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NEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: Scotland’s top crime fighter: ‘Violence in this country is a disease of poverty. To cure it, we must wage war on inequality from the womb onwards’

Niven Rennie, who leads Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit, launches a blistering attack on our selfish society, and says that to cut crime we need to treat violence as a public health issue, rediscover empathy and lift up the poor. By Writer at Large Neil Mackay

IT might surprise many to learn that almost a year ago to the day Niven Rennie found himself crying during a trip to a primary school in Wallacetown, Ayr. Here’s a man who has investigated some of Scotland’s most dreadful crimes, after all, as a big, tough, high-ranking cop.

Before he took over as head of Scotland’s acclaimed Violence Reduction Unit, Rennie was a chief superintendent, on the force for 30 years. But, in Wallacetown, he found himself face to face with what he sees as the root cause of crime – children living in dire poverty – and the sheer scale of neglect and failure took his breath away. The school was operating as a foodbank. “The corridors were full of clothing,” he says. “The rooms were full of food, and the gym hall was full of Christmas presents for the kids. There was a queue around the playground – people waiting for the foodbank.

“Honestly, I cried. How have we let it get to this stage?”

Rennie’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) – part of Police Scotland – is tasked with preventing violent crime on the streets. For Rennie, violent crime must be treated as a “public health issue”. He states: “Violence is a disease.”

The cause of that disease is poverty and trauma in childhood, Rennie believes. If he has diagnosed the sickness in society, he has also got a cure. Rennie says we need to fundamentally change society. We’ve become cruel, we lack compassion. We allow poverty to fester only for it to spill over into violence.

Among his many ideas is the state intervening at a “pre-natal” stage in the lives of children who will be born into poverty and neglect.

Rennie doesn’t sound like a stereotypical cop. The words you hear most from him are “compassion, love, understanding, and empathy”. Often, he comes across more like a social campaigner – and at times even someone on a religious mission. But a lifetime spent picking up the pieces has changed him, and he wants society to change as well. His message is simple but profound: to tackle crime we need to wage war on poverty.

Murder capital

WHEN the VRU started in 2005, there were 137 murders a year in Scotland, most of them gang-related in Glasgow. Before that, the “police response” to violent crime, says Rennie, “was to try and suppress it by arrest”. That changed. The VRU took a “public health approach”, he explains. Essentially, that’s prevention in the same way as a public health approach to Covid is prevention. We didn’t have a vaccine so everybody had to take responsibility – we stayed at home, didn’t go on holiday or to the cinema.

“That’s how we coped – by taking a wider societal view. That’s what we tried to do with violence. We’re saying it’s not just the police who have responsibility for violence – we all have responsibility if we’re going to tackle it properly,” he says. “All the police can really do in enforcement terms is suppress violence. When violence is at its worst and people are losing their lives you need to stop that happening. But that’s never going to make it go away because the causes of violence remain.”

Simply flooding streets with cops isn’t enough. That’s a sticking plaster. “The public health approach asks what’s causing this. What’s the underlying problem,” Rennie says. The VRU began intervening direct in the lives of young men either involved in crime, or on the brink of a life of crime. Often, VRU staff were once in gangs themselves and can speak directly to young men in language they understand and respect. The VRU offers mentoring, help with employment or drug and drink problems, coaxing young men to get their lives back on track. The VRU also goes into schools, and emergency wards – taking the message where it matters most.

If you think it all sounds too touchy-feely, the results might change your mind. From that high of 137 deaths – when Glasgow was dubbed Europe’s murder capital – the number of homicides in Scotland last year stood at 55.

Reforming society

BUT Rennie wants to see violent crime fall further. He believes we can go further if we have the courage to make drastic changes to how we run society.

At times, he is almost despairing of the way society discusses violent crime. Tabloids screaming about tougher sentencing and going “soft on crime” only exacerbate the problem. Media hysteria prevents any intelligent political discussion about preventing crime in the first place. “The way to deal with violent crime is to find out why someone picks up a knife. If you can prevent people picking up knives, you’ll have less victims.”

