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Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to Profits

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The aim of the current study was to understand how gangs have changed in the past 10 years since Pitts’ (2008) study in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The study undertook interviews with 21 practitioners working on gang-related issues and 10 young people affected by gangs or formerly embedded in them. Two focus groups involving 37 participants from key agencies then explored the preliminary findings and contributed to a conceptualization of a new operating model of gangs. The study found that local gangs had evolved into more organized and profit-oriented entities than a decade earlier. The new operating model rejected visible signs of gang membership as ‘bad for business’ because they attracted unwanted attention from law enforcement agencies. Faced with a saturated drugs market in London, gangs moved out to capture drugs markets in smaller UK towns in ‘county lines’ activities. This more business-oriented ethos has changed the meaning of both territory and violence. While gang members in the original study described an emotional connection with their postcode, territory is increasingly regarded as a marketplace to be protected. Similarly, violence has moved from an expressive means of reinforcing gang identity to being increasingly used as an instrumental means of protecting business interests. The current study offers a rare opportunity to gain a picture of gangs at two time periods and contributes to work on the contested nature of UK gangs and renewed interest in gang evolution. These findings have important implications for local authorities and criminal justice agencies who need to address the profit motive of gang activity directly.
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Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs
from Postcodes to Profits
Andrew Whittaker
1
&James Densley
2
&Len Cheston
1
&Tajae Tyrell
1
&
Martyn Higgins
1
&Claire Felix-Baptiste
1
&Tirion Havard
1
#Springer Nature B.V. 2019
Abstract
The aim of the current study was to understand how gangs have changed in the past 10 years
since Pitts(2008) study in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The study undertook
interviews with 21 practitioners working on gang-related issues and 10 young people affected
by gangs or formerly embedded in them. Two focus groups involving 37 participants from key
agencies then explored the preliminary findings and contributed to a conceptualization of a
new operating model of gangs. The study found that local gangs had evolved into more
organized and profit-oriented entities than a decade earlier. The new operating model rejected
visible signs of gang membership as bad for businessbecause they attracted unwanted
attention from law enforcement agencies. Faced with a saturated drugs market in London,
gangs moved out to capture drugs markets in smaller UK towns in county linesactivities.
This more business-oriented ethos has changed the meaning of both territory and violence.
While gang members in the original study described an emotional connection with their
postcode, territory is increasingly regarded as a marketplace to be protected. Similarly,
violence has moved from an expressive means of reinforcing gang identity to being increas-
ingly used as an instrumental means of protecting business interests. The current study offers a
rare opportunity to gain a picture of gangs at two time periods and contributes to work on the
contested nature of UK gangs and renewed interest in gang evolution. These findings have
important implications for local authorities and criminal justice agencies who need to address
the profit motive of gang activity directly.
Keywords Gangs .Gang evolution .County lines .Drugs .Violen ce
European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10610-019-09408-4
*Andrew Whittaker
whittaka@lsbu.ac.uk
1
London South Bank University, 103 Borough Road, London SE1 0AA, UK
2
Metropolitan State University, St Paul, MN 55106, USA
Introduction
The term gangis contested and controversial in the UK context, but a definition is essential to
the understanding of all groups, regardless of their name or primary activities and goals. Thus,
the consensus Eurogang definitionof durable and street-oriented youth groups whose
involvement in illegal activity is part of their group identity is sufficiently general to capture
the essence of the groups described herein (Klein and Maxson 2006: 4). Emphasis on
resilience and collective identity does not diminish the fact that gangs can and do change
a theme well established in gang studies (Ayling 2011;Thrasher1927; Weisel 2002). Research
demonstrates that factors internal and external to the gang contribute to its maturation
(Gottschalk 2017), and over time, gangs shift from a focus on youthful, recreational, non-
delinquent pursuits (i.e., Thrasher 1927), to financial gains, whereby crime becomes more
central to group identity (Densley 2012,2014;McLean2018).
This study investigates gang activity in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which was
the site of Pitts(2008)Reluctant Gangsters: The Changing Face of Youth Crime, the first in
what has since become a resurgence in contemporary studies of gangsin the United
Kingdom (Densley 2013; Deuchar 2009; Fraser 2015;Hallsworth2013;Harding2014). Pitts
study provided a clear baseline for understanding gangs, especially in east and south London,
but most notably in the borough of Waltham Forest, where much of the study took place (see
Pitts 2007). In his original study, Pitts (2007,2008) found that gangs had developed only
within the past decade. Gang members in Waltham Forest described an emotional relationship
with their local area, leading one young respondent to say that he would defend anyone who
lived in his postcode(Pitts 2008: 114). These territories bore little if any relationship to drugs
markets, and the violence involved appeared to serve little practical purpose beyond providing
an arena to demonstrate courage and physical prowess.
A decade later, a research team went back to Waltham Forest to see what, if anything, had
changed. The study was commissioned by the London Borough of Waltham Forest on behalf
of the local gang partnership, because they perceived that gangs in their area had changed and
they wanted to understand how they had changed and what their new operating models were
(Whittaker et al. 2018). As a 10-year follow up study, it provides an opportunity to compare
gang activity across two time periods and to establish current and future risks and implications.
Below, we outline the findings in detail, namely the evolution of gangs from an emphasis on
territorial violence (postcodes) to a focus on illicit enterprise (profits). We begin by examining
the contemporary literature on UK gangs and evidence for the evolution of gangs in this
context.
Literature Review: A Decade of UK Gang Research
The empirical turnand subsequent quantification of gang researchthat began in the late
1980s (Pyrooz and Mitchell 2015: 42) has meant that in the decades since, gang research has
morphed into research that is more about gang members than about gangs. Bucking this trend,
the current study works in the tradition of the classicor goldeneras of scholarship that put
the gang front and centre (Pyrooz and Mitchell 2015: 41). The nature and origin of gangs in the
UK has nevertheless been contested by those arguing that gangs are a response to urban
poverty and those arguing that gangs are a social construction reflecting a victimization of
youth, particularly black and ethnic minority youth (Williams 2015).
