The police: The knives are out

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For inner-city officers, the school holidays mean smashing in front doors, hunting for concealed weapons and busting illegal blade-sellers...Simon Usborne joins the Met in action.

Sitting in the dimly lit canteen at Bethnal Green police station in east London, Inspector Billy Bowen-Long looks agitated. Dressed in black leather boots with scuffed toes, a full blue combat suit and a stab-proof vest, his fingers drum a helmet resting on the Formica tabletop. On the next table, a group of about 20 officers, wearing the same gear, chat and sip on tea in polystyrene cups. "A huge amount of work has gone into this operation," Bowen-Long says. "These gang members are..." Before he can continue, the radio chatter picks up ("Male seen going in with a green top, black jacket") and a plain-clothes officer rushes in: "We've got activity at the address, we should go now," he says.

"Police! Police! Police!" Minutes later, half a mile away, one of Bowen-Long's men batters down the door of a small terraced house off Bethnal Green Road. The hardened steel ram shatters the door's reinforced glass panels and makes toothpicks of the frame. A small crowd gathers to watch from the pavement as the officers storm the house.

At the same time, just across the street, a second unit breaks down the door of an eighth-floor flat in a council block. As police pile in, a young mother with a pushchair exits the building, passing a pile of abandoned mattresses and a rusting shopping trolley. Hearing the shouting and banging, she looks around for a second before walking on, apparently untroubled by the events unfolding upstairs.

This is the sharp end of the Metropolitan Police's fight against serious youth violence in the capital. During school holidays, when youth-crime figures traditionally peak, police pick up their game. At Easter, officers were deployed on weapons sweeps to search for discarded or cached knives, while a joint operation with the British Transport Police has seen police touring train, Tube and tram stations with portable metal-detecting search "arches". The Easter initiatives followed the Bethnal Green raid, which marked the culmination of Operation Kartel, a two-week assault on violence in 11 of London's most crime-ridden boroughs that ran for two weeks covering the February school half-term.

The need to crack down has never been greater, as an increasing number of young people show a shocking willingness to maim and murder. Last year, 26 teenagers were gunned down, stabbed or beaten to death in the capital (compared with 17 in 2006 and 15 in 2005). This year, the youth death count reached 11 by the end of March, an average of one every eight days. If that rate continues, the murder count for 2008 will top 45, an increase of almost 75 per cent.

The eleventh victim this year was Amro Elbadawi, who, at 14, was the youngest teen to be murdered. He was knifed in the neck on his way home from school in Queen's Park, north-west London, and died in hospital an hour later. A note left at the scene by the boy's girlfriend read:

"To the best boyfriend in the world, I miss you and love you very much you'll never be forgotten. you'll remain in my heart its still doesn't feel real, I keep expecting a call or txt from you. Amro remember we had plans for 2day man – maybe on the otherside."

On the same day, in Stamford Hill in north London, police were investigating the death of Devoe Roach, 17, who was stabbed in the chest. Earlier teenage victims in 2008 were Henry Bolombi, 18 (stabbed on New Year's Day), Faridon Alizada, 18 (stabbed), Boduka Mudianga, 18 (stabbed), Fuad Buraleh, 19 (beaten), Sunday Essiet, 15 (stabbed), Tung Lee, 17 (stabbed), Ofiyke Nmezu, 16 (beaten), Michael Alexander Jones, 18 (stabbed), and Nicholas Clarke, 19 (shot).

As news of each youth murder is splashed on the front pages of the capital's newspapers, and beamed into Londoners' homes, police face unprecedented pressure to do something about the situation. In a darkened briefing-room before the Bethnal Green raid, Inspector Bowen-Long, who speaks in rapid bursts like a sergeant major, projects four mugshots on to a dirty whiteboard: the targets of today's raid. As Bowen-Long reels off a string of previous offences, ranging from robbery to drugs charges, one thing jumps from the screen: their ages. They are 17, 18 and 19. The fourth, the 18-year-old's brother, is a relative veteran at 22.

It is a fact that pains Inspector Bowen-Long, who started walking the beat 15 years ago. "Back then, you didn't expect to see 13-year-olds routinely involved in violent crime," he says. "Nowadays, gangs are recruiting younger and younger boys. The leaders themselves are only 17 or 18."

Sitting in a drab office just over the Thames from the London Eye, Commander Shaun Sawyer, one of the Met's most senior officers and head of the Violent Crime Directorate, which launched Operation Kartel, says the alarming drop in the age of violent offenders is a major new challenge. "They might watch TV and see someone get up and walk away after being stabbed. What they don't realise is that in real life the victim is more likely to crawl away and bleed to death. No matter how streetwise these boys are, all too often they don't understand the consequences of their actions."

