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Pioneering ‘gangs’ unit set up to tackle those who ‘live by crime’

|News, Violent crime , Drug offences , International and organised crime

Prosecutors working with police to tackle serious gang-related violence have opened a pioneering, dedicated unit to crack down on criminals blighting the lives of local communities.

The CPS Serious Violence, Organised Crime and Exploitation Unit (SVOCE) – the first of its kind - opened in Birmingham last July in response to the volume of West Midlands case work connected to drug-fuelled violence. Since it launched 110 defendants have been prosecuted in total across different crime types, securing 92 convictions.

The Unit brings together a team of eight prosecutors and legal staff who have extensive experience of cases involving gang-related violence and street-level offending to share their expertise.

And nearly one year on, the number of cases being referred to the new unit is consistently high with gang-related homicides, drug-dealing and street crime cases coming their way as well as those connected to slavery, trafficking, and county lines drug-dealing.

Douglas Mackay, CPS West Midlands Deputy Chief Crown Prosecutor, said: “Serious violence causes devastation in our communities – that’s why we wanted to focus on those who ‘live by crime’ and crack down on county lines gangs, those who carry firearms and those who exploit others for criminal gain.

“Meeting the families of victims brings home the damage caused and the youth of some of the people involved. We are determined to make progress prosecuting the worst offenders and seeing them face justice, as well as highlight those who are trapped in these spirals of violence through no fault of their own.

"The unit brings together some of our most experienced prosecutors in this field so we can swiftly build strong cases on these complex crimes.”

Analysis shows that in serious violence cases involving gangs or organised criminality, drug dealing is frequently a root cause. This can often be disputes arising from county lines networks or forced labour in cannabis ‘factories’.

Firearms also feature in some cases, as does drill music, a type of hip-hop often featuring lyrics referring to drug dealing and street crime. A darker side of this genre can see lyrics linked to gang violence and threats to kill, which, if relevant to a case, may form part of the evidence.

The West Midlands SVOCE unit has so far considered the role of drill music lyrics in five cases, and it was used in evidence at trial in three of them.

Deciding who should be prosecuted can be another significant challenge. Prosecutors have to carefully consider the evidence as to whether young people have been forced to courier drugs as exploited victims of modern slavery. If so, they can make a decision not to prosecute the young person and instead put forward extra charges against their exploiters.

Max Hill QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, said: "This pioneering unit deals with crimes which are often marked by horrific violence carried out by exceptionally dangerous people. This offending leaves families devastated, and blights entire communities.

“By creating a dedicated team, and working hand in hand with police, we are pooling our expertise to tackle knife crime, gang-violence and murders that are so often linked to drugs. Our prosecutors are determined to deliver justice in these devastating cases, and make the streets of the West Midlands safer."

To strengthen links with police, an officer from the British Transport Police with national expertise in county lines and exploitation works with the CPS to advise investigating officers.

Detective Superintendent Gareth Williams, British Transport Police’s County Lines Taskforce lead, said: “BTP has benefitted hugely by the secondment of an officer to the SVOCE. This has enhanced a shared understanding between legal specialists and our officers, and has allowed us to focus on those organised criminals that cause the most harm in our communities.

“Particularly relevant to BTP is the phenomenon of county lines, where we witness criminals exploiting children on the railway network to supply Class A drugs. Working closely with SVOCE has given us great confidence in identifying the right cases to prioritise and progress, and which young people desperately require specialist safeguarding support, rather than prosecution."

Prosecutors are also taking steps to apply for post-conviction orders to prevent further offending including Serious Crime Prevention Orders and considering Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Orders.

The unit staff have also begun to speak to charities and other organisations working with ex-gang offenders, including the Salvation Army, and Barnardos, to explain their role.