A. Whittaker et al.
Notwithstanding the ethnographic work of Patrick (1973), who identified the presence
of violent territorial gangs in Glasgow in the 1960s, Britain is traditionally known for its
street-oriented youth tribes and subcultures of ritual resistance, not gangsper se (see
Pearson 2006,2011). Britains inability to see gangs has been attributed in part to a
collective failure of imagination, brought about by a constrained view of what Britain is
supposed to be imagining (Klein 2001). All this changed in 2008, when, amid rising
youth violence in Britains urban centres, John Pitts (2008) proclaimed gangs to be the
changing face of youth crime. Drawing on qualitative research in east and south
London, Pitts offered an explanatory theoretical position centred on the impact of
globalization and the concentration of poverty in deprived neighbourhoods, which acted
as crucibles for gang activity. Pitts identified a generation of marginalized reluctant
gangsters, who pragmatically joined gangs in an effort to negotiate the harsh realities of
street life. Gangs were real, were violent, and disproportionally affected the poorest in
society, Pitts said.
Pittsfindings prompted backlash from some critics. Notably, Hallsworth (2013)argued
that youth crime could not be reduced to gangs and that Pitts had misrepresented the violent
street worldsyoung people seeking relief from boredom and structural inequality had created.
Gangs, Hallsworth argued, were a social construction and media invention around which both
police and academics coalesced in order to keep themselves in paid work. Pitts, he concluded,
had succumbed to unguarded gang talk(Hallsworth and Young 2008) and was reminded that
loose lips sink ships. Hallsworth foreshadowed heavy criticism of subsequent government
policy on gangs (see Shute and Medina 2014; Smithson and Ralphs 2016), with some
commentators arguing that the G-wordhelped politicians justify the scapegoating and
criminalization of black and minority ethnic youth (Alexander 2008; Gunter 2017; Smithson
et al. 2012; Williams 2015).
Pitts (2012,2016) responded in kind to these criticisms, describing the academics
underplaying victim impact or neutralizing harm caused by gangs as reluctant criminologists
blinded by cognitive dissonance and in dereliction of their professional duty to transform
private troubles into public issues. He argued that knowledge of gangs was first raised in
Britains deprived neighbourhoods by victims, their parents, and local (but voiceless) youth
workers (Pitts 2012). These concerns were soon picked up by media narrators and journalists
who, in the absence of any contemporary UK vocabulary, adopted US tropes and language to
refer to these different delinquent collectives (see Densley 2011; Van Hellemont and Densley
2018). The discourse adopted often obfuscated the fact that the UK had its own home-grown
areas of multiple marginality(Vigil 2002) and that racial discrimination, income inequality, a
lack of affordable housing, and conflict over the control of drug markets had birthed a
quintessentially British variety of street gang. Gangs were a reaction to British society, not
the other way around.
Battle lines were drawn. To gang, or not to gang, that was the question. By interviewing
youth in Manchester, colleagues were able to identify territorial gangs, with the caveat that
they were more messy and fluidthan those studied by Pitts in London or, indeed, the
prototypical gangs of the United States (Aldridge and Medina 2008;Ralphsetal.2009).
Densley (2013) too found gangs, this time in London, including violent, hierarchically
organized groups that resembled those described by Pitts.
Densley (2012,2014) further identified a linear progression of gangs from early expressive
to late instrumental stages. This evolution permitted movement from recreational goals and
activities, through crime, towards financial goal orientation, wherein gangs resemble not just
Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to...
crime that is organized, but organized crime(Densley 2013: 66). For Densley, UK street
gangs not only were real, but covered a wide spectrum from simple to complex.
Also in London, Harding (2014) applied Bourdieus social field theory to argue that gangs
constitute a unique social field with its own rules and logic. Within this social arena of intense
competition, young gang members both survived and thrived by generating, trading, and
maintaining personal levels of street capital’—a road ranking that determined position in the
gang hierarchy and allowed others to rank their position. Harding said this was done by
employing the gang repertoire, a variable collection of criminal activity that allowed gang
members to build reputations and demonstrate skill. For Harding, the social field of the gang
was always evolving, as demonstrated by the recent integration of social media into the life of
UK gangs (Irwin-Rogers et al. 2018; Storrod and Densley 2017). The evolution of UK gangs
has been further demonstrated by an emerging county linessupply model of illicit drugs
(NCA 2016;Robinsonetal.2018; Storrod and Densley 2017; Windle and Briggs 2015b),
whereby gang members in hub cities like London commuteto provincial markets not just to
wholesale their product, but also to retail it (for a discussion, see Coomber and Moyle 2017).
Gang evolution in relation to drug dealing has also been observed in Glasgow, Scotlands
largest city (McLean 2018;McLeanetal.2018a,2018b).
The Current Study
The process of gang evolution is difficult to capture in research, however, because gang studies
often focus on individual gang members (not gangs), are cross sectional and time-bound, and
are very rarely if at all replicated. Such is the unique contribution of the current study, a 10-
year follow-up of John Pitts(2008)Reluctant Gangsters. Set in the London borough of
Waltham Forest, the site of the original study, and based on interviews with practitioners and
young people, but also analysis of official data, the current research provides an opportunity to
compare gang activity across two time periods. It investigates the extent to which there are
perceived similarities or differences in the nature of street gangs in the area studied by Pitts,
and whether gangs were thought to have changed in the past 10 years, thus contributing to the
emerging literature on the nature and extent of gangs in the United Kingdom.
Methods
The study adopted a research design using qualitative data collection methods of semi-
structured interviews and focus groups at two stages, allowing for the exploration of a model
of gangs developed from the initial data. Since those affected by the topic of interest can hold
strong views and even participate in gang talk, where professionals who work together can
form a shared view that may not be accurate but which is a shared story that is propagated
through a particular team or service (Hallsworth and Young, 2008), the study design empha-
sized both methodological and data triangulation to avoid outsiderinterpretations being
imposed on the data (Williamson and Whittaker, 2017).
The first stage consisted of semi-structured interviews with professionals from the statutory
and voluntary sector (21 participants). Professional participants were recruited through the
local multi-agency gang partnership. The professionals had a range of different levels of
experience in working with gangs, from people who had only a few yearsexperience to
A. Whittaker et al.
people who had worked continuously with gang members in the local area for the past 15
years. Table 1lists the professional participants involved in the study.
Ten young people, four of whom were former gang members, were interviewed. We have
used the term formeror ex-gang memberto describe young people who have had varying
degrees of embeddednessin gangs (Pyrooz et al. 2013) and who either self-identify as gang
members or have been identified by gang intervention agencies as being involved with local
gangs. This group, which comprises a modest number of gang members, has traditionally been
very difficult for researchers to reach, and the new emphasis on secrecy had made recruitment
significantly more difficult. The individuals represented a range of different gangs and were
recruited through grassroots gang intervention agencies. All had left within the preceding 12
18 months, and some still retained strong social links with the gangs they had been involved
with. Six young people living in the local area who were affected by gang activity were
interviewed together as a group. These young people were not embedded gang members but
had extensive knowledge of local gang activity and were recruited by the local authority.
