‘In Gloucester, young boys are carrying weapons’: how violence, drugs and abuse thrive when police fail

<span>Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Gloucester’s most notorious open-air drug-dealing territory is known as “the ruins”. Close to the shadow of the city’s famous cathedral, the ruins in question refer to the blackened remains of an early Tudor friary church. Alongside lies a patch of green where county lines drug networks and Gloucester’s gangs operate.

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A downpour on Thursday afternoon cleared the area temporarily, but Jasper Taitt-Williams knew the reprieve would be brief. “Everyone thinks it is historical and beautiful, but Gloucester has a serious problem with violence.”

Taitt-Williams should know. A three-inch line of smooth scar tissue follows his jawline – the legacy of a fight when he was punched by a man with three blades concealed in his fist.

Two of his friends are dead, murdered. “I’ve lost track of how many have been stabbed. Countless.” Few went to the police. Like many in Gloucester, Taitt-Williams remains unconvinced about the local force’s ability to deliver justice.

The latest assessment by the inspectorate of constabulary corroborates such qualms, with Gloucestershire Constabulary placed in special measures after being ranked among the worst-performing forces in England and Wales.

Its failings include being judged inadequate at investigating crime, one of policing’s basic functions. Similarly, concerns with protecting vulnerable people were identified.

Taitt-Williams agrees, believing that too many of the city’s children are drawn into “road life” – roaming the streets, dabbling in drug dealing, dispensing violence. Earlier this month, Gloucester was the backdrop for a film focused on gangs, vulnerability and knife crime.

“It’s so easy to get sucked in to. Kids see people with money; they’re so easily exploited so young,” said Taitt-Williams.

Gloucester has the county’s highest rate of crime, the streets surrounding the ruins witnessing the highest levels. Reports label the centre as the 20th most dangerous neighbourhood in England and Wales.

You’ve got young, not very worldly boys carrying weapons. That definitely keeps me awake at night

Data, though, fails to articulate the trauma behind each figure. “A friend was slashed across the stomach. I can still see his guts spilling out, trying to push them back in. Another was stabbed in the neck. His eyes rolled back,” said Taitt-Williams, shaking his head as he relives the image.

Five miles south, Gloucestershire Constabulary’s assistant chief constable Richard Ocone admits he is personally tormented by the force’s myriad identified failings. For the former detective of 20 years’ experience, concerns raised over its ability to investigate crime particularly rankle.

A post-pandemic surge in mental health-related incidents is, says Ocone, partly to blame for tying up pressured resources.

“The three things policing normally gets involved with are the prevention and detection of crime, keeping the peace and saving life. We probably spend a disproportionate amount of time in the last area rather than the first. That really pains me, to be honest.

“If my mum asks: ‘What do the police do?’ the answer is that we investigate crime, don’t we?”

Seven police officers with helmets, in short-sleeved shirts and protective vests, on the pavement
Gloucestershire Constabulary officers outside Highgrove. Photograph: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy

In its assessment by the inspectorate, published in October 2021, the force was also admonished for deficiencies in tackling domestic abuse, with 77% of cases closed due to problems with evidence or victims withdrawing support for prosecutions.

Heather Downer, with long hair, stands in a doorway smiling
Heather Downer of Gloucestershire Domestic Abuse Support Service. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Two miles up the A38 lies the nondescript office block whose occupants deal with the fallout of such failings. Inside, Heather Downer of the Gloucestershire Domestic Abuse Support Service quickly points out that the inspectorate’s report “really wasn’t great at all” but says the police have a “real appetite” to improve. As she speaks, her team moves briskly within a maze of meeting rooms. Staff are busy dealing with 9,000 annual referrals from remote farming hamlets, affluent commuter villages and Gloucester’s sprawling estates. Of these, 900 are classified as presenting a real threat to life.

Downer’s staff meet police daily, reviewing each domestic abuse incident reported during the previous 24 hours, underlining what she describes as an increasingly close working relationship between the two.

“There needs to be continual learning by Gloucestershire police and real ownership in the way its officers deal with domestic abuse,” she said.

Ultimately, Downer accepts that policing is not the solution. “You need to teach people from an early age. We should be in a position where we’re making investments into preventing this in the first place.”

Ocone, a former regional police lead for domestic abuse, appreciates the importance of processing such cases diligently to avert the risk of victims “disengaging”.

Even so, the inspectorate concluded that victims of domestic abuse and behavioural crimes do not receive the service “they have a right to expect”. In some instances offences were not even recorded.

During the 13 months since the inspectorate published its assessment of how Gloucestershire’s 1,260 officers responded to its 600,000 residents, the force has revolutionised the recording of crimes, particularly for notoriously complex offences such as coercive control. “You’re effectively investigating somebody’s lifestyle,” said Ocone.

The changes have prompted a dramatic increase in the volume of crimes recorded in Gloucestershire. Last year 39,000 offences were registered. Already, the figure for 2022 stands at 52,000.

It’s scary how many kids carry weapons. One of my little brother’s friends had a weapon on him – he was 13

Back at the ruins, Taitt-Williams is mulling over the state of policing in Gloucester. “It should be more about prevention, protection. They only seem to get involved when something major happens.”

Something very major happened almost a year ago, a murder whose brutality continues to cast a cloud over the city.

The murder of Ramarni Crosby, 16, less than a mile away from the Tudor ruins was followed by several other stabbings. Taitt-Williams felt tensions rising on the roads.

At the start of the year, he set up Put The Knives Down Gloucester (PTKDG) with friends, seizing 200 weapons within three months and handing them anonymously to police.

“Kids are carrying weapons to protect themselves. It’s scary how many carry them. One of my little brother’s friends had a weapon on him – he was 13. When asked why, he said it was because everyone carries them.”

Despite its success, funding requests for PTKDG have been turned down. A series of well-received school workshops on street violence have been cancelled.

“The tougher the area the more that pupils responded,” said Taitt-Williams, who left gang life three years ago but fears Gloucester is becoming more inured to violence.

Ocone concedes that the issue impairs his sleep. “It’s a real problem and incredibly high risk. You’ve got young, not very worldly boys carrying weapons. That’s one of the areas that definitely keeps me awake at night.

“With young people we really try to treat them with care. It’s very difficult to use some of our classic tactics like stop and search, but there’s lots of early intervention work going on now in Gloucester.”

Two seagulls flying next to a wall of the Gloucester Cathedral on a sunny day
Near Gloucester Cathedral is the drug-dealing territory known as the ruins. Photograph: Ben Molyneux Photography/Alamy

Crime rarely stops. At 12.57pm on Thursday a Gloucester resident witnessed a pensioner being “accosted” by four teenage boys outside the Kings Walk shopping centre.

“The kids have no respect, no fear. They’ll attack anyone,” said the 60-year-old after describing the incident to a security guard.

Ocone is confident of the progress being made, citing an ambition for the force to climb out of special measures next year. This week officers will travel to London to update the inspectorate of constabulary on “really strong progress in a number of areas”.

At the ruins, the rain easing, Taitt-Williams says that the prevention of crime prevents a lifetime of trauma for victims. “PTSD and anxiety affect young people, shape them,” he says. “We need new alternatives, new ways of creating hope.”