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Across England and Wales, the number of police-recorded offenses with a knife or sharp instrument has been rising steadily since 2015. This year saw a 25 percent increase, compared to the past three years, in knife crimes leading to court action. In December, London recorded the 132nd homicide of the year – the most in a decade – and 77 of those killings were stabbings. All this has prompted a race to understand what’s driving the increase in stabbings, and work to prevent them. That’s complicated, because the causes are complex and interconnected, and because not everyone agrees on what they are. The suggested drivers of knife crime range from structural problems such as poverty and inequality, to more recent phenomena such as changes in gang activity and an austerity policy in Britain that has slashed resources for police and social workers over the past decade. The focus now is on preventive efforts through “early intervention,” directed at young people. The action plan launched by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, focuses heavily on such efforts in the hope that keeping young people from getting involved in violence is easier than getting them out, and that addressing deeper causes will bear long-term fruit.
Sephton Henry is on a mission: he wants to keep British kids away from violence and gangs.
The activist was once in their shoes himself. As a child, he was groomed into a gang, and he went to prison seven times before he found a way out. One of the keys to turning his life around, he says, was finding mentors who could relate to him, and who saw his worth and made him understand it, too.
Now he does the same for others, mentoring at-risk young people and speaking in schools, using his personal experience to get through to them. “We go into schools to try to prevent them from getting into it in first place,” he says. “They’re young enough that they’re not conditioned yet. But it’s not so much about what we say, it’s about who says it.” His past gives him credibility.
Work like Mr. Henry’s is suddenly getting more attention as knife crime is surging across England and Wales. The number of police-recorded offenses with a knife or sharp instrument has been rising steadily since 2015. This year saw a 25 percent increase, compared to the last three years, in knife crimes leading to court action.
In December, London recorded the 132nd homicide of the year – the most in a decade – and 77 of those killings were stabbings. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick suggested in a recent interview that knife crime in London may have “leveled off” in 2018, noting that the number of stabbing deaths this year was on a par with the 80 such killings in 2017. But London's murder rate is just one aspect of a broader phenomenon. Particularly worrying is the rising number of young people involved in knife crime – both as victims and perpetrators.
The concerning figures have prompted a race to understand what’s driving the increase in stabbings, and work to prevent them. That’s complicated, both because the causes are complex and interconnected, and because not everyone agrees on what they are, or how best to address them. The suggested drivers of knife crime range from structural problems such as poverty and inequality, to more recent phenomena such as changes in gang activity and an austerity policy in Britain that has slashed resources for police and social workers over the past decade.
But the focus now is on preventive efforts through “early intervention,” directed at young people. The action plan launched by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, focuses heavily on such efforts in hope that keeping young people from getting involved in violence is easier than getting them out, and addressing deeper causes instead of just immediate symptoms will bear long-term fruit.
‘County lines’ crime
England and Wales are not experiencing a massive crime wave. Overall, crime levels are lower than they were a decade or two ago, and serious violent crime, while rising, is still relatively rare. (There have been more than twice as many murders so far this year in New York than in London.)
But the rise in knife crime is happening alongside an increase in serious violent crime throughout the two nations, particularly in cities. And that is causing worry.
For Rick Muir, director of The Police Foundation, an independent think tank in London, the best supported explanation for the recent surge in stabbings is that gangs are changing the way they deal drugs, which has led to increased competition and conflict.
Increasingly, gangs based in cities are not only selling drugs in their own territory, but also exporting drugs to provincial towns – and often using children to do so, an activity known here as “county lines” (after the phone lines drug gangs use to communicate between towns). That’s bringing the groups increasingly into contact with other gangs, which can fuel conflict.
“What may be happening now is that we’ve seen increased competition between groups trading in crack cocaine and heroin, and obviously increased competition leads to conflict, and conflict in this world leads to violent crime,” says Dr. Muir. He added that the groups use violence to control and intimidate the young people they’ve recruited.
