TACKLING the scourge of gang and drug related violence is no easy task.

Tackling County Lines gangs, as they are often called, is a complex and also expensive business, not least because those involved in committing crimes are often victims themselves.

Children as young as 12 are known to be involved in gangs across Essex and thousands of youngsters are coerced into being involved in criminal activity in the county every year.

The Essex Violence and Vulnerability Unit was created to tackle county lines, gangs, child criminal and sexual exploitation and safeguard victims.

The partnership project, which involves the police, fire and crime commissioner for Essex Roger Hirst; Essex Police; the Safer Essex Partnership; and youth services, was launched in 2018.

After securing millions in funding from the likes of Essex County Council and the Home Office, its aim is early intervention to break the cycle of violence and offending among vulnerable young people - before it is too late.

Mr Hirst said: “Drug-driven violence and the impact it has on young people is one of the two biggest harms in Essex, the other being domestic violence.

“The VVU is a great project for us to have. There are things here which make a real tangible difference to bringing down the scourge of drug violence in our county.”

Last financial year 2,130 young people were reached by the unit’s work across Essex. This year, it expects that number to rise further.

Mr Hirst said the unit has adopted a public health approach in its fight, effectively trying to nip criminal behaviour in the bud.

He said: “We are treating this kind of crime like an epidemic by treating the cause and trying to stop it spreading.

“We are working on a three-pronged, co-ordinated attack. One aspect is trying to work with vulnerable people who these gangs recruit and use to do their business.

“You are talking about mules and carriers, petty enforcers or people who get cuckooed. We are putting together a package of measures around this kind of crime including working with the third sector such as Essex boys and girls clubs and faith groups.

“We have been educating people on the dangers of gangs in primary and secondary schools and working with youth offending teams.”

Mentoring is also a key tool at the unit’s disposal and through partnership work with third sector groups, efforts are being targeted at disadvantaged children who are at risk of joining gangs.

Mr Hirst said: “It is targeted education specifically around the risks and evils of the gang lifestyle. These kids have to expect to get hurt and be prepared to risk their lives when they join these gangs.”

Direct intervention has also been taking place targeting gang members who arrive at Basildon A&E department as part of a pilot scheme, which is set to be rolled out elsewhere.

The unit will soon be entering its third year in operation, and while progress has been made, Mr Hirst admits there’s a long way to go in dealing with the epidemic of gang and drug-related violence.

“What we learned in the first year was that non-targeted stuff, the universal stuff, did not help as much as other work. The best value for money is targeted intervention,” he said.

“We are focusing the programme down to focus on what has made the most difference.

“We are half way through year two and it appears things are working.

“But the picture is skewed by lockdown - it is very hard to push drugs at the moment.

“We have a long way to go, but it appears we now have a programme in place which is making a difference.”