In Depth

How to solve Britain's knife crime epidemic

Experts say strategies need to move beyond legal crackdowns

The Government has been accused of “playing catch-up” on the issue of the UK’s knife crime epidemic, despite an emergency funding boost for police to tackle gang violence over the Easter weekend.

The Home Office said £51m of the £100m promised by Chancellor Philip Hammond last month was being made available for more patrols, weapon sweeps and officers.

The rest has either already been allocated to local councils or was being held back for a later date.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan accused the Government of “breaking its promise” to immediately give the Met and other police forces across the country £100m “just when it is most desperately needed”.

Last Easter “saw a spate of brutal street murders in London, with 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne-Blake killed in a drive-by shooting and a 16-year-old boy shot in the face on the same night”, reports The Independent.

The extra funding was “prompted by the number of fatal stabbings rising last year to the highest since records began more than 70 years ago”, says the Financial Times

Meanwhile, latest NHS data for hospitals in England, which includes incidents not reported to the police, shows a 15% year-on-year increase in admissions for assault with a knife or sharp instrument.

Earlier this week Home Secretary Sajid Javid unveiled what Sky News described as “a radical blueprint” for tackling the problem.

Javid said it should be treated like the outbreak of a “virulent disease” and declared that the "mindset of government needs to shift” to combat it.

This “signals a view of violent crime as something that should be treated as a public health crisis”, says the New Statesman

In his speech, Javid added he wants to bring “education, health, social services, housing, youth and social workers” together to help support vulnerable young people who could be at risk.

But while “this would mark a shift in tackling knife crime in England, it’s not new”, says the New Statesman, highlighting the fact that the government unveiled its ambition to treat violent crime as a disease earlier this month. In fact what Javid’s speech “really showed was how the government is playing catch-up on this issue – as the only thing it can offer to change is its mindset”.

So what can be done?

Law and education

Under current UK laws, it is illegal for anyone to sell a knife to someone who is under 18 years of age, unless it has a “folding blade 3in long (7.62cm) or less”, says government website Gov.UK. It is also illegal to carry a knife in public without “good reason”, and there is a long list of banned knives, ranging from batons to sword-sticks.  

An 80-page London Knife Crime strategy issued by the London mayor in 2017 includes advice for knife retailers in London. These retailers can also access training to ensure the “securing of knives to prevent shoplifting and to increase the interaction between the purchaser and staff to reduce the risk of ‘accidental’ sales”. 

The Home Office has announced that six UK companies will receive a combined £460,000 to fast-track new technologies that can help to detect people carrying knives in crowded places.

One of the biggest challenges for police is “distinguishing concealed blades from other items such as keys and coins, but the companies will look into how technology - including radar and electromagnetic and acoustic sensors - could help detect steel-bladed knives”, says the FT.

The Government has also revealed proposals for a new legal duty obliging front-line workers in schools, hospitals and police stations to “spot warning signs” of violent crime among young people. The move has been praised by The Independent, which said that a “more joined-up approach would enable an early warning system and interventions to steer young people away from the wrong track”. 

But speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said agencies such as schools “don't often feel that they've got the tools or the systems” to deal with children who may be involved in, or at risk of, violent crime.

She added: “We've got to think of more creative and effective ways to help these children.”

Rebuilding trust

One solution to this issue is to “improve relations between the police and young people”, says Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice, a charity working for justice reform.

In an article for the London Evening Standard last year, Gibbs said two high-profile stabbings in her own area, Kentish Town, had involved boys of the Somali community, but noted that she had never seen a police officer of Somali origin.

Calling for increased diversity in the force, she says: “Until the police become relevant to London teenagers, the least fearful will view crime as something you endure, while the most fearful will ‘tool up’.” 

Gibbs also urged police to ensure that stop and search operations do not disproportionately target black and minority ethnic communities, noting that the issue has increased distrust while failing to reduce knife crime. 

In an article for The Daily Telegraph, Victims' Commissioner Baroness Newlove backed the increased stop and search powers but argued that it must be done sensitively. “My view is that it is not what you do, but how you do it,” she writes. 

“For example, if your intelligence is wrong and the youngsters you have stopped and searched have nothing to hide, then apologise. It makes a big difference to the person on the receiving end.”

Garvin Snell, an anti-knife crime activist in Hounslow, west London, told the BBC that some of the extra £100m the Government has promised to help reduce knife crime should be used to open more youth centres.

“A lot of these incidents are happening in poorer parts of London,” he said. “Why don't we do something to raise the aspirations of these young people?”

Holistic approach

A public health model adopted in Glasgow following a string of stabbing fatalities in 2007 has proven effective, with homicides in the Scottish city almost halved.

Dr Christine Goodall, director of Glasgow-based charity Medics Against Violence, told The Guardian: “It’s absolutely not just a policing issue, it involves everybody: schools, communities, hospital, prisons, and we work in workplaces as well.”

“Placing all of the responsibility on the police to enforce a the law and the courts to punish offence will not reduce [crime],” she added.

Goodall believes that a key part of tackling the issue is to educate young people about the reality of knife crime and its dangers, who “carry with them a lot of myths about the safety of violence”.

Charity boss Gibbs is calling for a similar initiative in London, to “offer these boys a different aspiration, just as the Glasgow authorities did”. 

Writing in the Evening Standard, she concludes: “The provision of treatment for trauma, training opportunities, and jobs may seem like soft justice. But prison is a dead end. We need practical, common-sense solutions if we are to stem the flow of bodies.” 

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