The launch of the unit is the latest piece of work in gang-related offences the CPS has undertaken. In February 2020, the CPS examined the role of women, grooming and gangs as it updated its legal guidance in decision-making in gang-related offences. This guides on how to bring a strong evidence-backed case against gang members who have committed serious crimes but warned prosecutors against assumptions about gang membership or so-called joint enterprise/secondary liability.

The CPS is also currently reviewing the legal guidance for prosecutors on the way drill music is used in prosecutions and earlier this year held a listening exercise with stakeholders ahead of a consultation on the new guidance.

How does the CPS make decisions over gangs, 'joint enterprise', drill, and modern slavery victims?

The joint enterprise murder of Peter Cairns

The murder of Peter Cairns, 26, in Telford on 11 June 2021 was one of the first dealt with by the new SVOCE unit. Peter had been with a friend on a bench near a lake when he was approached by four hooded and masked teenagers on their way to confront a rival gang. One teenager pulled out a samurai sword, another a kitchen knife and a third a wheel brace. Peter, who had no connection to any gangs, was stabbed with the knife as he ran away. The teenager who stabbed Peter admitted murder.

The team had to decide who should be prosecuted for murder and whether this should be on a joint enterprise basis. This is where defendants who knew that murder or serious violence was likely can be equally culpable for a murder. Legal guidance is clear that presence in an armed gang is not enough. In this case prosecutors carefully concluded that each of the teenagers was aiding and abetting the crime by encouragement. They had intended that one of the group would kill or cause grievous bodily harm if the circumstances arose. As well as the boy who stabbed Peter and pleaded guilty to murder, two others were convicted by a jury on 27 May 2022, and a fourth was acquitted. All three will be sentenced on 11 July 2022.

County lines and modern slavery

The Stoke-on-Trent county lines case of Umar Rafi and six others ended with four defendants pleading guilty to a variety of drug dealing, modern slavery and robbery offences. Two further defendants were convicted by a jury after a six-week trial in April 2022 and one defendant was acquitted. This was a vast investigation into the running of a drugs line. Close working between police and prosecutors looked at the role of two teenagers, aged 15 and 17, who were selling drugs for the group and at first sight could have been seen as guilty of serious offences of drug dealing. Prosecutors concluded that the boys were vulnerable and had been exploited. The exploitation included violence, threats of violence and debt bondage. The two boys were victims and were not charged. The jury listened to that argument at trial and agreed, convicting one of the men contesting the charges of the modern slavery offences on top of the drug dealing offences.

The murder of Keon Lincoln

The murder of Keon, 15, who was stabbed and shot outside his home in Handsworth, highlighted another potential challenge for prosecutors to consider. The evidence included CCTV, forensic and mobile phone cell site data, but also the suggestion that the boys who committed the murders were a gang and listened to drill music. Two clips of drill were identified but prosecutors reminded themselves that lyrics are often intended to shock and not be taken literally and drill music was not relevant to be put to the jury in this case. Neither was the ‘gang’ evidence. Four teenagers were convicted by the jury of murder and one of manslaughter.
However, if the defendant appeared in the same drill video as co-defendants, prosecutors would consider whether it was vital evidence of association that a jury should hear. Or if the defendant talked about the offence and the victim in a way suggesting direct knowledge, prosecutors might put the drill lyrics before the jury but only where there was other evidence to link the defendant to committing the offence.

Notes to editors

  • CPS West Midlands consists of the counties of Warwickshire, Shropshire, Hereford, Worcester, Staffordshire and the metropolitan area of West Midlands, which includes the cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. This CPS Area also handles the prosecution of all cases which arise from British Transport Police investigations in England and Wales
  • The SVOCE is part of the Complex Casework Unit which deals with many homicides, and other complex cases
  • The CPS revised our guidance for prosecutors on dealing with secondary liability (joint enterprise) in 2019
  • Our guidance on decision-making in ‘gang-related’ offences was updated in December 2020 making clear what prosecutors should consider when making decisions 
  • We are currently in the process of expanding our guidance on the use of drill music as evidence with a public consultation expected later this year.

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