On the streets with the Manchester gang squad
The headquarters of the Greater Manchester police force's X-Calibre squad could pass for any Baltimore police district station. Their second-floor office in center of the city's highest crime area, the Moss Side, was wallpapered with dozens and dozens of mug shots of young men identified as gang members, with names like "Tree Frog," "Baby Soldier," "Screwface" and "Dirt Star." Red and blue bandanas hanging over each group's section on the wall signaled their affiliation. Two of the major gangs even have started affiliating themselves with the Bloods and Crips.
"Many of these gangs are family members - it's almost as if you're born into that family, you're under that umbrella [of a gang]," said Detective Sgt. Rob Cousen. "It's difficult for lads to get out of that."
But Baltimore this is not. While Manchester's underbelly has drawn terrifying headlines in recent years and was compared by a British politician to inner city Baltimore, I drove around with officers for seven hours and saw clean streets and alleys, well-kept (and inhabited) homes and saw very few people out, on a Friday night no less. It rained intermittently, which could have been a factor, but the young men whose shocking crimes were explained to me in detail were nowhere to be found. I didn't even see a uniformed police presence, except for a few officers on foot patrol in the downtown nightlife hub (Literally. We didn't come across a uniformed officer until the end of the night when the officers kindly dropped me off at my downtown hotel).
It could have just been one of those slow nights, as there continue to be shootings and other gang-related activity (Cousen is due in court Monday to testify in an attempted murder trial for two men linked to a shooting inside a crowded club). But the city also went the entire month of August without a shooting - a feat that officials believed was a first, at least in recent memory.
That may be due to the work of the X-Calibre team, which has been targeting their efforts on intelligence gathering and intervention into gang activity. Gang-related firearms "discharges" were down 81 percent in the past fiscal year, something officials hope can help the city shed its nickname of "Gunchester."
I have much more to share about Manchester, but I've got to zip over to a ridealong in Brixton, an area of South London which over the years has been referred to as London's gun and drugs capital. More later.