“Disbelief, despair and pure, unadulterated anger.” That was the mood in Liverpool last week, when the city learnt that a nine-year-old girl had been shot dead in her own home – 15 years to the day after 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot as he walked home from football practice. Olivia Pratt-Korbel was killed by a masked gunman, who was in pursuit of a man later identified as Joseph Nee. A convicted burglar, released from jail on licence, Nee had barged into Olivia’s home after her mother, Cheryl, opened the door to investigate the noise outside; the gunman followed him, firing indiscriminately, and one of his bullets hit Olivia in the chest. Liverpool has changed since Rhys Jones’s killing by a gang member in 2007, when detectives met a wall of silence; shootings are way down, and many of the city’s gangs have been “largely dismantled”. But this was the third gun death in a week. Clearly, there is still “a long way to go”.
Across the country, “urban hotspots” are bedevilled by gang turf wars, What sets Liverpool apart is the ease with which its criminals can get hold of handguns. According to police, there are various reasons for this. One is the port city’s historic connections with Ireland, which enabled Liverpudlian gangsters to forge ties with armed groups on both sides of the sectarian divide during the Troubles; another is the spawning of a series of gun factories in the northwest of England, where low-calibre weapons are converted into deadly automatic ones. Merseyside Police has been lauded for its efforts to disrupt serious organised crime; but in deprived areas, where legitimate job opportunities are scarce, gangs find no shortage of young recruits, making the police’s task an “uphill battle”.
As the cost-of-living crisis bites, and more people are forced into penury, we can expect crime rates to worsen, What to do about it? Efforts to recruit more police are welcome, but it will take a long time to replace the decades of know-how that was lost when the Coalition government decided to make 20,000 officers redundant a decade ago. There is a growing sense that the police have given up investigating crimes such as vandalism and even burglary, People report that their bike or phone has been stolen and, owing to GPS devices, they can often even tell police where it is. But “police won’t go there”, and the thieves know it. There are no easy answers, but “we’re in dangerous territory when criminals feel untouchable”.