We simply cannot afford to let knife crime continue like this – too many young lives are at stake

There is no need for panic but an imperative need for action – and for the public to gain reassurance that this fearful crime is being taken seriously

Monday 04 March 2019 19:31 GMT
Flowers laid in memory of Romford stabbing victim Jodie Chesney

Rarely does much good emerge from a public panic, but the sheer scale and nature of street knife crime has rightly created a sense of urgency about the problem. There is even some intelligent, sensible, constructive debate about the best way to deal with the scourge.

With so many young lives lost to sometimes apparently motiveless murder, it is easy to despair at why this is happening. The facts are stark. While the overall total of knife offences has risen by about a third in recent years, it has only returned to 2011 levels. What has risen to crisis levels not seen since just after the end of the Second World War is the number of fatal stabbings. These numbered some 285 killings by a knife or sharp instrument in the 12 months ending in March 2018, with 20 recorded so far this year. The number of under-18s using knives to kill is up by 75 per cent in three years. NHS data indicates a 93 per cent rise in the number of children being treated for wounds caused by knives or other sharp objects since 2014.

The demographics of knife crime are also well-known: one quarter of offenders was young men (18 to 24), and the victims were disproportionately black, also one quarter. “Black Lives Matter” is a phrase that sadly comes to mind in this context, and it is telling that the greatest wave of public concern about these violent assaults has arrived with the murder of a white girl in east London.

In any case, all these lives matter equally, and each should be accorded the same level of police effort. That is the most basic of requirements if the threat of tougher sentencing is to have much effect. If you believe that you have little chance of detection, then it doesn’t matter much how severe the sentencing is going to be if you are ever brought to justice.

Plainly, despite the best efforts of police officers, this aspect of the war on knife crime is failing. Some of this is due to cuts in police numbers and funding. This is beginning to be reversed, though not rapidly enough for HM government to confident claim that it’s fulfilling its first duty – to protect the people from harm. As Lord Hogan-Howe, a former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police points out, there is a desperate need to equip the police with the best of the new technologies to help them to do their job. Given the prevalence of CCTV, for example, as well as advances in DNA and other techniques, the detection of crime should be much easier than it used to be. Many types of crime have been virtually eliminated by such advances, and the police need every help they can get in their work.

Of course much of the knife crime, and its growth, is down to the prevalence of gangs, the expansion of the drugs trade and the vicissitudes of the value of particular substances, in turn often related to the weather in parts of Mexico and Colombia. Gangs work on the basis of fear and the omerta they can impose on their members and their members’ families. It is a form of intimidation and protection racket, and is notoriously difficult – though not impossible – to crack.

The priority, as Lord Hogan-Howe suggests, is to make sure that the young men (usually) who carry knives have more to fear from being caught by the authorities in possession of one rather than the fear of being confronted with an enemy without one. Sensitively and transparently administered stop-and-search powers can play a large part in this, as can additional security in schools and, in this case, exemplary custodial sentences, in particular for younger offenders. All of these have their risks, and have suffered grievous failures in the past. Yet there is no doubt that the increasing confidence that a knife can be routinely carried from home to school – in the park and in town, and back home again with no disturbance from police, teachers, parents or anyone else – is a significant factor in the rise of knife crime. It might also help if the drastic cuts in youth services were reversed. A cost-benefit analysis that takes proper account of the financial consequences of murder and serious assault would probably suggest that, if anything, spending and facilities should be expanded to where they were before the recession and financial crisis. The human cost makes the case incontrovertible.

It is not simply a matter of money – but of ensuring the money is properly spent. As the former commissioner – a much-needed voice of experience and common sense – asks: “I’d want to know, week after week, when are you recruiting them? When do they arrive? When do they get trained? And when do they hit the streets? You want to know day-by-day what’s going to get delivered. And I don’t get that sense of grip.” Whether a “knife tsar” is the answer is debatable; it might be better to have the home secretary drive the effort forward, at least in England, with his equivalents in the devolved administrations and mayoralties such as London, Manchester and Birmingham doing the same. Far better intelligence is required too – and if the secret services need to take an interest in this then there is every reason to involve them, and to expand their domestic powers of electronic surveillance to match.

So those are practical remedies that can be used in the short term. Longer term, we have the much-discussed experiences of Glasgow and Boston Massachusetts to draw upon. If it does not exist already, there should be some way of transferring the lessons from these successful examples to the cities now living in so much fear.

There is, then, no need for panic, but an imperative need for action this day, and for the public to gain reassurance that this fearful crime is being taken seriously, and that no mere question of money is compromising their personal safety. Longer term, it will be, like much police work, a matter of hard work on the ground by underappreciated and overworked public servants. It was ever thus: it will be a long haul.

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