The man with sights on gangland targets

January 31, 2003

As UK gun crime escalates, Adam James talks to policy adviser Nick Tilley

The murder of two teenage girls in a hail of bullets during a new year's eve party in Birmingham provoked a clamour of opinions on how to tackle gun crime. It also led a troop of journalists to the door of Nick Tilley, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University and the UK's leading academic researcher on the prevention of gang shootings.

For two weeks they left three to four messages a day with his secretary, requesting an interview. It was Tilley's co-authored Home Office report, Shootings, Gangs and Violent Incidents in Manchester: Developing a Crime Reduction Strategy , published in October, that led directly to the launch the same month of the Manchester Multi-Agency Gang Strategy, a multidisciplinary approach to reducing inter-gang violence in the south of the city, where there have been about 30 gang-related murders by shooting since 1999.

But Tilley's method of managing journalists' inquiries was straightforward.

He didn't speak to them. The fact that a leading authority on gun-related violence decided not to utter a word on a matter that was being furiously debated in public up and down the country might suggest he was being gagged by the Home Office. Perhaps they wanted to ensure their top "independent" researcher of the past decade did not contradict government policy, particularly plans for an automatic five-year sentence for anyone possessing a firearm.

Speaking exclusively to The THES , Tilley insists that he was not gagged, although he admits that he asked the Home Office press office for advice about answering press queries and they "advised me not to speak to journalists on this matter". On the sentencing policy, all he will say is that he understands the government's need to appear tough and that he hopes it is effective as a deterrent. He draws parallels with the approach taken in Boston, US, in the 1990s when, as part of a successful operation to reduce gang shootings in the city, gang members were told in no uncertain terms that they risked a long jail sentence if they were arrested for gun-related offences.

The initiative, known as Operation Ceasefire, has been a big influence on Tilley's work. "What they did in Boston was, in the event of a shooting, to make the gang the target of a whole range of interventions," he explains.

This is exactly the policy that will be adopted in Manchester over the coming decade. As a result of Tilley's study on south Manchester shootings, a battery of police, probation, social services and community initiatives are unfolding in the city with the aim of reducing gun crime. These include outreach workers identifying and assisting young people at risk of joining gangs, intervening with gang members if there is a likelihood of tit-for-tat reprisals and encouraging local businesses to sponsor rehabilitation projects for gang members.

The nation, meanwhile, will have to wait patiently to assess whether it works.

Over the past 12 years, Tilley has become one of the most influential academics in UK crime prevention. His time with the Home Office's Crime Prevention Unit - from his work in 1992 on the Safer Cities project, which addressed problems of urban decay and deprivation, to his Manchester shootings report - has made him quite possibly the longest-serving academic seconded to a government department.

The Manchester report has all the intellectual underpinnings characteristic of Tilley's work since he started lecturing on sociology at Coventry University in 1971.

A follower of many of philosopher Karl Popper's ideas on scientific relativism, Tilley describes his approach to a whole range of crime prevention projects as "piecemeal social engineering", an example of how social science can be used to "reduce harm" in society.

After he began his consultancy work at the Home Office, he and colleague Ray Pawson, reader in sociology at Leeds University, tried to steer the department's researchers away from what they saw as a methodology of "crass experimentalism" towards more evidence-based crime prevention measures.

Orthodox experimental criminologists, Tilley argued, were following "palpable methodological nonsense".

As he says in the 2002 book Crime Prevention in Britain, 1975-2010 : "The so-called experimental approach did violence to science, causation, programmes and policy."

In contrast, and in line with "realistic evaluation", Tilley advocates that sociologists should, instead of asking whether a crime-prevention strategy works, pose the question "what works for whom in what circumstances?".

His research into south Manchester shootings, therefore, involved collecting data such as sex, age and race on individual gang members and assessing the relationship between members, the lure of the gang, how gang members got involved, why they felt the need to carry guns and the impact of gangs on families.

His findings, which are likely to be echoed in other inner-city areas, revealed that 70 per cent of gang members were under the age of 25; 30 per cent were under 18; and, most alarmingly, that young people typically became involved in gangs for the first time between the ages of 12 and 14.

They were often disaffected, marginalised, socially excluded youth yearning to belong to a social grouping that would provide an escape from poverty and a ticket to glamour and excitement.

What is striking about Tilley's gang research is that only passing reference is made to the disadvantaged social conditions that it is often argued lie at the heart of gang violence. In line with its "problem-solving" framework, Tilley's work has never been about proposing long-term social and economic strategies for crime prevention.

He is more interested in what might bring about immediate short-term benefits, and he contrasts his work with what he describes as more "ambitious social scientists, where the bigger picture is paramount".

In Crime Prevention in Britain, 1975-2010 , he writes: "The best that realistic evaluation, piecemeal social engineering and situational crime prevention, the three linked sets of ideas that have animated my working life, can offer are a method and set of principles to guide decision-making to deal effectively with emerging harms and threats. Though the thinking can often be profound and highly radical, perhaps more so than wide-sweep theorising, they leave the bigger picture unaltered. It is backroom theorising, backroom theory testing and backroom improvement."

From April, Tilley will be withdrawing once and for all from his Home Office work. At the age of 55, he plans to devote more of his time to working with the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, which is based at University College London and promotes itself as the first research establishment in the world devoted specifically to reducing crime.

There he plans to apply his expertise to the study issues such as crime in motorway services and on public transport.

Tilley says he hopes that the institute will be a safe haven for the "voice of science and the voice of reason", and in keeping with the focus of his research, that it "will be about banging the drum of evidence-based work".

But while some social scientists are keen to speak out against government policy that they believe contradicts scientific evidence, Tilley appears not to be in this mould - at least for the moment.

He admits to being frustrated when government policy on crime prevention, like other disciplines, has not been consistent with the "evidence". But, perhaps wary of the Home Office press office advice, he is unwilling to provide examples.

"It is easy enough for politicians to talk about evidence-based policy," he says, "but crime prevention tends to be a political football and there is huge pressure from the public and media to respond to crime in populist ways. I may get irritated (about this) but they are things I should not talk about."

Nick Tilley's papers and reports for the Home Office's Crime Reduction Research series are available at

Tilley is author of the chapter "Crime prevention and community safety" in Crime Prevention in Britain, 1975-2010 , edited by G. Hughes, E. McLaughlin and J. Muncie and published by Sage.

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