Rennie continually returns to one powerful statistic: 0.1 per cent of the Scottish population experiences 65% of violent crime. “Why? Because most of these people – victims and perpetrators – live in our poorest communities. These communities have the worst outcomes in terms of health, education, drug and alcohol addiction. Why? To a certain extent, people are trying to take the edge of the reality of their daily lives, to make existence slightly better – so you turn to alcohol or drugs to make it bearable and then all these other problems follow. Lifting people out of poverty will deal with a lot of society’s issues.”

Foodbank Scotland

RENNIE was listening to Radio Scotland call-in shows recently and found himself “astounded” by the conversation around the removal of the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, often given to low-income working families. “People were phoning up saying they should get off their backsides and get a job, or they’d just spend the money on drink. It’s these attitudes that are perpetuating the problem.”

While Rennie says he doesn’t want to engage in a blame game as that won’t change anything, he believes politicians and the media “tend to reflect” these hardline public views – and so change becomes impossible. His advice to journalists and politicians: “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Ten years ago, I’d never heard of foodbanks. Now we’ve got foodbanks turning into supermarkets. The responsibility for looking after the poorest has moved from the state to charity.

“We need to change the narrative, take more responsibility – reflect on the fact that for some people the world is completely different to the one we exist in.”

Rennie is about to go on holiday and adds: “Some of the kids I work with have never left the council estate they were born in. It’s a very unequal world. We all carry responsibility for that.”

Lives without love

“MOST people, given the opportunity to change their lives, grab it with both hands,” he says. Many of the violent young men he has worked with grew up with no parental love, often in care, or with parents with addiction problems who were criminals. There was domestic violence and unemployment. These young men carried knives “because they worried they were going to be the next person attacked”.

“The number of people who tell that story is astounding,” Rennie adds. Yet society’s response is often “what are their parents doing?”. He responds: “But mum’s an alcoholic and dad’s in prison.” Rennie tells of one boy who murdered another teenager in Glasgow. “He’d one of these dysfunctional lives, and the state, through its various agencies, had numerous occasions to intervene, but didn’t. Those failings led to the loss of two lives – the boy in prison and the boy killed.”

Children aren’t “born bad”, he says. “The four most important words are: empathy, love, compassion and understanding. We continually fail young boys. Their lives are dictated before birth.”

Pre-natal intervention

RENNIE adds: “We need a prevention strategy that starts pre-birth – it needs to involve pre-natal services, and health and social services. Unless you do that no police strategy is worth a bean because all you’re doing is reacting, not preventing.

“All public service agencies should be involved. We need to recognise the links between addiction – drugs, alcohol, gambling – and violence, poor health, and poor education outcomes.” Rennie points to many of Scotland’s suicides and drug overdoses happening to young men on community service orders who have “four things in common: they’re all young, male, criminalised and now dead”. Over 50% of the prison population, he notes, “were in care”.

“A prevention strategy needs to give children in Scotland hope, aspiration and opportunity. Most of us would put our hand in our pocket to stop a baby going into care, but somewhere between birth and 16, we’re prepared to put the same person in prison. There’s something very wrong there. We need a fundamental rethink.”

“Most violence in Scotland happens in the poorest postcodes,” he says. “Very often someone is victim one week and perpetrator the next. That’s the reality of growing up in violence – that’s what they’re seeing at home, and on the street. My or your children don’t experience that, thank goodness, but life is totally different for others. Violence is often a reaction to childhood trauma –they lash out. That’s where support should be targeted.”

Lifting up the poor

He is not arguing for fewer police – what he’s arguing for is more and better-paid social workers and addiction workers who have sufficient time to spend with poor or dysfunctional families. “If we invested more in dealing with social problems, crime would fall and society would be a better place. So, we need more support for families struggling but what do we do? We withdraw support, cut back on public services. We’ve made them rely on foodbanks. We need to build a safety net around families, lift them out of poverty.”

Rennie talks despairingly of former prison officers now depending on foodbanks. “That’s the reality of where we’re living. Things have got worse for the poorest in the 10 years since the bankers’ crash. Again – who’s responsible for that? Some of the policies pursued by political parties make things worse which results in violence. Clearly, everyone is responsible for their own actions but when the gap between rich and poor is at its widest then violence results because it breaks down social cohesion. We’ve just gone through 10 years of austerity. If we spent money at the front end – making people’s start in life better – we’d have far better outcomes at the other end and save money in the long term.”

