BARNSLEY youngsters at risk of being recruited by organised crime ringleaders will be targeted through a multi-million pound scheme which is aiming to rid gang-related activity from communities.

South Yorkshire Police received a £1.6m grant which will go towards setting up a violence reduction unit (VRU) after county bosses argued their case amid the force’s ongoing crackdown on drug-peddling gangs.

The unit will consist of police officers already involved in schemes such as Operation Fortify - which is running in Bolton-upon-Dearne and Goldthorpe - as well as Barnsley Council, the town’s secondary schools and Barnsley’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Youth Offending Team (YOT).

Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, said: “If serious crime is to be reduced we need to tackle not only those who are committing crimes now but also find ways of steering people away from crime in the first place.

“Together we will identify and support projects that will stop people, especially young people, getting involved in crime in the first place or enable them to break with crime if they are already offending.

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“This is the approach we are following: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. The funding the government has given us this year enables us to intensify our activities in both respects.

“We have had to act fast and have appointed a co-ordinator, to take the work forward at pace. The first meeting of the VRU board will be in September.”

Protecting vulnerable children being targeted has become a priority due to Barnsley’s high number of looked-after children, of which there are an estimated 200 in the care system, and rising concerns with youngsters being recruited.

One gang - the so-called Pitsmoor Shotta Boys - have grown in prominence in areas such as Bolton-upon-Dearne and Goldthorpe, having moved into Barnsley from nearby Mexborough.

Increased stop-and-search tactics have been employed recently, according to Detective Inspector Steve Smith, which resulted in a firearm being seized from a 17-year-old boy who remains under investigation.

“That occurrence is a prime example of what’s going on and while we have a firm hold on the areas in which gang members are operating, it’d be foolish to be complacent,” he told the Chronicle.

“It’s our job to either dissuade young gang members who are either on the cusp or already involved or dismantling what remains.”

However, Dr Billings has expressed some concerns over the long-term future of the scheme as the £1.6m grant will only allow the team to continue until March 2020.

“That’s the anxiety I have as it’s only eight months away,” he added. “If the VRU is to have sustainable success it must be funded over a number of years.

“The Scottish VRU, on which this is based, has a ten-year strategy funded by the Scottish government. We look, therefore, for this funding to be continued by the government.

“This way, by tackling crime and its root causes, we will reduce serious and violent crime across the county and keep the people safe.”

Coun Margaret Bruff, cabinet spokesperson for children’s services, added: “We are committed to preventing any occurrences of exploitation in Barnsley. We already do a lot of work to keep our young people safe from harm, including preventing them getting involved in criminal activity, and this partnership project will provide further support.”