How Karyn McCluskey changed a city

Former nurse and policewoman Karyn McCluskey set up the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit in 2005 to tackle violent crime in Glasgow, then the murder capital of western Europe. MT hears her story.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 17 May 2018

It was The Guardian that gave Karyn McCluskey the moniker of 'the woman who took on Glasgow’s gangs'. ‘There was this idea that I'm a gang buster. And that reputation stuck,' she says. 'Actually, I spend more time doing early years, supporting parents and kids.’

But her impact in reducing violent crime in Glasgow – a city the United Nations previously dubbed as one of Europe’s most violent cities – should not be underplayed.

Born in Falkirk, McCluskey says she had a ‘strange background’ before going into policing. She is a qualified nurse, trained as a forensic psychologist and had 'loads of other failed careers’.

She worked with West Mercia Police – where there was an average of two murders a year – before joining the Strathclyde force as head of intelligence analysis in 2002.

‘When I came up to Scotland, I was overwhelmed by the scale of violence,’ says McCluskey. ‘There was a serious facial injury every six hours and we had 147 murders in one year.’

In 2004, she was tasked with writing a report for the then chief commissioner Sir Willie Rae into ways to reduce Glasgow’s violent crime. ‘The report said that despite the best 30 years of policing, we had made near to no difference in preventing violence. We were great at detection and we were going all over the world telling people how great we were at solving crime,’ says McCluskey.

The findings of the report led to the establishment of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in 2005, which McCluskey directed.

‘I thought: "What if we look at this differently? What if we look at violence as if it was a disease? What if we looked at it just like measles?"’

With a strong emphasis on investing in parenting, the VRU concentrated on the prevention rather than solving of violent crimes, looking at how people ‘caught violence’ – the domestic abuse, addiction and neglect that leads to what McCluskey refers to as the ‘circle of violence’.

Some of this involved developing links with social workers, teachers and establishing ‘call-ins’ for gang members to give them the choice – and fundamentally the support – to turn their lives around.

‘I used to hang around the A&E departments. Guys would come in with stab wounds and I'd stand at the end of their bed and talk to them,’ she says, highlighting that these ‘teachable moments’ can be important at getting people out of violence.

While McCluskey admits ‘we've got more to do, we're still not an equal society,’ the impact of the VRU has dramatically changed the face of Glasgow. The city is at a 42-year low for crime and, according to Scottish government statistics, the number of young people being prosecuted in court fell by 78% between 2006-2016.

McCluskey still works in crime reduction. In 2016, she was appointed chief executive for Community Justice Scotland, an organisation working to reduce reoffending. She is a board member of Simon Community Scotland tackling homelessness and is also a non-executive board member at the Scottish Professional Football League.

‘I deal with people whose lives are totally unequal, women whose choices are made for them before they even get to the age of 16. But I'm here to tell you that great things can happen if you get enough positive architects moving in the right direction.'

McCluskey on…

Leadership: I think the three most important things I have are authenticity, humility and hope. You need to instil in people the belief that tomorrow is going to be better than today. That ability to see around corners and inject a wee bit of passion and aspiration.

Staying sane during tough times: You just have to be like Tyson and just keep moving forward. If I've had a really bad day, I feel bad and I move on. It would be really easy to become desperate and depressed about it. I think I'm made of tin sometimes  but I've got some really good friends and I surround myself with brilliant people.

Making a change: If you want to change something big, you need resilience, resilience, resilience. That's it.

Failure: I learn by failure. I genuinely quite like talking about when I have failed and that makes me a better leader. Listen, I'm as flawed as anyone else and I have imposter syndrome in buckets. But I love what I do, and I think when you love what you do you can lead.

Karyn McClusky was a keynote speaker at MT's Inspiring Women conference in Edinburgh, sponsored by Accenture. Check out our events here.

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