Apart from the tragically young age at which they died, one thing most of the youths killed this year have in common is the way they were dispatched; eight of the 11 were stabbed, while two were beaten and just one, Nicholas Clarke, was shot. Indeed, while fatal shootings have fallen steadily since the Met launched Operation Trident 10 years ago, the considerable sharpening of UK knife laws since the murder of the London headmaster Philip Lawrence in 1995 have not had such a desirable effect.

After it was made illegal to sell a knife, or any sharp object that could be used as a weapon, to anyone under the age of 18, youths who wanted weapons started to look elsewhere. "Ten years ago you'd see combat knives when you stopped and searched someone," Inspector Bowen-Long says. "Now it's almost always a kitchen knife."

This move to kitchen knives has arguably caused the police more problems than the crackdown on apparently more threatening blades solved: cheap knives designed to chop food cost as little as £1 in high-street hardware stores, bringing them within the means of the youngest potential offenders. This rise in the £1 weapon has made them disposable, meaning they can be left in strategic positions for a planned act of violence in the knowledge that if they are taken by someone else, it is no great loss.

"Young people know they are more likely to get searched, so they are laying down knives to collect after school or when they know the police have gone," Commander Sawyer says. During Operation Kartel, officers recovered 33 knives in 50 neighbourhood weapons sweeps. Over Easter, a sweep of one London park produced seven knives. Some will have been taken from parents' kitchen drawers. Many will have been bought illegally.

On a bitterly cold morning near Brick Lane, east London, two youths, aged 14 and 15, one in a denim jacket and jeans, the other wearing a hooded sports jacket, both wearing trainers, are on the streets trying to get hold of weapons. These young men are not suspected gang members – they are police cadets giving up a day of their holidays to test the rigour of local shopkeepers.

Police insist the boys' participation in Operation Kartel be kept secret – they live and go to school in nearby Poplar – so we will call them Jamie and Karl. On the pavement on a quiet side road, Ian Moseley, a Trading Standards Officer, and Police Inspector David Shipp hand Karl a secret camera in a small black case, which the boy places under his arm. The boys head into the lunchtime throng and towards their first target: Woolworths. Five minutes later, they return, empty-handed. Staff are just as vigilant at the next two shops the boys enter but, as they walk out of a sprawling cash and carry on Brick Lane, a plastic bag swings from one of the boy's hand. Jamie pulls out a kitchen knife and sharpener set in plastic packaging. They cost £3.49.

"The man never even looked at my face," Karl says, his hand shaking slightly as he passes the potential weapon to Inspector Shipp. Inside the store, the blood drains from the shop assistant's face as Shipp flips open his badge and calls for the manager. "Next time I will be 100 per cent careful," he says. "It hasn't happened before." The manager can expect to face a fine of up to £5,000 and, if he repeats the offence, could face closure or up to six months in prison.

Back in the van, Karl explains why he is willing to spend his half-term helping the police, while his friends hang around in parks and play on their handheld games consoles. "I want to be a policeman when I'm older," he says. "I also think something needs to be done about knives. Some kids take them to school and bully people and say, 'If you talk I'll stab you up,' and stuff like that. My school always has gang fights and I always hear about people with knives."

The Metropolitan Police has identified 171 gangs in London, from organised and armed crime syndicates to low-level groups of youths. Often the only thing at stake is territory. Many parts of London have descended into postcode warfare, where even innocent pedestrians can be mugged or assaulted for wandering off their patch. Often, gang members deliberately cross borders to provoke conflict. Amro Elbadawi, the latest teen victim at the ' time of going to press, was named as a member of a west London gang known as SD Crew (variously explained as Street Disciples, Dreamz, or Dealers) and appeared in several photos posing alongside other boys, some of whom hide their faces behind bandannas. The gang claims to consist of 50 "soldiers" and "yungas", or younger members.

The targets of the Bethnal Green raid are four senior members of the Green Bangerz, who frequently come into contact with rival gangs, including the Bloodshedders, who are based around nearby Roman Road. To mark themselves out, the Bangerz, who can be seen rapping in the corridors of the estates they defend on the video website YouTube, wear green caps, tops or bandannas; the Bloodshedders wear red.

