How Do We Put an End to Knife Crime?
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
There has been a constant stream of stabbings and acts of violence on London’s streets. Today I went to a conference on serious violence for Redbridge, Havering and Barking & Dagenham council. The conference room was full of community leaders, from the police to charity groups, trying to figure out how to reduce knife crime in the area. Listening to the debate today I tried to draw on my years of experience of working with young offenders in prison, in the community and working with the police and probation service.
There has been a spike in violence in the last few months mainly affecting young people in London. The lives of young teenagers wasted has shock the nation. Some newspaper reports have led with alarmist headlines that violence in the capital is now higher than New York. These alarmist headlines are misleading as overall violent crime has reduce since 2000. However, the fact is that young people are dying on London streets and something needs to be done about it.
There are three core things that I think need to change:
1. More Youth Workers , Not Only Police Officers
The first question asked at today’s summit was “Is more police on the street the answer to stopping knife crime?” In the mist of public outcry, many run to the safe and reassuring answer “yes, we need more police on our streets”. Traver Phillips, the former race equality chief, has called for stop and search to be used. The Police Chief his committed an extra 300 police officers to areas in London most affected.
Much has been made of evidenced-based stop and search but I fail to see how this is different from the stop and search techniques that has seen black men disproportionately stopped and searched by the police. I also fail to see how increasing stop and search will reduce knife crime. The group of people that are currying knifes are willing to take irrational risks. The fear that they might be stopped by the police is unlikely to out way whatever led them to believe that they need to carry a knife in the first place. Unless the government is willing to place a police officer at the corner of every street, police numbers are unlikely to make a difference and 300 officers are certainly not going to cut it.
Community policing can play an important and effective roll in keeping our neighbourhoods safe, however, over policing a community can be damaging. There has been studies in the United States that had shown the negative consequences of over policing Black communities, resulting in a them and us battle field environment. Studies here in the UK have also shown repeatedly that stop and search yield little results. I would argue that stop and search should be restricted to limited situations.
There has been public outcry over how young some of the victims and perpetrators of knife crime in London have been. Kneejerk reactions will I fear just sweep up a generation of vulnerable young people in to the criminal justice system. We need to take a step back and seek to address the cause. The children and young people that are carrying knifes need interventions before they become the victim or perpetrators of a crime.
2. Local Government Not Central Government
There has been a reduction of local government services that has impacted on the provision of youth clubs, libraries, children’s centres and support services in the most challenging areas. I would not be far off if I was to conclude that the young people carrying knifes are likely to be the ones that would most likely benefit from local services. Central government have tried to throw money into grand ideas – an example of this would be the Trouble Families initiative. However, it really is best to let local communities decide where and how money should be spent. Communities may decide that spreading money more widely to sure up core services is the most effective way to improve outcomes long term.
Investment in local government to train, recruit and retain more social workers would help social workers to do more proactive work with families. The recruitment of more social workers would be a long-term solution, rather than just adding to social workers caseloads with new initiatives that get newspaper headlines. Local government can play a key role in bringing together a range stakeholder from schools, local charities and faith groups to provide support in the community.
Councils who know their communities best need to be given the power and money to solve this problem. Basic core services such as libraries and youth clubs have been closed when these places can be the foundation of stability that vulnerable young people need.
3. Opportunity in the community and employment not community service and prison
More needs to be done to understand the reasons why young people are carrying knifes. When I worked with young people in Havering Councils Youth Offending Service the children would often repeat the familiar line of “I carry a knife” for protection. This would make me wonder what was it that made these children feel so unsafe. A lack of funding may mean that libraries and youth clubs are neglected, entire communities have also been neglected for years. Overcrowded and rundown social housing, the lack of and poorly maintained green space, and failing schools that have low expectations of their students. Over policing such areas is not the answer but investment in housing, schools, and the community as a whole.
The young people that I worked with had faced multiple exclusions and were not engaged in education at all. Their educational pathway was limited to a brick laying course at the local college that was offered to all the young offenders. Little effort was made to find out what these young people where interested in or to expose them to a range of trades.
When I was chair of Barking and Dagenham’s Corporate Parenting Board, I ensured children in the care of the local authority were offered work experience, as it is no longer compulsory that all schools offer a work experience placement. It is often the most socially excluded that would benefit the most for exposure to career options. Better education, higher expectations and exposure to a wide range of career options is half the battle. Unfortunately, unconscious bias and racism in the worker place still prevents working class and black young people reaching their full potential.
The bottom line is if we really want to address the root course of knife crime then we need to address the devastating effects of poverty and inequality in our society.