Why you should care
Cuts in the police force, new supply lines for drugs and Britain’s austerity measures are combining to spark rising knife crime.
On the evening of November 1, Jay Hughes set off to buy dinner at his local chicken shop in south-east London. He never came back.
The 15-year-old — an aspiring cartoonist — was just yards from his house when an attacker in a hooded tracksuit ran toward him, arm outstretched, and stabbed him in the chest. Jay died in the hospital three hours later.
In the same week, four others died in fatal stabbings in the capital, taking the total number of knife-related homicides in the city to 70 this year. The number of accident and emergency admissions in England due to assault by a sharp object is up nearly 40 percent from two years ago. After decades of falling crime levels, incidences of violence and homicide are firmly on the rise.
Police have stepped up street patrols, teachers are devoting lessons to the dangers of carrying knives, and Sajid Javid, home secretary, held a summit in London last week to canvass crime experts from Sweden, Canada and the U.S. on how to stem the violence. But while ministers seek solutions from overseas, the causes of the rise in knife attacks lie much closer to home.
Is austerity to blame for the crime wave?
Cuts of about 20 percent in police budgets have led to a loss of nearly 20,000 officers across the country in the past seven years. Javid himself has admitted that boosting police numbers is an “important part of the solution” in tackling rising crime. While the police workforce has fallen, so too has police activity: the number of arrests made in England and Wales has halved in the past decade.
Peter Neyroud, former chief constable of Thames Valley police and now a criminology lecturer at Cambridge University, is clear about why violence is rising. “What you’re seeing here is the effects of austerity — the chickens are coming home to roost,” he says. “There have been cuts in police, as well as all the protective interventions … early years funding, social support for teenagers, help for those with special educational needs.”
Government spending on youth services — such as clubs and after-school facilities — has dropped by a third from $800 million to £530 million in the past three years, according to figures from the Department for Education. A $6.5 million fund announced by ministers last month to help support children thought to be at most risk from knife crime and gang culture may well help, but does not come close to matching the level of the shortfall.
What you’re seeing here is the effects of austerity — the chickens are coming home to roost.
Peter Neyroud, former cop and now a Cambridge University criminologist
Rick Muir, director of the police foundation think-tank, says it is “not unreasonable” to think that austerity has had an impact in luring people into crime, or that cuts “might have limited alternative provision which could have helped them on to a different path.” But he believes the bigger problem is the evolution of a drug supply operation known as “county lines,” in which youngsters are coerced into acting as couriers to take heroin and crack cocaine from major cities to provincial areas.
The statistics suggest this has contributed to the increase in violence: the proportion of murders in which the victim or suspect was known to be using or dealing drugs increased from 50 percent to 75 percent during the past two years, according to the Home Office.
But managing the county lines issue requires a joined-up police response, and this is also being hit by a loss of funding. “There needs to be a real focus across police boundaries and that’s difficult when each force is coping with its own individual problems,” says Muir. He added that chief officers are expressing concerns about the precarious nature of funding for regional crime units — there are hopes that this, among other cost pressures facing police, will be addressed in next year’s spending review.
How the problem is being tackled globally
The search for more innovative solutions to rising crime leads inevitably to the work of Glasgow’s violence reduction unit, which treats violence as a public health problem rather than a criminal problem. London mayor Sadiq Khan has already launched a London initiative based on this principle.
Police forces and officials are also looking to the U.S. for solutions. Former NYPD chief Bill Bratton has been widely lauded for ending a wave of violence in New York during the mid-1990s by using computer analysis to identify violence “hotspots” and concentrating police numbers in these areas.
However, while this was initially effective, it was criticized for driving disparities. Criminologists argue that the longer-term legacy may not have been so positive.
“Concentrating police presence disproportionately in high-crime neighborhoods tends to lead to a disproportionate focus on the residents of those communities, such as people of color,” says Jim Parsons, research director at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. “This can result in a reinforcing cycle of offending and detention.”
A more useful example, he suggests, is the “Cure Violence” project, used in cities such as New York, Chicago and Baltimore, which deploys specially trained community members known as “violence interrupters” to diffuse tensions and prevent retaliation in the aftermath of a shooting. This response takes the pressure off police prevention efforts and can help provide intelligence on individuals thought to be at high risk of future offenses.
Back in the U.K., the home secretary has urged police to increase their use of targeted stop-and-search, raising the prospect of enhanced powers to apprehend youngsters thought to be carrying weapons. But Neyroud insists that the real answer to the problem is much more basic.
“Possession of a knife has been an arrestable offense since 1953 so police don’t need more powers,” he says. “They just need more feet on the beat.”
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