Coronavirus: Police prepare for post-lockdown gang violence fuelled by social media

May 27, 2020

There could be a significant increase in violent crime fuelled by gang rivalries on social media which may spill on to the streets when lockdown rules are lifted, a senior police officer has warned.

John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said social media sites "have been a breeding ground" for gangs to taunt each other.

"We are very much aware of the pressure cooker that has developed when it comes to gang members who want to create mayhem when this lockdown is eased," he said.

"My real genuine fear is that some scores are going to be settled and that will mean more people being hurt or, god forbid, being murdered on our streets."

Fearing a rise in stabbings and shootings, Mr Apter said although crime levels in England and Wales have fallen by more than a quarter during the pandemic, a surge in gang violence linked to county lines may escalate tensions.

The Metropolitan Police has launched a blitz on gang activity and has created new "violence suppression units" to deal with the predicted surge.

Mr Apter said: "We have never been in this situation before so I think it's not unreasonable to say that the level of crime which we have seen reduce will significantly increase again.

"Social media platforms have been a breeding ground for individuals to bait each other during this crisis and that's potentially a recipe for disaster because when the unlock does start to happen then those gangs will want to come together to settle scores."

The family of Joseph Williams-Torres, 20, who was shot dead in Walthamstow in March 2018, said more needs to be done in an effort to defuse the threat of revenge attacks.

Joseph was never part of a gang - but his killers, who were members of the Mali Boys street gang, thought he was. He was shot in the chest and legs while he sat in a van with a friend.

"There needs to be more done to really protect our children. Joseph did nothing wrong," said his mother, Esther Torres.

"He was mistakenly killed because the gang thought he was one of their rivals."

Mr Williams-Torres's father, Anthony, added: "Just search online and it won't be hard to see gangs, including those who killed my son, egging each other on online."

Some gangs are exploiting apps like Houseparty and Snapchat to intimidate their rivals, criminologist Craig Pinkey said.

Mr Pinkey, director of Solve: The Centre for Youth Violence and Conflict, said some youngsters in Birmingham have already started settling scores.

"What we have seen recently during the pandemic is a rise in which young people are engaging in violent conversations and conflicts on social media platforms," he said.

"There is a recent case where there was a drive-by shooting on a residential street which was a consequence of an argument that took place on Houseparty.

"So, something happened 24 hours before in a Houseparty conversation with groups of young people, which then manifested into people shooting at a house with people inside."

Gangs are frequently using Houseparty as a way of communicating, according to the researcher.

West Midlands Police seized 16 firearms in April following raids targeting top level gang members.

Mr Pinkey said social media was driving youths to commit crimes and has predicted a surge in violence fuelled by youths eager to reclaim their turf.

"We have a gun problem in the West Midlands," he said.

"The police have retrieved 16 firearms, but I worry there are possibly more firearms in the community.

"This demonstrates that more work needs to be done about reducing issues around conflict and guns that are in the community and somehow getting into the hands of fatigued, stressed and bored young people."

A spokesman for Houseparty said: "The safety of our community is essential to Houseparty.

"We do not tolerate any forms of discrimination, harassment, illicit or illegal behaviour in our community.

"We've built tools and developed policies to protect users and their experience."

Snapchat said it "condemns gang violence" and encouraged people to report any content that could violate its guidelines.

Northwest London rapper Stuka disagrees that social media will lead to an increase in gang violence and believes it is the uncertainty caused by the lockdown that will drive some young people into crime.

"It's difficult coming up as a young black boy in London. It's not easy," Stuka said.

"It is really hard especially where I'm from. There is no support. There are no youth clubs.

"I know it sounds clichéd as we've heard it all before, but there are no schemes going for people. There's nothing and when there's nothing, what can you do?"

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