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Knife crime: can we save the lost boys?

Penelope Gibbs
15 Apr 2018

My children are inner-city twenty-somethings. Two of the most recent London stabbings happened within half a mile of our home in Kentish Town. But I don’t worry more now about my daughters’ safety than I did last year or the year before.

Sadly most of the victims in London are young people who know their attacker, and most victims and perpetrators are boys. These murders are increasing and are beginning to devastate the way of life of some communities. London is becoming a divided city — where most people carry on as normal but where some parents keep their children indoors out of danger. And the main danger is still from knives. Though gun crime is on the increase, (including the recent shooting of Tanesha Melbourne-Blake) knives still affect more young lives, causing deaths and thousands of injuries every year.

Why has knife crime taken such a hold? Knives have been prevalent on London’s streets for many years but convictions for knife possession and stabbings have recently been rising. It’s a vicious cycle — the more boys carry knives, the more their friends feel they need to carry one for protection.

We can’t stop children taking a knife from the kitchen or prevent young adults buying ordinary knives in shops. So measures to prevent boys buying knives are not the whole answer. Stop and search, if done right, may also be part of the solution. But it has caused great tension between black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities and the police in recent years and there is no correlation between the frequency of stop and search and the number of knife crimes. If stop and search is to do any good, it should not be focused on BAME communities and should be intelligence-led.

Senior police leaders want more freedom to stop and search. Some have also said that they want those caught with knives to be punished more harshly. Already anyone aged 16 or older who is caught with a knife twice faces mandatory imprisonment. Two London MPs advocated successfully in 2014 for the new tough mandatory sentence for knife possession. But since this law came in knife crime has increased. The fear of being attacked is far more real than the fear of prison.

If punishment is not the answer, and if we can’t stop children getting hold of knives, what can we do? One thing would be to offer young people more attractive activities than drug-dealing and fighting. Another would be to improve relations between the police and young people.

When my daughter was a teenager she went around in a group. One year they suffered from a spate of thefts — almost every time they went out someone had an iPhone or a purse stolen. But none of them ever contacted the police. It was not that they distrusted them, it just didn’t occur to them that the police could help. The police need to be seen as a force for good by young people if they are to work effectively. A huge amount of crime is perpetrated by teenagers on teenagers. But it is seldom reported unless it gets to serious levels, and even then not always.

If we are to stop knife crime we need police officers who represent and live in our city. The two murders which happened in my area were of boys from the Somali community. But I have never seen a police officer of Somali origin. Until the police become relevant to London teenagers, the least fearful will view crime as something you endure, while the most fearful will “tool up”.

Some carry knives simply for self-protection, others are involved in dealing drugs. But all are attracted by the street.We need to reduce the lure of a criminal way of life and give young people something better to do.

Glasgow offers an example of how to do it. In 2007, 63 young men died a violent death — a proportionately higher rate than London. But local agencies decided to try a different approach. The Community Initiative to Reduce Violence introduced tougher enforcement but at the same time gang members who agreed to co-operate were offered help with education, training and finding a job.

London has some fantastic schools but many are quick to exclude “trouble-makers”, and youth services have been decimated. Nearly one in 10 16- to 24-year-olds in London are unemployed. Making money out of drugs can be attractive and in some communities is a way of life. We need to offer these boys a different aspiration, just as the Glasgow authorities did.

Glasgow has never been as rich a city as London but it found £4.8 million for its violence reduction programme. Austerity is not the main cause of London’s knife crime, nor the main barrier to stopping it. And placing all the responsibility on the police to enforce the law and the courts to punish offences will not reduce it. The police themselves know that an increase in their numbers (however welcome) will not solve the problem.

We need a strategy to save the lost boys, to identify why they are so alienated from school and conventional work, and to offer them a way out. They need treatment too. Having witnessed so much violence, most are struggling to deal with post-traumatic stress. The provision of treatment for trauma, training opportunities and jobs may seem like soft justice. But prison is a dead end. We need practical, common-sense solutions if we are to stem the flow of bodies.

NB This article first appeared in the Evening Standard