We cannot lose sight of the other epidemic we were fighting before coronavirus – knife crime.
And here’s why.
Knife and drug crime statistics released in the last few days paint very different pictures of the impact of serious youth violence and knife crime, in and out of lockdown.
The coronavirus lockdown has inevitably caused knife crime in England and Wales to fall dramatically, particularly in London. According to figures published this week by the Metropolitan Police, crime is down 14% across the board since the start of 2020, with knife crime seeing one of the biggest drops – falling by more than 25% since January.
This significant drop must be due to the unprecedented situation we are currently in. The government’s lockdown provisions to help control the spread of the virus are also effectively controlling the spread of gang and county lines beefs that are behind many of the violence statistics in England and Wales.
Others, aware of how London’s street gangs have become entrepreneurial and evolved their business models in recent years, think other factors may be contributing in part to the latest figures. For example, young people engaging with the Ask Me About Gangs Outreach programme based in Waltham Forest and part of the borough council’s gang prevention programme, have reported a slowdown in drug and county lines activity as dealers are finding their movements are far more visible now than before. However, the evidence suggests dealers may be switching to promoting drugs online, using social media, backed by postal or delivery services, far less likely to be detected by enforcement authorities. Some of the young people engaging with Ask Me’s Community Volunteers are worried that this increase in social media gang rivalry, will in turn fuel an increase in violence when life returns to a degree of normality and gang elders take revenge for ‘disrespect’ aimed at them during lockdown.
The National Crime Agency estimated in 2019 that there were approximately 2,200 county lines in operation across the UK exporting drugs and violent crime beyond metropolitan cities to areas that have not previously affected by them.
The latest statistics published by the Office for National Statistics for 2019, capturing data to the end of December 2019, show the extent of the problem prior to lockdown with crime in England and Wales increasing to a new record high with the highest since knife crime levels recorded since statistics were first collected in 2010-11. The number of knife related offences has increased by more than 20,000 in five years, with London now accounting for a third of them. A worrying rise in knifepoint robberies which have doubled in four years, combined with stabbings linked to increased knife carrying among young people and gang activity, account for 40,000 offences last year.
The challenge for police and communities when people return to the streets will be to ensure the numbers do not return to the record levels seen last year. Downing Street acknowledged there was “more to be done to crack down on thugs carrying knives and ensuring they are properly punished”. But the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, and Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick, have both acknowledged that the traditional approach of arresting our way out of a knife crime epidemic will not succeed as a stand-alone strategy.
Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called for a “comprehensive national strategy” to deal with knife crime. The National Centre for Gangs Research said last year that “we need a radical new way of working to address this.
There is no single solution but many different solutions which must work together in concert.”
One leading not for profit company working with local authorities in England and Wales, Resilience UnLimited, believes that a major part of the solution to the current risks posed by county lines activity comes from strong, active, educated communities providing effective alternatives to violence, drugs and gang life. And public health approaches to reducing knife and serious youth violence do appear to have made a significant impact addressing and treating the underlying reasons for violence. Far from being your stereotypical ‘thugs’, evidence has shown an increase in knife carrying among young people as self defence or in response to the perceived greater risk of being a victim of knife crime. A problem better addressed by education and treating the underlying causes than simply scaling up stop and search and arrests? Research reveals that individuals are much more likely to be violent if you have witnessed violence or been a victim of violence. Figures released by the Metropolitan Police suggest that 72 per cent of suspects in homicide investigations were previously victims of crime and 26% victims of knife crime. Greater than 50% of the young people within Youth Offending Services have either been witness to domestic abuse or be victim to it.
Radical new approaches to this problem have shown that they can make a difference. One of the few boroughs to buck the trend on knife offences last year, Waltham Forest, launched a public health approach to violence reduction in 2018 and can point to a 27% reduction in knife crime offences in its first 12 months.
So, perhaps, now is the time to be investing in education programmes and community led initiatives that provide a positive alternative to gang life and knife carrying and to build the partnerships that are needed to lead these projects locally. However, radical new approaches require investment and the Coronavirus outbreak risks diverting funding away from some community safety schemes as well as some local authorities’ focus on the issue.
Many commentators are speculating how life after lockdown will be different. Sadly unless we continue to be focussed on tackling the knife and serious youth violence epidemic that we were experiencing before the onset of COVID19, borne out by the ONS data, there is a risk is that knife crime and death toll linked to it, will look depressingly familiar.