All participants, whether former gang members, gang-affected youth, or professionals, were
asked questions focused on their knowledge of local gangs, the gangscurrent activities, and
any changes that they had noticed in the previous 10 years.
The study was ethically sensitive, particularly because of the risk of retribution towards ex-
gang members who participated. Therefore, former gang members were interviewed individ-
ually, and care was taken when making contact and establishing a safe place for interviews to
take place. Similarly, transcripts were carefully anonymized to protect the identity of partic-
ipants. Participants were provided with a participant information sheet and a consent form
before and at the interview. Afterwards, participants were debriefed by the interviewer and had
the opportunity to ask questions. The study received ethical approval from the London South
Bank University ethics committee. To avoid potential identification, no descriptive information
relating to participantsdemographic details has been included.
Table 1 List of participants
The following people were involved in individual interviews or focus groups:
Former gang members (4 participants) from a range of local gangs
Young people affected by gang activity (6 participants)
Professionals (21 participants) from the following services:
Local voluntary sector gang intervention agencies
Pan-London agency working with young girls involved in gangs
Local authority young peoples involvement staff
Local authority victim advocacy team
Local authority community safety team
Local authority early help service
Metropolitan Police, including senior and front-line officers involved in the Youth Offending Service
Gang lead workers for neighbouring local authorities
Pan-London Trident police gang unit
Youth Offending Service
Probation Service
Local research and intelligence service
Political leaders within the local authority
Voluntary sector drugs organization
Pupil Referral Unit (school service for young people who have been excluded from or otherwise unable to attend
a mainstream educational institution)
Staff from the local Prevent (anti-terrorism) service
Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to...
A documentary analysis was undertaken of data related to gangs held by local services,
including law enforcement and social service providers. This included historical data on the
activities linked with specific gangs and the scale and severity of the crimes attributed to them,
which provided snapshots of how specific gangs had developed over a time period. It was
important to critically review such data, as some information was more reliable than others,
e.g., had been corroborated from multiple reliable sources. Professionals involved in gathering
and analysing information were aware of these difficulties and discussed how it had become
increasingly problematic as gangs were becoming more sophisticated in hiding their activities.
At the end of stage one, the whole data set from the first stage was imported into qualitative
data analysis software (NVivo 11) and was analysed using thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke
2006,2013) and preliminary themes and sub-themes findings were formulated. The research
team found that there was a comparatively high degree of agreement between data obtained
from former gang members and young people affected by gangs and the voluntary and
statutory sector professionals involved in working with them.
The initial data analysis suggested a new operating model of gangs. To explore and
elucidate this model, two focus groups were held, comprising key people across the range
of statutory and voluntary agencies: voluntary sector gang intervention organizations, youth
groups, the youth offending service, police, the probation service, and health and voluntary
agencies working with young people. A total of 37 participants were involved in two focus
groups, who helped triangulate and clarify points made earlier, and reflect upon the proposed
new operating model for gangs. The aim was to strengthen the credibility and confirmability
(Lincoln and Guba 1985) of the study by using methodological as well as data triangulation in
order to provide an opportunity for the emerging themes to be challenged and deepened and
thefindingstobemademorerobust.
Findings and Discussion
Waltham Forest
Waltham Forest is a London borough of 15 square miles and 275,000 residents in
northeast London, England. It was one of the host boroughs of the 2012 London
Olympics, and this, along with a bourgeoning economy, has seen the development of a
night-time economy in parts of the borough, combined with rising house prices and rents.
In the past decade, social housing stock was sold and returned as buytoletproperties.
The number of employed people in the borough increased, and improvements in school
performance were also observed. At the same time, however, there has been a reduction
in government funding to the public sector and its partners, owing to an austerity
response to the global financial crisis of 2008. Although many respondents lamented
that less money was available today than 10 years ago for both mainstream and specialist
services in Waltham Forest, analysis of the impact on communities, gang members, and
their families was beyond the scope of this study.
Through all these changes, however, street gangs were constant. In 2017, approximately
230 individuals were identified by police as gang members or associates, and 56 people were
currently imprisoned or on remand for a gang-related offence, ranging from minor fraud to
serious violence. Table 2lists the gangs identified in the Pitts(2007) study and the currently
identified gangs in Waltham Forest.
A. Whittaker et al.
There are currently 12 gangs who are active in Waltham Forest, compared to the 13 gangs
identified by Pitts (2007). Of Pittsoriginal gangs, only four (Beaumont Crew, Priory Court,
Drive, and Boundary) are still active. One new gang, the Mali Boys, features prominently in
this paper because it featured strongly in the data obtained from both young people and
professionals. When participants were asked about the different gangs, the Mali Boys were
discussed more often than the remaining gangs combined.
Gang Evolution
There have been key changes in the ways that gangs operate since Pitts(2007,2008) original
report 10 years ago. Gangs have moved away from a focus on postcodes towards a more
professional business approach focused upon the drugs market. Succinctly stated:
Back then it wasnt about moneyBack then it was just about ratings (Participant 27,
ex-gang member).
Its not really about postcodes any more. Its about money (Participant 10, statutory
sector professional).
This shift has three core elements. Firstly, a move away from postcodes and visible displays of
membership, towards avoiding activities that attract police attention. Secondly, territory has
developed a new meaning. Instead of an emotional sense of belonging to a postcode that needs
to be defended, territory is valued as a marketplace to be maintained. Thirdly, a focus upon
financial gain through control of drugs markets, particularly through alliances with other gangs
and aggressive expansion outside of London to new markets with the development of county
lineoperations. Each element will be explored in greater depth.
From Postcodes to Profits
We just dont hear about postcodestheyve evolved now in that, you know, the moneys
with the drugs (Participant 9, pan-London statutory sector professional).
Table 2 Gangs ident ified in the
original Pitts (2007)studycom-
pared to current gangs
Original gangs (Pitts 2007) Current gangs (2017)
1. Beaumont E10
2. Boundary/Monserrat
3. Priory Court
4. Drive
5. Piff City
6. Red African Devils
7. Canhall
8. Barrier/Brookscroft
9. Highams Park
10. New World Order
11. Asian Auto Theft
12. Hackney Overground
Commuters
13. Russian/Lithuanian/Polish
Gangs
1. Beaumont Crew E10
2. Boundary Boys E17
3. Priory Court E17
4. The Drive/DM Crew E17
5. Mali Boys/Mali Strip E10/E17
6. Loyal Soldiers/Cathall Boys
E11
7. Chingford Hall E4
8. Selrack E4
9. Stoneydown E17
10. Coppermill E17
11. OC C rew E 10
12. Thatched House Thugs E15
Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to...
