Knife and gang crime on the rise? How police are tackling recent incidents

Ch Insp Lynda Coates. Picture: Herts police.

Ch Insp Lynda Coates. Picture: Herts police. - Credit: Archant

In the wake of a recent upsurge in knife and gang crime in the St Albans district, reporter Laura Bill met up with Chief Inspector Lynda Coates for a frank discussion about what the police are doing to tackle the issue.

Gangs have been gathering after dark in Clarence Park, St Albans. Picture: Matt Adams

Gangs have been gathering after dark in Clarence Park, St Albans. Picture: Matt Adams - Credit: Archant

"I would not say everything is great. Policing is hard at the moment."

It's a surprising confession, and an unexpected answer to a flippant remark suggesting she was going to offer a positive view on recent events.

"I think it is fair to say that St Albans as a city is no different to any other city or town, and nationally there is a rise in knife crime.

"We have a number of issues which affect us. Last year there was a rise in burglaries, this year there is a big rise in anti-social behaviour and assaults and street violence."

Gangs have been gathering after dark in Clarence Park, St Albans. Picture: Matt Adams

Gangs have been gathering after dark in Clarence Park, St Albans. Picture: Matt Adams - Credit: Archant

But Lynda attributes a spate of incidents reported in the Herts Ad to a core group of individuals they see on a daily basis.

"They are known to us. It is a really really small minority of people who are committing violent acts."

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She explained gang crime is often the knock-on effect of social problems, describing it as a "big cycle that people get into". She briefly talked about the sense of belonging and family that some young people find by being part of a gang which they may never have experienced before.

Questioned about the Clarence Park gang, who allegedly go by the name of 'Graft and Stack', she was asked whether there were any direct links between this group and the county lines gangs working out of North London and Luton.

County lines gangs operate out of cities and feed into smaller communities, often exploiting young people in the process through a hierarchy based on loyalty and fear. Lynda explained that although county lines gangs are a problem there is not a bigger issue in St Albans than in any other Herts towns or cities.

"We are not seeing a direct link between this hardcore group and running county lines - although it is too early to make a judgement. We think this gang is a locally grown group."

Another practice known as 'cuckooing' has also become more prominent recently after being linked to county lines.

'Cuckooing' is a term used for the process whereby the properties of vulnerable people are taken over and used as drug-dealing bases and for other illicit activities. Residents often do not really realise it is happening and tend to see the dealers as their friends or housemates. It is usually discovered by neighbours noticing suspicious activity and reporting it or following large drug raids. It can be reported anonymously via Crimestoppers.

Lynda said: "We really need people to give us the information - the public are the police and the police are the people."

It seems she is no stranger to community action in her own community, after revealing how she recently arrested somebody in her pyjamas, after a drug deal gone wrong left a man in trouble at 3am. She called the police and asked him to stay with her saying: "Don't make me run after you like this!" A local superhero indeed.

The chief inspector emphasised that she does not want people to be afraid despite the five serious incidents of assault reported in the district since December 2019, stressing: "We are dealing with a group of people who are committing violence against each other."

Patrols have been stepped up in the Clarence Park area and a daily meeting takes place between Lynda and other police officers based in the council building - there are 120 in total - at which priorities are dictated. An Operational Support Group can also be called upon where needed as an additional resource.

Asked about a recent incident in which a group of young men armed with a machete chased a teenager through St Albans city centre before he found refuge on a rooftop, she was already fully aware of the incident and revealed that two arrests had since been made.

Although stopping and searching those suspected of carrying knives has increased, it's hard not to feel a sense of being damned if they do and damned if they don't for the police, with accusations of specific groups being targeted.

But Lynda has no reservations about taking firm action: "We are not afraid to put our hands in the pockets of these people."

On the subject of fear, I express my alarm as someone who both lives and works in the city.

So should readers who live and work in the city be afraid following recent incidents?

"We have no need to fear crime. We should all be aware but has crime increased to the extent where it is no longer safe to walk the street? No it hasn't."