At 5:55 a.m., the only sound on the tiny street in north London was the pitter-patter of 12 police officers speed-walking in the dark as they closed in on the brick home of a suspected gang member.
Seconds later, a constable wedged a hydraulic press into the side of a blue front door, which another repeatedly pounded with a 44-pound steel battering ram.
“Police! On the floor! On the floor! Stay down!” yelled one officer as another flew past a silver mountain bike in the hallway and into a bedroom, where they found the underwear-clad suspect.
The predawn raid last month was part of the London Metropolitan Police’s new anti-gang strategy, and the sheer size of the overall operation — 200 officers fanning out to 17 homes of suspected gang members — drove home a new seriousness on the part of authorities about tackling gang violence.
Britain’s gang problem shot to the top of the national agenda in August after riots in which violent mobs torched town centers and looted shops in major cities around England. As shocked Britons began a heated debate over how best to combat the disorder, Prime Minister David Cameron quickly declared an “all-out war on gangs,’’ although fewer than 20 percent of the 2,914 people arrested in connection with the riots have proved to be linked to the violent groups.
Some critics have called Cameron’s approach misdirected. But British officials have defended it, arguing that gangs bore a disproportionate responsibility for the mayhem and that their influence has proved devastating in poorer communities.
Britain has a long history of gangs — if they count, Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men date from the 15th century — but street gangs similar to those in the United States began to emerge prominently in the 1970s.
Experts say that gangs in London tend to be less hierarchical than those in the United States and that many are driven primarily by fierce loyalty to their neighborhoods, particularly public-housing complexes. London gangsters are more likely to wield a knife than a gun, and the city’s murder rate is less than one-tenth of Washington’s.
The strategy being rolled out by London police draws heavily on lessons learned in the United States, including a 1990s police project in Boston called Operation Ceasefire that coincided with a spectacular reduction in the city’s homicide rate.
London’s Operation Connect is an expansion of a pilot program that began in April. It calls for authorities to present reputed gang members with an ultimatum: exit the gang or risk the full weight of the law, such as the early morning raid, whose targets had dismissed the hand-delivered warning sent a week earlier by the local police commissioner.
Under the plan, those who agree to leave gangs would be offered job training and other assistance, including family relocation. Those who refuse would be targeted for even minor offenses, such as driving without auto insurance.
“It’s part of the Al Capone approach,” said Detective Chief Inspector Tim Champion, referring to the notorious Chicago gangster who was targeted for tax evasion. “If they are on that list and a priority, then we will do anything at all to target them.”
The British capital’s fight against gang violence comes at a time of painful austerity measures. The national police budget, for example, is being slashed by 20 percent over the next four years, and many local councils that run gang prevention programs and other youth groups are also facing steep cuts.
The government’s Labor Party critics have warned that budget cuts could result in the loss of 16,000 police officers in the next four years, making it harder for the government to tackle gang violence. Given the budget cuts, police officials say that support from community leaders will be essential in making headway.
“Multi-agency is absolutely key,” said Detective Superintendent Mick McNally, the lead officer on Operation Connect.
But at least one former gang leader in London has warned that the new outreach effort could fail because of tensions between police and the minority community.
The police have “done so much grief to the community, especially the black community, they aren’t never going to get trust from anyone,’’ said Elijah Kerr, who once led PDC, formerly one of the most feared gangs in Britain.
Adam is a special correspondent.