Its moved on from postcode-related activity: its now more to do with drug dealing. I
think thats changed, probably, over the last, maybe, 5 years (Participant 8, statutory
sector professional).
When the Reluctant Gangsters study was completed 10 years ago, the focus was upon
postcode territories that needed to be defended from outsiders. Gang members described
an emotional relationship with their local area, encapsulated by one participant who
stated:
IddefendanyoneinE10(Key Informant 27, Pitts 2007:34).
These territories often bore little if any relationship to drugs markets and gang territories. Gang
membership was exhibited through gang colours, where clothing and other insignia were
used to demonstrate a visible presence within that territory. Throughout the fieldwork,
however, local and pan-London participants consistently reported that this had changed:
Gangs nowadays have gone away from that territory-based colour, clothing with
violencethey are all going towards financial criminal activity (Participant 12, statutory
sector professional).
We have become more and more aware of a decreasing focus on territory and honour
(Participant 1, statutory sector professional).
The most commonly expressed explanation for this change was that using gang colours
drew unwanted attention from law enforcement agencies. One statutory professional
explained:
Idont see it at all anymore. So it was particular bandanas, particular colours linked to
specific gangs, and that was how you would identify whether you were a member of a
particular gang, whether you were a rival gang member. So its very unclear that the
person, whether they are linked to a gang at all, because this clothing or colour
association isnt sort of present anymore, and it's a lot more covert, the gangs are active
and operating at a more covert level (Participant 12, statutory sector professional).
A pan-London statutory professional saw it as a wider trend across London and made a similar
point:
Why stand out? Why wear colours and identify yourself? Because you know police are
just going to stop youSo,theyve certainly moved with the times (Participant 9, pan-
London statutory sector).
However, one young person saw the original focus on postcodes and gang colours as heavily
influenced by the media:
Someone in the media came out and called us gangs, and then everyone just seemed to
run with it and it became a cool thing. Lets do this thing and lets get colours, letsget
A. Whittaker et al.
bandannas, and well give ourselves a name, but realistically it is just individuals who
are friends (Young person, focus group).
This presents an interesting account of how media interest in gangs may have originally
contributed to the response by gangs in adopting American-style gang insignia (for a
discussion, see Van Hellemont and Densley 2018). The two explanations are not mutually
exclusive; media interest may have provoked an impetus to develop a gang identity, but gang
members may then have realized that these insignia have unwanted consequences. Another
aspect was avoiding ostentatious displays of wealth, such as expensive cars and clothes. This is
mainly promoted by a specific gang, the Mali Boys, who will be discussed in detail later.
Whilst this was often attributed to being a distinguishing feature of this gang compared to other
gangs, this new way of operating is consistent with a recent Home Office study (Disley and
Liddle 2016: 36), which found:
Gangs were thought to be operating more covertly, in part in response to the use of gang
injunctions and other enforcement tactics... But practitioners and associates also sug-
gested that reduced visibility could be a sign of gangs evolving into more organized
groups (a trend reported in other research into gangs in the UK) who avoid public signs
of gang affiliation on the grounds that it is Bbad for business^.
Gang Businessand the Drugs Market
You notice how gangs have changed, how their modus operandi has changed, it just
shows that they will evolve, the strong gangs will evolve and change (Participant 48,
statutory sector professional, focus group 2).
A consistent theme across the accounts of ex-gang members, young people, and professionals
was that there had been a move towards a more professional operating model that was focused
upon the drugs market:
That seems to have exploded in the last few years, I think: the drug dealing. I think its
still more now because of the whole thing: the explosion around drugs. Its more around
getting the money (Participant 6, statutory sector professional)
Indeed, one participant felt that it had become so centred on the drugs market and so
economically driven, that the original focus on gang identity was being lost:
To be honest with you, what I think now is that its more about the drug dealing. The
gangs isnt reallyI mean, the drug dealers dont care: they just need to make their
money and they dont care if people say theyre from a gang or whatever (Participant 6,
statutory sector professional).
In the original report, Pitts (2007) described the embryonic stages of this development as a
response, in part, to the theory and practice of situational crime prevention (e.g., Clarke 1980),
which had forced gangs to change their modus operandi from one-off large robberies or blags
Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to...
involving banks, post offices, and security vans, to drug distribution, which was inherently less
risky. One professional also linked it to increasing affluence in the local economy that
contributed to the growth of the drugs market:
Ten or 15 years ago, robbery was the main crime because the money wasnttherefora
drug market, it was robbery to fund the recreation habit. But its now moved on, drugs is
now the main thing (Participant 37, statutory sector professional, focus group 2).
Anchored in Thrashers(1927) classic concept of gangs as playgroups,Densley(2014)
argues that gangs initially start off as groups of peers who come together based on similar
recreational activities, which then expands into offering each other goods and services. One
professional that was interviewed for the study described the recreation stagethrough the
eyes of a gang member:
They go to the [music] studio, they hang out and they may play games like PlayStation
and Xbox. Some of them go to school so they meet in education, they meet anywhere, like
the chicken shop (Participant 10, statutory sector professional).
Participants from the focus group described the recreational stage of a gang:
Similar people tend to do similar things, so if you are around somebody that is doing
something for long enough, birds of a feather, you will naturally start to do it. You make
friends, you chill with your friends, and if your friends do bad things, then sometimes
you get caught up and sometimes you dont(Participant 23, young person, focus group
1).
While the initial recreational stage was focused on socializing and participating in everyday
activities, it also became clear that not everyone within the gang had the same agenda. A
former Mali Gang member that was interviewed for the study explained that some people were
very focused on money whilst others were more focused upon recreation:
There are two different types of people. There are people who are just really money
hungry, and then theres people that are just coming to the Strip (the main drug dealing
area) just to chill, small quantities of [marijuana] spliffs and chill, do you know what I
mean? There are certain people who are just on money, those type of people, the police
know them, individuals know those people and those people make a lot of money
(Participant 28, ex-gang member)
The prospect of making money was appealing to gang members from low-income back-
grounds with little formal education, hence the evolution to the stage where more criminal
offences take place and members are integrated into the gang by committing offences in order
to gain respect amongst the peers and rival gangs (Harding 2014). However, this crime stage
(Densley 2014) also attracts attention from the police, and, as documented in prior research
(e.g., Thrasher 1927; Decker 1996; Suttles 1968), the gang then forms greater solidarity in
order to navigate external pressures, including from rival gangs.
