The new canteen in the Glasgow Dental Hospital and School wouldn’t be everyone’s choice for Saturday brunch but it’s a perfectly adequate place to sit and wait to be called in for a root canal. The menu is basic (think bacon sarnies) but the staff are friendly and it’s clean and cosy. Above the service area the name of the café is emblazoned on a red awning: Street & Arrow. Say it quickly a few times and you get a hint of why this place is interesting.
Aside from purveying café staples, Street & Arrow is part of a pioneering experiment by the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), an innovation lab set up by Strathclyde Police in Scotland to address the root causes of violent behaviour in society. Many of those engaged in milk-frothing, sandwich-making or till-handling has had a criminal conviction, many of which were for violent acts.
While traditionally the police have treated crime with punishment, the VRU sees violence as a public-health issue. Like a contagious disease it spreads through parents and peers, flares up with poverty and is more virulent in certain postcodes. It can also be cured and prevented. If you extend the metaphor, social workers, doctors, counsellors and teachers are the antibodies that the police work with to combat it. The VRU recruits mentors and “navigators” who visit communities, schools and hospitals to intervene in the lives of people who are likely to be involved in violence. Ex-offenders in jobs are less likely to commit further crimes.
Being served by hardened criminals might unnerve the more skittish of café-goers but a pleasant atmosphere is cultivated by the affable attendants, who are all dressed in pink polo shirts. “We wear them because pink is a non-threatening colour,” says Callum, a senior member of staff.
Callum’s story is a familiar one in the city. Now in his late twenties, he grew up in Glasgow’s East End and joined a gang when he was 12. Problems with alcohol abuse followed, as did a slew of crimes that saw him in and out of jail. He would have continued in that vein if it wasn’t for the VRU. In 2017 he was brutally stabbed and left for dead on the doorstep of his own house. While he was recuperating in hospital he was approached by staff from VRU. They helped him get sober and introduced him to the team behind Street & Arrow.
The VRU’s impact can’t be overstated. Glasgow was facing a violence epidemic with 137 murders committed from 2004 and 2005, a staggering number for a city of 500,000 people (by comparison, London’s murder rate last year was 131 in a city of some 8.1 million). That same year, the VRU was formed and today the number hovers around 60. “That’s still 60 too many,” says former Scottish Police chief superintendent Niven Rennie, who is now director of the VRU. “But the medical profession say that there is now 50 per cent fewer people coming into A&E.”
Lunch is over and the staff are clearing up. Callum is preparing to interview a potential new barista. He warmly greets the applicant, whose face bears a scar from mouth to ear. Pouring lattes seems like a sensible life choice and if a palliative approach to violence can improve lives in Glasgow, it can do so in any city where deprivation leads to cruelty.