Turning gangsters away from crime

Elroy Palmer tells James Cracknell about his work tackling gang crime in Waltham Forest

Elroy Palmer

Elroy Palmer, a team leader with the SOS Project run by St Giles Trust, in Wathamstow Town Square. Credit: James Cracknell

Elroy Palmer knows a thing or two about gangs. He used to be a gang member himself, and has served time for a variety of gang-related crime. But that is in the past, and for the last three years he has been working in Waltham Forest as part of a charitable project that tackles the problem head-on.

Elroy works for award-winning crime charity St Giles Trust. Specifically, he leads a team of case workers who regularly visit gang members in the borough to try and steer them away from a life of crime. It is called the SOS Project.

“We’ve gone anywhere in Waltham Forest where there is a gang problem,” Elroy tells me. “We work with the most entrenched and at-risk gang members, after they have just finished a jail sentence or if they are already known to police.

“We reach out to them and let them know what the alternatives are to gang life. We also have case workers who go to hospital and meet youngsters who have been victims of serious gang violence, using their recovery time to offer them a way out.”

Elroy typically works with young people aged 16-25 years, but sometimes meets gang members as young as eleven. It’s these same people who sometimes later become part of the SOS Project team.

“We use ex-gang members who have been involved in gang violence themselves, and want to give something back. We bring them in and get them trained until they’ve got a Level 3 NVQ Certificate. They are then placed with an existing case worker to see how it works.

“We are very pedantic about who we take on, and there is a long volunteering period. Local authorities don’t employ ex-offenders, so we get hired to do the work because we bring something extra that they can’t provide – authentic and trusted people who can build a rapport with gang members.”

Elroy has benefited from this approach himself. After the last of his stints in jail for gang-related crime he was told about a job opportunity specifically targeted at ex-offenders. Elroy was hired as a case worker in Croydon in 2009, and is now an SOS Project team leader working in boroughs across north and east London.

“Everyone has a dream, everyone has a talent, everyone has something special about them. But it can get buried by issues with family, crime, gang life. Then you get people who just don’t want to change, because they are making thousands of pounds every week dealing drugs and exploiting people. They don’t want to give that up. You have to show them how things will be different, how they can make money a different way.

“To be a drug dealer you have to be very good at mental arithmetic. We train them to use these skills in a valuable way. On one occasion we took a group of kids to an investment bank for a trial week; they grasped it straight away and earned £4,000.”

But Elroy admits it’s not always as easy that. “The gang problem in London is multi-faceted, there is no magic bullet. But you need to start by meeting gang members on their turf, talking their language, and move them in a positive direction. Once you get past the bravado, you find out that all they want to do is to earn money to escape the situation they’re in.

“When the London riots happened [in 2011] we went through all of our case work, and out of 600 gang members we were working with, only four had been arrested. When we spoke to them, they said the reason they didn’t get involved was because they were on the cusp of getting a job, a place on a course, or somewhere to live, and they had done that themselves.

“We got asked to a meeting with [Home Secretary] Theresa May and we told her that you have to give people the chance to make a success of themselves. If you spend your whole life being told you will not amount to anything, it becomes a negative cycle. That’s how gangs become rife.”

I ask Elroy how bad the gang problem is in Waltham Forest. He tells me there are eight “entrenched gangs” active in the borough. Unsurprisingly, most are based in areas of deprivation, such as council estates.

“It is a huge problem. There are disaffected youth who find it difficult to get a first rung on the ladder. In the three years we’ve been working here, we have made a positive impact. Gun crime and knife crime is falling. But there is still a hardcore of gang members here. We can’t solve this on our own.”

The SOS Project forms part of what is called an Integrated Gang Unit (IGU) comprised of police, local authorities, social services and third sector groups. They work together in each London borough to tackle local gang crime. Some work better than others, according to Elroy.

“The police in Waltham Forest are good, they give us room to do our work. We’ve had people from other boroughs coming here to look at what we do because it is a very well-run service.”

What is the main problem with the approach taken to gangs? “I think there is too much focus on enforcement, arresting people won’t work. We need to give them hope. We need to make them feel part of the community, instead of labelling them troublemakers. It can be done. As a society we have found a way to solve football hooliganism – we need to do something similar with gangs.”

For the next year another charity, Spark2Life, has been commissioned to work as part of the borough’s IGU instead of St Giles Trust. But Elroy says the SOS Project has achieved a great deal, and that he’ll still give talks and meet ex-offenders in Waltham Forest. “We’ve had a positive impact here. Hopefully that can continue.”