The boy with no life

THERE was no single “Road to Damascus” moment for Rennie – he says his eyes opened slowly but surely over years spent policing. It was observing the lives of others which wrought the biggest change on him. He tells of a boy born to a single alcoholic mother. In childhood, he “moved from foster home to foster home”. By 16, he “ends up in a challenging behaviour unit”.

On release, he’s got nobody and nothing in the world. He’s destined for a life of crime. “That boy never had a life. That story isn’t rare. It’s happening all the time.”

One young man who now works with the VRU had a similar upbringing. Today, says Rennie, “if he’d had the same start in life as me, he’d be a captain of industry. He just grew up in a dysfunctional family”.

Rennie refuses to be angry, though. “I’m just so disappointed,” he says, “that nothing changes.”

Political “short-termism” is a deadly stumbling block. Politicians want to show they’re tough on crime so they’ll win elections; budgets don’t target social spending at the poorest. “The whole system is wrong and needs rethought,” Rennie says. “We need complete restructuring.”

Breaking the cycle

HE is clearly no naive idealist. Rennie is aware violence will always be with us. “That’s why we’re called the Violence Reduction Unit, not Eradication Unit. But we can try to ensure there’s less victims and less perpetrators.” He is also clear that “there’s people in prison who society needs to be protected from, but I also believe there’s many who are drug or alcohol addicted, or with mental health problems, and punishment isn’t what they need. They need help and support.”

Rennie speaks of former prisoners he knows who were given help and are now “fully productive members of society when four years they were alcoholics running around with weapons. The answer to our problems is the provision of hope, aspiration and opportunity to those who don’t have any”. Obviously, not all attempts at rehabilitation will succeed, but there are also real success stories. “Like one of my staff,” says Rennie, “who thought he’d never make it to 30. Now he’s a good father. The cycle has been broken. His parents went to jail, he went to jail, but now his son won’t as he’s on a different path.”

Rennie recalls VRU staff taking former gang members to the Pentland Hills and skimming stones at a lake. “One boy, aged 17, said ‘how do you do that?’ He’d never skimmed a stone in his life. It stops you in your tracks – all he’s known is a concrete jungle.”

Cruelty of society

Rennie grew up middle class and became a Church of Scotland elder. However, he is now “agnostic”, despite retaining an almost religious crusading zeal when it comes to poverty. “I look forward with all my heart to the end of foodbanks,” he says. Many crimes – like street robberies – are “acts of desperation”, he believes. “I don’t know if it goes back to Thatcher in the 1980s, and the drive to have as many possessions as possible – but somebody has to pay for that ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude at the end of the day.

“We’ve lost the idea of looking after each other. There’s this idea that if I can manage then everyone else needs to get off their backsides too – but that’s just not true. Whether you call it ‘Christian spirit’, or compassion for your fellow man, something has gone and we’ve become a harder society, less caring. We need to get back that empathy for other people.

“Poverty is a disease and we’re not prepared to eradicate it, or look for a vaccine. Look at Scotland’s discussion around drug deaths – the entire debate is about safe consumption rooms, needle exchanges and whether drugs should be legal. All of that’s important as people are losing their lives but what I’m not hearing from anyone is ‘why do people turn to drugs?’ – the answer is poverty but that seems too big a question because you’d need to change the entire political system to fix it.

“If Covid were poverty, we’d never have dealt with it because it also looked too big. So, I’m waiting for someone who can grab the narrative and say ‘where’s our compassion for the poorest, why are we so selfish?’ We’ve lost that understanding of our personal responsibility for people less fortunate than us.

“The way we’ve set up our systems – our approach, our attitudes – these are the key drivers of violent crime. If some politician decided that for the next 15 years we’re going to eradicate poverty in Scotland – take whatever steps needed to give youngsters a better start in life – that would be quite an aim. But that would take a really brave politician to come out and say that, and a really brave newspaper editor to support it.”

If we took such steps, Rennie suggests, violent crime would fall even further in Scotland. “If we want to come down again to the next level – to drop to 30 or even 20 homicides – we need to tackle social issues. Unless we’re brave enough to do that, there’ll just be another Niven Rennie saying the same thing 50 years from now.”

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