In relation to the criminal stage, the Mali Boys were mentioned several times throughout
the study as being the most prominent gang in the borough. In order to gain respect during the
A. Whittaker et al.
crime stage, an ex-gang member gave an example of a situation that had previously occurred
within the borough:
So I could be a younger that will carry knives, and I dont care about stabbing people so
I will do the dirty work for people. So, in that sense, one of the olders can go up and say,
BOh, yes, Ive got an issue with this person. Deal with him^. I do it repeatedly, until I get
this reputation of, BRight, that guy is crazy, he will stab you in seconds, he doesntcare^,
and then you gain this more of a status……people just have more respect for you
(Participant 29, ex-gang member).
It is in the enterprisestage, the third part of Densleys(2014) gang evolution model, where
street capital(Harding 2014) earned through crime and violence is transformed into financial
capital, as gangs move away from everyday recreational activities and personal friendships, to
focus more on business acumen:
They have got a good supply of drugs, and so from a business point of view I think
certain people have teamed up with them because they get good stuff at a good price I
guess (Participant 7, voluntary sector professional).
The Mali Boys had moved from a crimestage to the enterprisestage. The difference is that
criminal activity such as drug dealing is an important means of supporting the gangs activities
in the crime stage, whereas it becomes an end in itself in the enterprise stage. This was
captured by one statutory sector professional:
The drug dealing is almost their raison d'êtreit is an industry, that they would look to
expand as any successful industry (Participant 11, statutory sector professional).
Consistent with prior research on drug-selling gangs (e.g., Decker et al. 2008), enterprising
gangs adopted a more formalized structure in order to organize activities efficiently, which was
noted by both young people and professionals:
What Ive seen is they are more organized now (Participant 22, young person).
The thing which were more aware of is a more formalized structure to things (Partic-
ipant 1, statutory sector professional).
The reasons why drugs markets had become central to gang activity was explained by a former
gang member:
Its predominantly drugs because, as a gang member, thatsyourmoststableincome.Its
easier for you to get a bag of weed or a kilo or half or whatever and sell it. Itseasier
than going out and having to rob people every day. Theres a lot less risk involved
(Participant 29, ex-gang member).
This view was elaborated on by a statutory sector professional:
Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to...
Mobile phones back then were worth a lot more than they are now. There are mecha-
nisms now to block phones, so theyre just useless handsets. There isntreallymuch
benefit from robbing someone unless you're going to rob them for cash, but people aren't
walking around with cash in their handsWeve seen a massive reduction, I think, in
robberies because its not a viable source of income. Drug criminality is a confirmed
source of income (Participant 12, statutory sector professional).
Whilst illegal drug markets were perceived as generally peaceable compared to robbery,
interviewees still shared examples of systemicviolence (Goldstein 1985;Reuter2009), both
internal to gangs (i.e., for disciplinary purposes) and external to gangs (i.e., transactional). For
example:
When your son or daughter becomes somebody who is just evil, as in violent and doing
heinous crimes, like kidnapping people and holding them hostagelike I know a story
where the Malis had got a boy in the [car] boot and drove him all the way to Wales
money, drugs, you know, owe people money, youve got to pay the debt, if you aintgot
the money get yourself killed or something (Participant 20, young person).
Young people argued that money was the key motivator for gangs, and violence was an
instrumental means of protecting business interests rather than an expressive means of
reinforcing gang identity:
You need to make some money, and that is the best way to make money, and if youve got
links already into that kind of activity, then I can see why people do it, and it's going
away from the violence. There is still violence because of the drug activity but not so
much violence just for the sake of violence, because it then highlights the other activity
you were doing (Participant 12, statutory sector professional).
The gangs at the moment are much more about making money, and they will use
violence to get what they want (Participant 6, statutory sector professional).
Recent research in another London borough revealed a similar emphasis on money-making
among gang youth, with social media being used to advertise and facilitate the gangs
instrumental activities (Storrod and Densley 2017).
A Changing Relationship with Territory
With a reduced focus upon postcodes, territory developed a new meaning for gangs. Although
territory was also important for business purposes, it was more for instrumental than expres-
sive reasons. Rather than purely an emotional sense of belonging, there was an increasing
sense of territory as a workplace (see McLean et al. 2018b). For example, county lines
operations provide access to new markets without the constant physical presence required to
defend a particular postcode or estate (Robinson et al. 2018).
It is likely that this has been influenced by developments in housing, such as increasing
housing pressures and the redevelopment of the Beaumont Estate, which made it increasingly
difficult for some gangs to maintain a structure based on small estates. Some senior gang
A. Whittaker et al.
members now do not live in the estate where their gang is based, but rather they commuteto
work. This was expressed by one professional in the following way:
Some of the more senior ones that are a bit oldersome of the more coordinated
playersmay well have their own addresses. Some of them live off borough as well. So
they come in to work (Participant 11, statutory sector professional).
Gangs operating county lines, moreover, use a single telephone number for ordering drugs,
operated from outside the area, which becomes the groupsbrand. Part of the more business-
focused operating model is the expansion of markets using county lines operations, which is
common across London and other major UK cities, rather than being a local phenomenon (see
Coomber and Moyle 2017; Densley et al. 2018;NCA2016;WindleandBriggs2015b). One
statutory sector professional described the logic behind the targeting of new markets:
They identify areas where there is a demand, and if you think a lot of these people in
Ipswich, there are these dead-end towns with former days of glory and unemployment is
going up, the industrial decline. People who would have done those jobs in the past are
now targeted by drug dealers. That creates a demand (Participant 16, statutory sector
professional).
One young person expressed it as follows:
When you look at gangs, the root of it, a lot of criminal offences come from money and
the money comes from the drugs, so like in any market, when it becomes overpopulated
they need to find a new market, so they find another area that maybe they can make
money from (Participant 24, young person, focus group 1)
Greater Opportunities for Business Alliances
The pursuit of business interests has led to greater opportunities to engage in alliances that can
serve the interests of both parties. This is particularly true of the Mali Boys as the most
influential gang in Waltham Forest currently and leading the new operating model. One
statutory sector professional described their approach:
Theyre very much into much more of a business allianceit is the professionalism of
that particular gang, they are more focused on making money than on inter-turf warfare
(Participant 4, statutory sector professional).
