Will Linden, Co-Deputy Director, Violence Reduction Unit
On January 2 the phones at the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in Glasgow started ringing. London brought in Hogmanay with four fatal stabbings. The capital has been grappling with an increase in knife violence. Amid awful headlines of young lives lost, Glasgow’s story surfaced. Once one of the most violent cities in the world, it has seen a dramatic drop in homicides. It’s not just Glasgow: across Scotland in 2016-17 not one single young person under the age of 20 was fatally stabbed. Over the last decade we’ve seen the number of homicides drop by 47%. The media, politicians and communities wanted to know how we did it.
I believe we’d just had enough of our young people dying. It took everyone from the police and health to education, the third sector and, crucially, communities working together to change things. There is no one service that was responsible; it was a collective effort.
However, the reductions in violence in Scotland haven’t been equal. Some of our most deprived communities are still disproportionately affected, with the risk of becoming a victim still depressingly high in some of our poorest areas. Just 0.8% of our population fell victim to 57% of all violence in 2016/17. Such inequality cannot and must not be accepted. We should all have the right to live in safety, irrespective of our postcode.
Tackling the scourge of violence in these areas will be tough but we can do it. We know the communities, families and individuals infected with violence. The cure requires us to target our resources and collective will in working at a local level, almost on a case-by-case basis, pulling one person out of the cycle of violence at a time if that’s what it takes.
While the symptoms of violence can’t be ignored, we won’t cure the disease unless we target the causes. Violence will spread throughout a community and be passed down through the generations unless we interrupt the cycle. We must inoculate both people and places.
Key to success is understanding the long-term effects of early years trauma. If you experience more than four adverse childhood experiences (Aces) we know you’re more at risk of everything from addiction to cancer and becoming the victim of violence or the perpetrator of it. There’s a movement across Scotland to tackle Aces and slowly we’re becoming a ‘trauma-informed’ country. Whilst this will help our children to have happier, more stable environments in which they can grow into healthy adults, we cannot ever be tempted to write off the generation of people that came before because, as adults, they are now in the ‘too-difficult-to-solve’ category. They were children once and often we as a society failed to keep them safe. I believe no child is born bad.
There should always be consequences for violent behaviour but, if we want penalties not just to punish but also to help prevent violent acts, we need to be smart. It’s not about hard or soft justice; it’s about following the evidence for what works to prevent offending. Scotland has one of the highest incarceration rates in Western Europe and we need to ask ourselves if this is really helping to keep us safe.
Ultimately, policing is a human service dealing with the complex nature of vulnerability, trauma and loss. If we are to continue to see reductions in violence then we must keep people at the centre of everything we do. The job isn’t done. Violence still infects our communities, workplaces, homes and relationships. But we know now that violence can be prevented, so there’s no reason to accept Scotland being anything less than the safest country in the world.
Will Linden is the Co-Deputy Director of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit. He has been with Police Scotland for more than 13 years. Since being appointed to the Violence Reduction Unit in March 2005 he has been involved in a number of projects including the development of the Homicide/Deaths Database and CIRV (Community Initiative to Reduce Violence), Injury Surveillance, Mentors in Violence Prevention, Employability/Desistence programmes and has provided much of the research and strategy development in support of the Violence Reduction Strategy for Scotland.
Will specialises in behavioural and geographic analysis of violence and received a number of awards from the Association for Geographic Information (AGI) and the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA), for his work. Will previously served as acting director of the unit for 18 months.
This article is included in the Monument Fellowship book, Curing violence: How we can become a less violent society, due to be published on the 29th October, if you would like further information please email firstname.lastname@example.org.