During the past couple of years, the Finnish authorities have become aware of the street gang phenomenon, also present in recent public discussions. One word or term hardly ever captures all aspects of a phenomenon but we still need an expression, be it imperfect, for the problem so that we can discuss it, and above all, try to solve it.
In Police thinking, the term street gang is justified; based on our observations, the recognised groups identify themselves with certain neighbourhoods and places which are also venues for drug trafficking and other forms of serious crime. Aggravated, even armed acts of violence between the gangs also characterise the phenomenon. Moreover, the social media presence of the groups shows a strong geography-based group identity, further enhanced by the symbols and emblems created by the groups for themselves. However, the street gang phenomenon is not the same as the criminality among the underaged, such as robberies and repressive violence, very much discussed by the Press and other media.
There have always been groups of young people, and for the general part, this alone is not a new phenomenon. However, the judgements issued during the year by the courts in cases of violence among the gangs as well as the ensuing media exposure have made the problem part of our daily life. Therefore, the societal discussion on the issue must go on.
According to the Police view of the situation, there are about a dozen recognised street gangs with about one hundred or more participants. The gang members are mainly young adults, even though there are also some underaged young involved. The roots of the street gang phenomenon are in the Helsinki metropolitan area but now it seems to be also rearing its head in other major Finnish cities; international links have also been identified.
While it is honest to admit in gang-related discussions that most of those involved in them and identified by the Police come from immigrant backgrounds, saying this aloud is not an open invitation to conduct an anti-immigrant rally but rather an encouragement to think why this is the case. The Police has established that many of those who identify themselves as street gang members have been earlier targeted by the authorities’ multiprofessional preventive operations – the development has gone astray at an early age but the interventions have not achieved what was hoped for. What is going wrong when the teens and young adults attracted by the criminal way of life and crime itself do not trust society, nor see the opportunities provided by that society? In fact, those identified as street gang members often show an exceptionally negative attitude to society and its actors, such as the Police. When talking about the street gangs, reference is often made to gangsta rap and, above all, the idealisation of a lifestyle that appears to be luxurious. According to what we have observed, these musical styles and currents do have a connection to the street gang phenomenon but the related outlook on life seems to be winning a much larger audience. You can get visibility and adoring publicity – for example, a TV series of your own – by engaging in a criminal way of life. True crime is a central theme in the popular culture offer, and by all accounts, the demand is huge. From the crime prevention perspective, it is a matter of life and death how the entire society’s values evolve and whether the idealisation of a criminal way of life becomes increasingly acceptable.
From the Police point of view, street gangs are one part of the whole field of criminality, in constant movement and change. It is criminality that we need to follow and which requires our intervention: many leaders of the gangs are currently serving varying times for the crimes they have committed. To prevent, detect and investigate crime, we need not only sufficient powers but also a sufficient number of Police officers to investigate the crimes that have already been committed. In our view, efficient prevention of this phenomenon also calls for a look on legislation: to quote an example, both the statutory definition and scale of sentences issued for crimes such as a firearms offence should be revisited.
Efficient pretrial investigation and a high risk of apprehension are indispensable factors, but the correct question related to the root cause of the problem is not what the Police should do better to intervene with the gangs. Naturally, the Police does its utmost to bring the culprits to justice. However, it is key to realise that when things have gone so far that the Police is already conducting pretrial investigation, it may be too late for some individuals. Indeed, it is important to gain an overall awareness of the situation and to continue the work, with emphasis on preventive operations and multiprofessional collaboration.
The correct question is how we can act early enough and find a way to show that there really is another option competing with the criminal way of life, one worth choosing, and draw those sliding towards the paths of crime back to society. No single toddler and child wants to become a professional criminal – and we must find a solution to understand what has gone wrong when a young adult things that would be their dream job.
Sanna Heikinheimo Deputy National Police Commissioner National Police Board of Finland Twitter: S_Heikinheimo