Some also see a connection to austerity policies in Britain, imposed in 2008, that have led to reduced funding for police forces and social services, including youth centers that worked with disadvantaged and at-risk young people. Research by the YMCA shows that local government spending on youth services fell by 62 percent since 2010.
Fighting crime like an epidemic
Mayor Khan’s strategy to reduce the numbers takes the public health approach: Authorities treat violent crime not just as a police problem, but as an infectious disease that must be stopped from spreading. Such an approach has been successful elsewhere – Glasgow saw murders drop by half between 2004 and 2017 after adopting it.
In addition to increased police funding and more targeted police intervention, the mayor is boosting prevention efforts, much of them focused on young people. That includes a planned “Violence Reduction Unit” that will bring together police officers with social workers and health workers to focus on early interventions. The mayor is also funding initiatives directed at organizations that target at-risk youth.
There are now multitudes of organizations trying to keep young people away from gangs. Growing Against Violence (GAV) is one of them. Shaun Willshire, operations and safeguarding manager at the organization who spent three decades as a police officer, says the growing number of children recruited into “county lines” gang activity has led to a normalization of violence.
“To stab someone or to shank someone, it’s just part and parcel of being a ‘road man,’ and there’s no talk whatsoever as to consequences or the reality of what they’re doing,” he says. Violence is sometimes used as a way to prove themselves to senior gang members, to earn “ratings.” “They don’t actually see it as stabbing someone, they see it as their way of getting ratings,” he says. “You would pick up a car keys and go out of the house; they would pick up a knife and go out of the house.”
GAV targets students, giving talks to all the students in each grade at the same time, in an effort to instill “positive peer pressure” against gangs. “The reality is, the kids are groomed into gangs by negative peer-on-peer pressure,” he says. “Now our program is about the positive peer-on-peer pressure. It’s the preventive program. Our program works in that we get kids to look out for each other, and speak out for each other.”
The mayor’s plan has won praise, but also some criticism – including that the funding falls far short of what is needed. The London Assembly’s police and crime committee raised concerns with the plan in a recent letter to the mayor, including that it had an outsized focus on young people.
One of the challenges for the program is that its efforts won’t bear fruit immediately, says Muir. “The important thing is all of this won’t result in easy wins. You might be able to suppress some of this through enforcement activity in the short term.... But unless you deal with some of these underlying problems, you’ll end up in the same place in two years time or five years time.”
Those deeper drivers of violence are exactly what Henry, the former gang member turned activist, sees as the biggest issues. The root causes of young people getting involved in gang violence are simple, he says: structural inequality and poverty that lead to social alienation, particularly for young people of color.
“The biggest thing is this: These young children don’t feel a part of society, so they make their own worlds,” he says. When they don’t see members of parliament or police officers or business leaders who look like them, they don’t see opportunities for themselves in a world outside street culture. “Unless these young men see themselves in places of power, they will not see themselves as part of society,” he says.
He says the government does not focus enough on poverty and inequality as drivers of violence. He’s also frustrated by bureaucratic rules that can sometimes keep help from those who need it, and what he sees as a failure to empower the right people to do the job. Because of his past, Henry has a credibility that many others don’t, and can serve as an effective role model and mentor. Henry says more of the support and funding needs to go to people who have credibility in the communities they are targeting.
Preventive work is also personal for Yvonne Lawson. She started the Godwin Lawson Foundation, named for her son, after he was stabbed to death eight years ago. She works with students, visiting schools to share her story and help young people understand the consequences of getting involved in criminality. Her organization also does workshops for students deemed high risk, working to develop their personal and emotional development, resilience, and self-esteem.
“Most of the young people that we spoke to before our project would say they’ve been forced into a certain lifestyle against their wish,” she says. “So developing those skills gives them power and confidence that they can face up and express themselves and actually tell to the gang that they don’t want to be a part of it.”