Another statutory sector professional gave the example of how the Mali Boys had recently
formed an alliance with a smaller gang (DM Crew):
But the Mali Boys being feared and being the bigger gang by this point... have basically
absorbed the DM Crew. They are almost like an umbrella gang, where they move into
areas where theres smaller gangs and basically, Im assuming, put it to them, you are
either with us or against us, so the smaller gangs join them. Its almost like a franchise,
Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to...
like McDonalds or Benetton, where the Mali Boys have got a very effective pyramid
structure, business plan, but instead of burgers and woolly jumpers, its Class A drugs
and cannabis (Participant 16, statutory sector professional).
Franchises and alliances are well documented in the literature on drug-selling gangs (e.g.,
Levitt and Venkatesh 2000), and, also consistent with the literature, one former gang member
explained how business alliances between gangs could be unstable:
One minute youre friends; the next minute youre not. And it could just be one person
within that group. You lot could all be fine. There could be ten guys from this gang, ten
guys from that gang: everyones fine with each other apart from this person, and this
person doesnt get on. They have a fight: their friends have to back their friends
(Participant 29, ex-gang member).
Indeed, a former gang member described how, in times of hardship, gang members can turn on
each other, at times using what Reuter (2009:275)describesassuccessionalviolence for
upward mobility:
Even within that tight circle, when things are getting hard, theres not enough money
coming through, maybe theres been a drought with the drugsno weed coming
inthey will literally look at whos in their circle and think, BWho can we rob?^BWho
can we kick out?^BWho can we get rid of?^in their own circle (Participant 29, ex-gang
member).
A Highly Exploitative Operating Model
There is clear evidence that gangs in Waltham Forest have developed county lines operations
outside the capital:
Its all about the drug dealing now. Its about getting young people out in the streets,
selling your drugs for you, not really caring too much about any outcome they may have
(Participant 6, statutory sector professional)
However, this new business model places several groups of people at elevated risk of criminal
exploitation(Robinson et al. 2018). Firstly, through financial and status incentives or debt
bondage, or both, children and young people are at risk of being drawn into working in drug
markets, both locally and outside of their area. The particular vulnerability of younger people
was highlighted by one participant:
Youngers are normally easier to influence, when they are at school (Participant 21, ex-
gang member, focus group 1).
A second vulnerable group are individuals whose property is taken over by gangs for use as a
local base for drug dealing, a practice known as cuckooing(Coomber and Moyle 2017). This
is well established in county lines activities (Robinson et al. 2018); however, this tactic is also
used locally to provide addresses for storing and packaging drugs and as places to hide during
A. Whittaker et al.
police activities. A former Mali Boys member insisted that the ways that they took over
peoples homes was not exploitative:
You see, one thing that were known for, the Malis, we aint dickheads, we wontbea
prick that knows this woman is disabled and whatnot and were going to use her house
to do our things and whatnot, yeah. It can happen, Im not saying they wont do it, but it
is a thing where we have respect that comes from our culture, respect, thats one thing
weve got, weve got respect, do you know what I mean? So stuff like that, disabled
people, old people, people like that is the type of thing where we have respect for them,
so its not like we can run in their house and do whatever we need to do and then shut
the door behind their backs. We do it where the person where we are using their house is
getting something out of it as well, so its not just, oh were friends, well use your house.
That person is getting money or drugs or something (Participant 28, ex-gang member).
This could be seen as a form of denial in which taking over someoneshouseismorallyre-
framed as a transaction between consenting adults in which both parties gain. When he
was questioned further, he explained the motivation for using somebodys home in this
way:
If they are outside, it is more of a way that they can get caught. Lets be honest. They are
just getting paid to think smart here. What people are getting paid for is to think for us,
so what it is, we have to find our little rat holes where can just crawl in quickly, so them
rat holeseven those houses, they dont really sell things out of it; all they really do with
these type of houses is they just go there and bag up their weed (Participant 28, ex-gang
member).
However, individuals with drug debts, prior criminal histories, or precarious non-
citizenship status are especially vulnerable to cuckooing. When used locally, the existence
of established drug dealing areas means there is less need to use properties to sell drugs.
Instead, the properties are often used to store and package drugs and as somewhere for
street dealers to hide during law enforcement activities. This means that they attract less
attention and are more difficult to discover, which presents additional risks to the vulner-
able people involved.
Another group at risk is local businesses, who may be intimidated by gangs, including
being forced to remove or disable their CCTVs. One participant identified a case in which
a local branch of a national fast food chain was taken over to sell drugs from:
Sometimes they do want to set up shop somewhere, so they use intimidation. If theyve a
favourite shop, they intimidate the shopkeeper into taking down the CCTV, for example.
They threaten violence and use violence sometimes. Theres a [local branch of a national
fast food chain] that they took over for a while, intimidating the owners there. Again, I
think they choose them quite carefully. So they probably choose their victims carefully
(Participant 11, statutory sector professional).
Campana and Varese (2018) argue that if a gang can generate fear in a community and coerce
legal businesses, then it is beginning to regulate or governillicit production and exchange
the last stage of evolution towards organized crime(see also Von Lampe 2016).
Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to...
The Postcodes to Profitoperating model: The Mali Boys
The Mali Boys will be discussed in detail, as they personify the changes that had taken
place in the new operating model. They are currently the most influential gang in
Waltham Forest, having filled a power vacuum created 2 or 3 years ago following police
operations in relation to two other prominent gangs. The Mali Boys were formerly in
alliance with another large gang, the Beaumont Crew, but split in 2016 and now operate
separately.
The Mali Boys have subsumed several smaller gangs (DM Crew, Boundary, Coppermill,
and Stoneydown gangs) under their umbrella due to their reputation for extreme violence and
access to high-quality drugs supply. As one participant stated:
I think theyve got a good supply of drugs, and so from a business point of view, I think
certain people have teamed up with them because they get good stuff at a good price
(Participant 16, statutory sector professional).
Although the gang called itself the Mali Boys, the gang has a multi-racial membership,
as did all of the gangs of Waltham Forest. Although gang elders were more likely to be
Somalian, youngers(Densley 2012; Pitts 2008) were rarely from Somalian backgrounds,
which was consistent with their philosophy of keeping alow profile. Youngers were
recruited and used as retail drugs dealers and drug runners, and sometimes left the London
area for county lines drug dealing organized and paid for by the Mali Boys elders. The
younger gang members between the ages of 12 and 17 were increasingly becoming active
in street-level crime as both victims and perpetrators, including serious violence, weapons
carrying, sexual violence and exploitation, and drug dealing:
Then you saw the Mali Boys become much more of a network within the criminal
element of the Somali community, who are very active initially across London and now
nationallyone thing about the gangs is that they are very diverse and have a very
multicultural recruitment policy, and you started seeing younger boys, less so girls,
mainly boys being affiliated and associated with the Mali Boys who had a non-Somali
background (Participant 6, statutory sector professional).
