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British Cities Under Siege by Young Thugs

Street crime has become an issue with an increase in armed teens. In one East London case, what started as a `trivial dispute' turned deadly.

September 29, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Canning Town grew up as a Victorian-era slum, home to a caustic stew of noxious factories and cramped houses backing up to open sewage ditches. Some believe it was an inspiration for Charles Dickens' portraits of London childhoods too miserable to produce anything but thieves.

Things haven't changed much, if you ask Alex Jackson, a longtime resident of the East London neighborhood.

Jackson said he was accosted recently outside a market by three or four boys who he guessed were between 10 and 14 years old.

"One of the kids says to me, 'Get us some cigarettes, will you?' And I tell him, 'You're not old enough to smoke.' And I kept going. On my way out, about 10 yards out, I get from one of them, excuse the language, 'You [expletive] bald-headed old [expletive], I'm gonna stab you.' I'm not kidding. It's an everyday occurrence."

The neighborhood made headlines last year when DHL, the worldwide courier service, allowed its drivers on occasion to opt out of deliveries to Canning Town.

"They deliver in Beirut. They won't deliver in E16," Jackson said, referring to the postal code here.

One only has to step off the train into this dockside neighborhood across the Thames River from the money-soaked Canary Wharf district to understand how street crime has become an issue even tougher than terrorism for Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party.

The government has poured major resources into dozens of investigations of homegrown Islamic extremists. But the more immediate, day-to-day reality in parts of many British cities is that going to the market or dropping children off at school can involve running a gantlet of young thugs whose numbers and audacity appear to have largely overwhelmed the police in areas such as Canning Town.

The gun homicide rate in England and Wales is 40 times less than the U.S. rate, but statistics showed an increase of more than one-third in shootings in London between April 2005 and March, the Metropolitan Police Service said. The numbers have gone down slightly since then.

Much of the problem, police say, can be attributed to an increasing number of teenagers carrying guns and using them to settle minor scores.

The Metropolitan Police Service has seen an increase in teenage criminals compared with previous years, said a spokeswoman, who, in accordance with police protocol, spoke on condition of anonymity. "The youngest charged during the last year has been 14 years old. Clearly, this situation is unacceptable and a cause for concern.

"It appears that a small minority of young people think it is more socially and morally acceptable to carry guns than in the past," she said. "Offenders are resorting to using firearms over trivial disputes like arguments over spilt drinks, bumping into one another or minor road collisions."

In the case of Peter Woodhams, a 22-year-old satellite technician who lived with his fiancee and their 3-year-old son on a cul-de-sac in Canning Town, the "trivial dispute" started with a stone hurled at his new Ford Escort.

For months, Woodhams would drive home from work and a group of teenagers lounging by the road would throw a rock into the side of his car. In January, he confronted the boys. They pushed him to the ground and stabbed him quickly and expertly in the neck, just missing an artery.

After that, the boys would taunt Woodhams when he passed. On one occasion, a boy caught Woodhams' eye and drew a finger across his neck.

"Every time we drove out, they were there at the corner. They'd point and they'd like intimidate us," said Woodhams' fiancee, Jane Bowden, a nursery school teacher and his girlfriend since high school.

Woodhams called the police regularly. He and Bowden gave officers a description of the teens and also passed on the name and address of the gang's leader, which was given to them by an anonymous caller.

Gradually, however, they stopped calling police.

"They said, 'We can't go on hearsay,' " Bowden said.

Then late last month, it happened again. Woodhams went to the store after dinner, leaving Bowden and their son in their small apartment. He had been gone only a short time when he rushed back in, threw his car keys on the table and ran out. They were at it again, he told Bowden. He was going to take care of it.

The next thing she heard were gunshots. She found Woodhams not far from where he had been soaked in blood months earlier. This time, he was dying.

Woodhams' months of calls to police got lost in the mayhem that is Canning Town, where crime statistics buck London's overall trend toward lower crime rates.

In Newham, the 14-square-mile borough that includes Canning Town, there were an average of 11 burglaries a day for the year through July. Assaults averaged 22 a day, robberies seven.

Canning Town is the target of a $3.2-billion renovation program timed to coincide with the 2012 Olympics in London. Many of the sporting events will be held nearby.

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