They were different streets when a young Shaun Sawyer grew up on an estate in south London. "Territory has always been an issue, but what has changed is that now it is being used to justify violence," Commander Sawyer says. "In my day, we would chase people from other estates, or even throw stones. Now it seems that if you catch them you harm them, and that's madness."

Sawyer adds that, in many cases, murder is not the intention of boys who wield knives. "In one recent incident, a boy was chased and killed in south London, but that's the exception not the rule. More often it's one stab in the heat of the moment." Early police reports on the death of Elbadawi suggest the wound in his neck was inflicted by a long-standing friend and fellow gang member during an argument that got out of hand. "It was definitely an accident," said one witness.

These new challenges require new strategies, but Commander Sawyer admits that strong-arm tactics can only achieve so much when young people are prepared to use weapons to defend something as arbitrary as a postcode. "The real issue is what makes a young person keep a kitchen knife in the bottom of their schoolbag," he says. "Often, these are victims who, influenced by peer pressure and a fear of crime, are at risk of becoming perpetrators. We have to identify serial victims who could become serial aggressors and may one day turn up dead."

As part of Operation Kartel, the Met delivered letters to 300 parents and knocked on 160 doors of young people believed to be involved in, or on the periphery of, violent crime. Forty schools in the 11 boroughs being targeted held special assemblies to warn students of the dangers of crime. Meanwhile, Operation Blunt, the Met's ongoing effort to take on knife crime, works in the background to take blades off the streets and raise awareness. In other initiatives, specially trained "street pastors" in blue jackets, backed by the police, visit some of the worst-affected estates at night. "Some listen, some don't," Commander Sawyer says. "But if these measures divert one boy away from violence, it's worth it."

Back at Bethnal Green, the harder face of law enforcement is still in action. Relative peace has returned to east London and the crowds are dispersing as it becomes clear that both addresses are empty. On the other side of the road, a youth has been sitting on a mountain-bike, watching the action. "Ha, ha, they ain't even in," he says, laughing, before riding away. There is no hiding the disappointment on the faces of the officers as they return to the police vans.

"We had intelligence that people were in the house but it looks as if they've run out the back," says Inspector Bowen-Long, back in the police canteen. "It's frustrating when we don't make arrests, but it's all part of showing the community we're out there targeting people. It also shows the criminals that we won't tolerate it and that we will kick doors in."

Weeks later, forensics teams were still picking over items seized in the raid, which were thought to include drugs paraphernalia and evidence of dealing. No arrests had been made and members of the Green Bangerz are still defending the streets of Bethnal Green. It is a setback for Bowen-Long and the other officers charged with youth crime in the capital, but for the man at their head, the horrifying rise in the number of teenagers being sent to the capital's mortuaries means the battle must go on. "The loss of a young life is by far the most difficult thing I have to deal with in my career," Commander Sawyer says. "I've been to post mortems of teenagers and had to speak to their parents after. It's awful, and every time I wake up to hear another child has been murdered, I'm sickened. It's the senselessness of it." n


'My beat is chasing kids and frisking junkies'

'Rob' is a Metropolitan Police officer

Walking the beat, we're trying to provide local reassurance, which is the goal of the "Safer Neighbourhoods" project. Old coppers think it's bollocks, that we do it to satisfy the public and the politicians. But there are officers who see it as a good way to earn promotion, because you get to show different competencies: community focus, respect for race and diversity.

Walking the beat might be six hours of an eight-hour shift. We always go out in body armour, and assess whether we need to go out on our own or in a pair. A typical inner-city high street in central London near an estate will have a load of cadaverous junkies. It's easy to spot when they've sorted a deal on an estate – they march off in twos or threes in a frenetic way. You follow them, and they're usually meeting a 12-year-old kid on a bike, who cycles off as soon as he spots us. We frisk the junkies and usually find a bit of cash and odd things they try to barter for "champagne" [crack] or "brandy" [heroin].

I've never caught a drug dealer – we can disrupt the trade, move it on, but little else. I'm rarely scared; the most threatened I felt was trying to arrest a youth in a large group on an estate – they were pushing us and filming us with camera-phones. We arrested the suspect and luckily a car turned up that we could bundle him into and then leave.

And that's it: the beat is basically chasing teenage kids and frisking junkies. There were no "no-go" areas on my beat, but mine wasn't as bad as some. I've seen police do things that have been slightly out of order, but never use force that a member of the public wouldn't understand.

There's an inevitability about street crime; it feels entrenched in certain communities. We shouldn't arm the police, but there ought to be more armed-response teams available. I know the public want more police on the beat, and I think they're right.

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