Notably, the Mali Boys initiated the £5 bag model of drug supply in the St. James Street area,
known as the Mali Strip:
They will sell any amount to make whatever they can. They obviously produce such a
level that they can afford to do thatthey are not geographically driven, they are
spread across the whole of the borough and in other parts of London as wellI think
they are going to have the variety of product to take over from everyone else (Participant
42, statutory sector professional, focus group 2).
Many interviewees described how this presented a new operating model. For example, one
participant identified several other ways in which the Mali Boys were different from
others. Firstly, they collected intelligence on police officers through social media such
as Facebook, as well as collecting officerspersonal number plates as a form of
intimidation:
A. Whittaker et al.
With seeing the Mali Boys coming now its a different kettle of fish altogether. Whereas
some of the other gangs were involved in the drugs trade, that wasnt necessarily their
raison d'être. It was the gang came firstBut the Mali Boys seem to have a business
model and are a much more professional outfit. And that manifests itself in many
different ways, such as the intelligence collection they do on officers. So they try and
intimidate officers by collecting number plates, etc., and going on social media (Partic-
ipant 11, statutory sector professional).
Second, they used mobile phone technology to place spotters at strategic places to warn others
of any police presencea tactic first observed in London by Densley (2013). This was
combined with more traditional methods, such as waiting outside of the police station to
record the number plates of officerspersonal cars.
Its for power, to try and intimidatethere were a number of the Mali Boys recently who
were hanging around the back gate of one of the police stations where the police come in
and out, and they were making notes of the registration marks of the police officers
personal vehicles and taking photographs of those vehicles. What they were saying was
we know where you live, we can trace you from this and that type of thing. It is a
statement from the Mali Boys that theyre not scared of the police, and itsalmostsabre
rattling (Participant 16, statutory sector professional).
The participant pointed out that gang members would not be able to gain home addresses for
car registrations, so the information was of limited value, adding that:
I just dont think it would be in their best interests to start taking on the police that
way. They know the legal system, theyre using these kids, so for the older gang
memberstosay,right,were going to take out the police and do this, that, and the
other, is only going to make it more tough for them, so the status quo is better for
them as it is so at the moment it is, why disrupt it? Were not the enemy, the enemy is
the rival gangs. Theyre making money, theyre being successful (Participant 16,
statutory sector professional).
Thirdly,theMaliboysworkedinflexiblewaysinresponsetopoliceoperations:
They are agile enough not to shut down operations when police have a high-visibility
operation on the High Street. Theyll just go into peoples houses: cuckooing. So,
actually, its a more sophisticated approach than, I think, hitherto weve experienced
with the other gangs (Participant 11, statutory sector professional).
Reports from multiple sources indicated that four gangs (the Boundary Boys, The Drive/
DM Crew, Stoneydown, and Coppermill) were operating under the umbrella of the Mali
Boys. Four other gangs (Beaumont Crew, Priory Court, Chingford Hall, and Loyal
Soldiers) are larger gangs that have evolved in a similar way as the Mali Boys but are
less organized and powerful. Three gangs (Selrack, OC Crew, and Thatched House Thugs)
are smaller and less visible, partly due to the incarceration of key members.
One of the key questions now is whether the emergence of the Mali Boys is a local
phenomenon or part of wider pan-London trends. Clearly, knowledge gaps remain, especially
Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to...
when the UK continues to debate the utility of the word gang(e.g., Gunter 2017). Definitions
aside, although local participants have described the Mali Boys as being unique in many
respects, participants working in pan-London roles have identified similar changes in gang
operating models, which suggests that it is more than a local phenomenon. One participant
noted:
Gangs have become much more organizedits not so much around postcodes... a lot of
it centres around the drugs, the county lines, the violence and vulnerability (Participant
9, pan-London statutory sector professional).
Further, this is compatible with a Home Office survey across the 33 areas in the govern-
ments Ending Gang and Youth Violence (EGYV) program, which found a mixed national
picture (Disley and Liddle 2016). In London, over a third of areas (35%) reported that
gangs in their area were more likely to get involved in organized criminal activities
compared to 2 years ago. Only 11% of respondents from outside London identified a
similar change. Respondents in London were also more likely to report an increase in
organized and large-scale drug supply, describing local gangs as more professional,
operating in more intelligentways, and having financial or commercial motivations
(Disley and Liddle 2016: 46).
County lines operations, for example, are already well developed, and the emerging threats
arise as gangs move onto the next stage, when local gangs seek to secure markets in rural
towns that already have county lines activities run by other gangs from London or other large
cities. The result is likely to be escalating conflict as gangs compete for new territory (Densley
et al. 2018).
Local professionals and young people have identified the Mali Boys as differentand
have explained the new operating model in terms of specific features of the gang.
However, pan-London professionals and other recent research studies have identified
similar features, which would suggest that it is part of a wider evolution of gang activity.
In summary, the emergency of the Mali Boys is best understood as a particular stage in
gang evolution rather than an isolated phenomenon. The Mali Boys exemplify the core
features of the later stages of the enterprisephase of gang development, with early signs
of governance(Densley 2014).
Limitations
This study contributes to the literature on gang evolution by providing a rare snapshot of gangs
in one area at two points in time. However, there are some methodological limitations. First, as
a snapshot at a specific point in time, it is not a longitudinal study, but rather a revising of an
old study site, whereby the first study (Pitts 2007,2008) provides the baseline for comparison.
Second, although the study triangulated the data from knowledgeable professionals and the
lived experience of young people and ex-gang members, there is a potential bias that
practitioners may engage in gang talk, reproducing a political and ideological discourse
(Hallsworth and Young 2008). Third, the study is of one London borough, and gangs will
reflect the territories from whence they come, although the findings of a more ruthless
business-oriented model are transferable and reflected elsewhere.
For these reasons, future studies are encouraged to continue to emphasize the gang as the
unit of analysis (versus gang members), not least because research is needed to uncover the
A. Whittaker et al.
precise mechanisms underlying gang evolution, including factors internal and external to the
group. More rigorous, longitudinal methods are also needed to better observe continuity and
change in gangs and gang neighbourhoods over time.
