Barely a day has gone by, in recent weeks, without another tragic case of a young person being killed on the streets of London. There are well-founded fears that violent crime rates will rocket to their highest level in more than a decade. In January, 8 people were murdered, 15 in February, 22 in March and so far in April, 3 have died. If projections are correct, this year’s homicide rate could exceed those recorded in 2005.
Unsurprisingly, campaigners are calling for change, and insisting authorities need to clamp down on knife and gun crime. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, has stated she believes social media plays a role in the rise of violent crime. She speaks of apps like Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook acting as catalysts, escalating online disagreements to brawls with weapons.
Labour MP David Lammy has attributed the rise in recorded violent crime to a huge growth in the drug economy and cuts to public services. He has a point. Police records show over half of murders in London have been due to turf wars or the drug trade. Police budgets are being cut, they’re often over-worked and unable to cope with demand. London Mayor Sadiq Khan made a similar argument, apportioning blame to austerity, adding that police cuts from central government have been detrimental to safety.
However, a spokesman for the Prime Minister rebuffed these claims, saying that the Mayor of London is “responsible for the performance of the Metropolitan Police”. Even so, surely the rising violent crime is in the government’s interest? Should they be doing more, rather than passing the buck?
Rightly, other commentators have pointed out the fact that if there had been this many deaths at a football match, for example, there would be an inquiry and urgent action would be taken. So why is crime of this nature not being treated with the gravitas it deserves? I would argue, in part, it’s due to the background of the victims. Assistant commissioner at the Met, Martin Hewitt, has too suggested this, claiming that knife crimes are not causing the collective outrage they should be, because the victims are portrayed in the media as predominantly black. In actuality, a majority of knife crime victims are white or Asian (black victims only make up a third), yet the media depict knife crime as a predominantly black problem. If you also add the fact that many came from deprived areas of London, much of the mainstream media see it as par for the course, and sweep it under the carpet. So what is to be done?
For a start, we should acknowledge the lack of trust between police and public, particularly within many BAME communities. Because of racial profiling and disproportionate stop and searches aimed at particularly BAME young people, experts say curtailing the rise in weapon carrying may be harder. Searching young people on the basis of trivial charges such as possessing small quantities of Cannabis, may prevent those who would ordinarily be sources of intelligence for the police, from trusting them enough to engage.
Education has its place, but it isn’t a quick fix and could take a long time to change the culture of knife carrying. If police budgets are already cut and preventing them from carrying out investigative work, there’s little chance they will have the appropriate resources to carry out educational work such as this. There are knife crime awareness campaign charities who do undertake this kind of work, but funding can be difficult to obtain and as a charity, they can only do so much. Funding for these types of organisations has been cut by 35% and over half of councils planned to cut more this year. Again, should this be the responsibility of charities, rather than the government who have a duty of care?
Schools have their part to play, given there are reports of kids as young as 12 carrying knives in and out of schools. But with schools also receiving less funding, their management of “problem kids” or those with behavioural issues, who may be more likely to commit violence, isn’t always conducive to crime prevention. Shunting these kids aside and marginalising them in a Pupil Referral Unit (which many youth workers suggest has a direct link to ending up in jail) only isolates them and makes them harder to engage with.
The government have launched their #KnifeFree ad campaign, which draws upon real stories of young people ditching their weapons, in the hope they will show carrying weapons is not making anyone safer or giving young people more status. This is a good start, but will seeing an advert at a bus stop really address the fairly complex issues that may lead to someone carrying a weapon? I would argue that a more proactive intervention would be a better way to spend resources and funding. Sadiq Khan, to his credit, in February, launched a £15million initiative, to introduce sport, education and cultural activity to some of London’s most disadvantaged young people, in the hope it will deter them from engaging in gang crime and weapon-carrying.
The main response from the government and legal system, however, seems to be to make knife crime sentences longer. Figures from the Ministry of Justice have shown that the average custodial sentence for knife/weapon offences has risen by 2.2 months over the last decade, to an average total of 7.5 months. Whilst this may assuage public fear, does taking a punitive approach actually reduce knife crime? Will sending an offender to prison alter their behaviour upon release, so that they don’t see carrying a weapon as necessary? I would argue not. In fact, it may exacerbate the issue, especially with prisons being as unsafe as they are. If offenders feel unsafe in custody, they may carry a weapon in prison too – merely reinforcing their behaviour.
Locking someone up without carrying out appropriate interventions is likely to be counter-productive. If we as a society can reduce the factors leading to young people feeling the need to carry a weapon (whether that factor is drugs, feeling unsafe, aiming for status, peer pressure), we can reasonably expect to reduce levels of knife crime. We must also accept the role poverty plays in exacerbating violent crime, given poorer kids have far fewer resources available and may be less likely to have effective support networks.
Crucially, we must push for a cross-party course of action, drawing upon evidence from those on the front-line, as to what actually works. Multi-agency working is of paramount importance and relevant authorities have a part to play, and must be consulted. Rather than our authorities treating it as a blame issue and pointing the finger at one another, they should be pulling together to come up with proper strategies.
As a society we simply must demand better for our young people.