YOUNG people in Waltham Forest are being forced through fear and violence into joining criminal gangs, according to a new study.

The hard-hitting report, entitled Reluctant Gangsters: Youth Gangs in Waltham Forest, has been written by academic Professor John Pitts and commissioned by a local strategic partnership involving the police and the council.

It looks at the rise of gangs in the borough, the demographics of the people involved, the drugs market, violence, and the social impact of gangs, and recommends a strategy for tackling the problem.

The study estimates that 6,000 family members in the borough are being adversely affected by gangs.

It shows that about a third of young people referred to the Youth Offending Team (YOT) do not want to be in gangs, but fear for their own, or their family's, safety, if they do not.

A YOT worker is quoted as saying: "Some kids say they were made to do things by elders. Many of them don't necessarily approve of what they are doing.

"Most kids would rather be doing something else.

"They are frightened to be seen as a pussy' or to become a target of violence."

Prof Pitts said that gangs perceive residence on an estate controlled by a gang as affiliation, with resistance from the local gang viewed as disloyalty.

In one example in Waltham Forest, a brother and sister, aged 15 and 14, who had never been in trouble, refused to do a robbery, so the gang members beat him up and raped her.

Another young person told a gang member to "f**k off", and the gang responded by shooting at his mother's flat.

People reluctantly join gangs for protection from their gang and others, and so they can access parks and other facilities controlled by gangs.

Once they have joined, young people are afraid of leaving for fear of falling foul of former associates for "disloyalty."

Prof Pitts, who was born and brought up in Walthamstow, said: "While some young people wholeheartedly embrace and revel in gang membership, many of the young people interviewed in the course of the present research appeared to be either ambivalent about, or resigned to, gang membership, seeing few if any realistic alternatives."

The report says that most people asked had only been aware of gangs in the borough in the last four or five years.

"Things have changed", says the report, and Professor Pitts lists possible causes including greater inequality, a lack of social housing and conflict over the control of drugs.

Prof Pitts said: "It is probable that in the autumn of 2006, approximately 600 to 700 people aged ten to 29 were at some point directly involved in gang activity in Waltham Forest."

WALTHAM Forest's top police officer said that John Pitts' study will serve as a "baseline" for tackling gang culture in the borough.

The borough commander Chief Supt Mark Benbow said that following the death of Paul Erhahon in April, now is the time to address the issue of gang crime.

He said: "We are all aware of the tragedy which struck our borough earlier this year when Paul Erhahon lost his life and his future.

"Now is the time to address all the issues, the work undertaken by Professor Pitts is the largest piece of research undertaken into gangs and gang culture anywhere in the UK."

Chief Supt Benbow said there was a need to break the cycle that led young people into crime.

He said: "We acknowledge the territorial nature of youth, the peer pressure and the need to maintain face and respect among their frineds.

"This is ultimately about developing individuality and their own personalities, but when left unchecked it can also become destructive and the consequences are grave."

He added: "A Year 7 boy or girl who is too scared to go on the local bus because of the fear of bullying , abuse or intimidation may choose to miss chool rather than run the gauntlet'.

"They miss out on their education, social interaction and ultimately may get diverted into the same behaviour as they feared themselves."

Council leader Clyde Loakes described the need to create a safe borough as a "non-negotiable priority".

He said that real progress has been made in tackling youth crime over the last 12 months, but the death of Paul Erhahon "cast a shadow over all of us".

He said: "The incident sends a clear message that we have to take clear action to stop access to weapons on our streets, to stop our public spaces being unsafe and support families and neighbourhoods to enable young people to achieve and resist a culture of violence and fear."

Prof Pitts' study sets out a seven-point strategy for tackling gang culture in Waltham Forest.

It includes co-ordination with different agencies, enhancing relations with the community, engaging with gang members themselves and initiatives in schools.

MONEY is a "major preoccupation" for gang members, according to Professor John Pitts' study.

Prof Pitts said that the families of most gang members are poor but he also said: "The idea of a poor ghetto child who becomes a local hero is at the heart of street culture and it is therefore difficult to disentangle whether, and to what extent it is the actual experience of growing up poor or the social cache attached to this sub-cultural persona that motivates gang members."

Prof Pitts said: "People knocking about on the street can take £32,000 a year. It's not a fortune, but it's not a bad living.

"When you interview kids, over the next five years they're very pessimistic. They all say they are going to lose. Very fatalistic.

"There is a kind of romanticism, and it stops you thinking about the alternative.

"They live in ghettos of the mind, their life experiences are fairly restricted."

The study also said that some of the gang members have young girlfriends, aged 13 to 15, who are attracted by the "glamour" and "celebrity" of gang members, who are "often sexually exploited" by the gang.

"We have to take seriously the amount of money you can make from the drugs business.

"It is a growing market, it's an equal opportunity employer, there's a career ladder and if you show acumen you can move up."

SOME primary school children in Waltham Forest are claiming affiliation to criminal gangs, according to Professor John Pitts' study.

Prof Pitts said that in Waltham Forest some gang members are as young as ten and as old as 40 or 50.

But, he said: "Some of the children who claim gang affiliation in Waltham Forest are as young as seven or eight.

"Several primary schools report conflict between self-styled gang members and, from time to time, gang-affiliated youngsters from secondary schools are summoned to primary schools by younger brothers and sisters as reinforcements.

"It is alarming to think that however tenuous, their is a link forged between the primary school playground and international organised crime."