Growing up With Gangs: On the beat with police trying to save youngsters from gang life 'trap'

In an exclusive three-part series of reports, ITV News Anglia investigates the evolving world of county lines drugs gangs - hearing from survivors whose lives were ruined and children who were lured in.

Reporter TANYA MERCER spent a day following police officers in a town where gangs have been on the rise - learning about how they are saving vulnerable young people from a life of crime.

Walking through dark alleyways and known problem areas of Ipswich town centre late at night is something I would normally avoid.

But that is what happened when camera operator Lucy and I were given the chance to follow Suffolk Police and witness first-hand what their specialist officers are doing to tackle gang culture.

“There were literally fights happening here every single night,” says PC Sophie Edwards as we drive towards Cattle Market bus station.

“Lots of young people are hanging around here, and that means they can be targeted and recruited by gangs. We've tried to do a lot of patrols in this area to show that police presence and move people on.”

Sophie, and her colleague PC Tom Mowles, are part of the child exploitation and gangs team. Their work is to identify young people at risk, build intelligence about gangs and tensions in the county, disrupt gang-related activities and stop youngsters entering a life of crime.

PCs Tom Mowles and Sophie Edwards on patrol in Ipswich. Credit: ITV News Anglia

“There can be problems at any time,” Tom explains. “We have the power to issue a community protection notice, where we can ban certain youngsters who we think are involved in gang-related activity or at risk of being recruited from coming into town.”

The team wants to see which young people are out, the groups they are with and where they are meeting. It helps them identify and build a picture of vulnerable youngsters and feeds into their work with social services.

We park up and walk through the town centre. Shoppers and commuters have gone and the area is quiet.

It is not long before we encounter Jorge. He was recruited into a gang as a teenager. He’s going through rehabilitation after some time in prison and is trying to turn his life around.

“It’s not safe here with the gang culture. But at the same time, if you're young, you haven't got a good upbringing and you're not doing well in school, you're going to look elsewhere to try and get a sense of identity and belonging”, he said.

“Gang life is a trap. You can't get out. I want to tell young kids now, it's not just money, girls, drugs or whatever people think it is. There's a lot of bad stuff that comes with it, like violence and prison time.”

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Jorge says there aren’t places for young people to go and socialise. He recognises the police’s work in town is a deterrent, but says it drives youngsters to other places.

“I don't know anyone that's been to a social club. Whereas if you go somewhere like the bus stop in town, you've got people socialising, but then you've got the police pulling up and you don't really feel comfortable anymore. And then you want to go somewhere else.”

Areas of deprivation make perfect places for young people to hang out, gangs to recruit and tensions to build.

The team have been part of efforts to redevelop areas of the town to stop young people congregating. A few months ago, St Lawrence Church provided a dark isolated spot with benches to sit and trees to give shelter.

“This was a high problem area and there was a lot of anti-social behaviour, missing persons would come here often and drug use as well," Tom says, as we walk along the side of the church.

“We've worked with the town authorities to remove the benches, and we've had trees cut back, which has improved the lighting here and opened it up. It's had a massive effect and as you can see now, there is absolutely no one here now."

PC Sophie Edwards is part of the Child Exploitation and Gangs Team Credit: ITV News Anglia

After an hour or so, we get back in the patrol car and circle some more areas where youngsters congregate.

Behind the Blackfriars multi-storey car park we see a group of around 12 young people, all with their hoodies up. Tom and Sophie are on foot immediately, but the gang quickly scarpers. There is a strong smell of cannabis in the air.

“As soon as they've seen police they've all done a runner, which usually indicates that they are up to something or they don't want us to stop and speak to them about,” Sophie said as we walk around the nearby alleyways trying to find any trace of the youngsters.

“We'd be keen to speak to those youngsters to see who's down here, just to get a picture of who's hanging out and their affiliations.”

They action the CCTV team and another crew to track the group down. Then we head off on a couple of safeguarding visits to see some of the vulnerable young people they are working with.

PC Tom Mowles shows reporter Tanya Mercer some of the areas that have improved Credit: ITV News Anglia

“We have a number of youngsters who we’ve identified as vulnerable or who might already be heavily involved in gang lifestyles. Young men and women, who are being exploited in different ways, maybe who feel trapped,” Sophie said.

“We work with their families, social workers and schools to help build up their trust. With these visits we just pop by, see how they are, what they’ve been up to, maybe if they are feeling unsafe for whatever reason or are aware of other activities or people who might be worried.”

The team say they have helped several young people extract themselves from the gang lifestyle. But every shift is a relentless battle against the pervasive effect of gang culture.

“The age of people being exploited is getting younger and younger,” says Tom. “And the gangs are becoming more localised and they use social media to recruit and run their operations. And that is very challenging for us."

The team know they are in this for the long run.

Gang culture is widespread and tackling the issues needs to be holistic and collaborative.

Although they may not be able to save every child, knowing they are helping just some, makes the job worth doing.

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