the five points in New York, the very famous Martin Scorsese film "Gangs of New York."

So it's ironic now that in the 21st century the police are once again being asked to return to the issue of dealing with mob violence. And mob violence is now facilitated by social media. The good news for us at this juncture, is that it's still at in nascent stage in the sense that similar to how those mobs gather by basically being reached out through social media. Police have the ability to monitor that, to use it for early-on identification that something is happening.

GREENE: But doesn't monitoring social sites start to bring the police into some murky areas?

Mr. BRATTON: Oh, it certainly does. It is going to undoubtedly be increasing tension around the issue of rights privacy.

GREENE: But if we look at a city like Philadelphia, we should expect some court battles ahead at some time.

Mr. BRATTON: Yeah, I think so. ACLU is clearly watching this. There was a public safety aspect to it, certainly.

GREENE: Do you believe there should be limits on what social media sites the police can monitor?

Mr. BRATTON: I think a lot of it will have to do with how much of it is actually in the public space, if you will. For example, it's been clear that police and government can monitor public space with cameras, et cetera. The ACLU has challenged that repeatedly and always lost. If in fact a lot of this activity is in what is deemed to be public space bandwidth, et cetera - then I think the government would end up siding in favor of law enforcement.

But as we go forward, this is going to be a battleground between civil libertarians and law enforcement, with the public watching closely, because ultimately it's the public that is on the receiving end of the violence and the disorder and the fear.

GREENE: Bill Bratton is chairman of the security firm Kroll, and he is also now an advisor to the British government on gang violence. Chief Bratton, thank you for talking to us.

Mr. BRATTON: Real pleasure talking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.