Conclusions
The current study presented a 10-year retrospective on gangs in Waltham Forest, the site of
Pitts(2008) seminal study, Reluctant Gangsters. It has documented some continuity, but
mostly change in the presentation of gangs, best articulated as another example of UK gang
evolution (Densley 2014). Qualitative research with practitioners and young people in Wal-
tham Forest, including young people involved in gangs, revealed the emergence of a more
organized and ruthless operating model focused on the drugs market and driven by a desire for
profits. This new operating model rejected visible signs of gang membership as bad for
businessbecause they attracted unwanted attention from law enforcement agencies. One
gang, the Mali Boys, led these changes as the most business-driven, violent, and exploitative
of the gangs, but also the most secretive, working hard to remain anonymous to the police and
local agencies.
Although the Mali Boys presented as a local phenomenon, there is growing evidence
that they are part of a wider pan-London development as gangs become more organized
(Densley 2012; Harding 2014). Understood within a gang evolution model (Ayling 2011;
McLean, 2018), the dominance of the Mali Boys results from their moving into an
advanced enterprisestage. While local gangs have moved from a postcode focus, the
Mali Boys have been the most successful at responding to the demands of a more
professional operating model. They secure markets locally by being the dominant partner
in business alliances with other gangs and outside London by developing county lines to
transport and sell drugs in other towns where there is little competition and where gang
members are unknown to local law enforcement agencies (Coomber and Moyle 2017).
This more business-oriented ethos also changed the meaning of territory, a central
organizing feature of gangs (for a review, see Papachristos et al. 2013). Instead of an
emotional sense of belonging to a postcode that needs to be defended, territory is valued as
a marketplace to be protected (see also McLean et al. 2018b). The local housing estate still
has meaning for younger gang members, as they are usually recruited from that locality,
but older gang members are less likely to live on the estate, and identifying with the estate
is often more symbolic than real. In other words, the gangs first documented by Pitts
(2008) a decade ago have moved from postcodes to profits.
Implications for Research and Practice The observed move away from postcodes to a new
operating model focused on profits, personified by the Mali Boys, presents a number of
practical challenges. The ethos of maintaining a low profile presents challenges to
intervention agencies because it makes it more difficult to track gang activities
something police are already struggling to do legally and ethically (Amnesty
International UK 2018).
The growth of business alliances between gangs also presents new challenges for
criminal justice agencies, as it increases their capacity for upscaling of drug dealing
activities and achieving market dominance through economies of scale and better access
to high-quality drugs (see McLean et al. 2018a,2018b). However, gang alliances are
Reluctant Gangsters Revisited: The Evolution of Gangs from Postcodes to...
inherently unstable, and conflicts amongst younger and less mature gang members could
present a threat. The fluid, ever-changing nature of gang activity (e.g., Windle and Briggs
2015a) makes it difficult to predict future gang development, but there are a number of
possibilities.
One possibility is that gangs like the Mali Boys could become more entrenched and
develop into what Densley (2014) describes as extra-legal governance(see also McLean
et al. 2018b). Given the wide availability of drugs in London, it would be difficult for the Mali
Boys to achieve monopoly control except in very limited geographical areas. Monopoly
control is more feasible in specialist markets, such as firearms, but there is no evidence that
street gangs are seeking to develop into these areas, and they would face significant resistance
from established organized crime groups (Hales et al. 2006). Another possibility that is more
likely is that they will continue to seek to widen their geographical reach to secure profitable
markets outside London without having to engage in conflicts with other gangs. While this
may work in the short term, the expansion of other London gangs into rural areas is likely to
lead to gang conflicts enacted in other areas as they compete to dominate new markets.
Finally, the changes in the operational model have policy implications for public agencies
involved in addressing the issues raised. Given that the pursuit of profit appears to be the
primarily driver of gang evolution, measures that address this directly are needed: firstly,
initiatives that encourage individuals away from gang activities, such as initiatives to channel
entrepreneurial skills towards legitimate businesses, and secondly, initiatives that deter gangs
through economic measures, such as financial investigations that identify illegal funds and
money laundering mechanisms, which is being trialed in Waltham Forest as its first financial
investigation initiative.
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A. Whittaker et al.
... County lines are implicated in the economic expansion of criminal gangs ( Whittaker et al, 2020b ) and in spreading knife crime, gun crime and other forms of serious violence to small towns unaccustomed to 'big city' problems ( HMG, 2018 ). A public policy priority has been to protect vulnerable people who are forced to sell drugs on behalf of gangs, or who unwillingly have their homes used by gangs for their operations -known as 'cuckooing' ( Coomber andMoyle, 2018 Spicer et al, 2020 ). ...
... The fi rst suggests that county lines represent a signifi cant shift in the organizational and economic rationale of how drug markets operate ( Harding, 2020 ;Whittaker et al, 2020b ). Changes in relations of supply and demand at local levels refl ect changes in global consumer capitalism. ...
... As Furedi (2016) notes, the concept of vulnerability has become so culturally engrained that it often goes without critical comment or questioning. Therefore, while Harding (2020) points to a reluctance among scholars to acknowledge the impact that county lines developments have had on exacerbating the tendency towards the formal organization and structuring of gang activity (see, for example, Whittaker et al, 2020b ), there appears to be an increasing reluctance within policy and practice circles to critically engage with the marked psychologization of the conceptual framework that is now used to defi ne county lines and related illicit drug-related behaviours. Apart from exaggerating an already problematic tendency towards the widening defi nition of socially problematic or criminal behaviour, the expansive and seemingly catch-all nature of the county lines 'vulnerability' narrative brings to the fore a general acceptance of the tendency to reduce what are in eff ect specifi c cultural and spatially nuanced activities to ill-defi ned, generalizable therapeutic categories. ...
... Headlines focus on pernicious drug gangs that exploit children to traffic drugs from urban to rural areas (BBC, 2019). 1 Academic research illustrates a similar phenomenon. Saturated drug markets have led to a landscape of drug gang 'evolution' (Whittaker et al., 2019). The term county lines has become synonymous with 'a recently evolved model of drug distribution in the United Kingdom involving the transportation and distribution of drugs from urban metropolitan centres to provincial, local or rural towns' (Harding, 2020: viii). ...
... Finally, county lines is a highly lucrative and successful business model (Spicer et al., 2019). Research demonstrates a move away from territories and 'postcodes' and into more organised forms of criminality focused on profit generation and the monopolisation of criminal markets (Whittaker et al., 2019). ...
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