Cutting Knife Crime – the way forward

By William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation, formerly candidate for Police Commissioner, Devon and Cornwall

Knife crime is the scourge of British cities. Violent crime in general, including rape and family abuse, and knife crime in particular, has had a steady year on year increase since 2014 and is now at previously unimagined levels. Never at any time in our modern history has cruel, brute violence been such a feature of British society. And much of it is perpetrated by young people, some of whom are disadvantaged by poverty and poor levels of education. Our children need hope, and their lack of a sense of belonging in our modern multi-faceted world is a disease we have all allowed to fester. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.

The solutions to the symptoms of societal breakdown reflected in greater knife crime are:

  • Reduced school exclusions
  • Community Service delivered in place of arrest
  • Targeted zero tolerance policing

Then there is the catalyst that alcohol represents which is an issue that also must be addressed. But knife crime can be stopped. Of course, much knife and gun crime, especially in London, is often gang related rather than specifically alcohol related. However the culture of violence must be addressed as a whole.

Could we reduce school exclusions, and would doing so matter, would it impact knife crime levels and the “school to jail pipeline”? Here the evidence is simple. Just compare cities. A mere ten years ago Glasgow was the murder capital of Europe.  Now the famous Glasgow Violence Reduction Unit has slashed these levels of violence with measures which range from better police liaison with hospitals to placing chalk outlines of bodies in streets where knife crime was prevalent. And note that effective liaison between the emergency services means real liaison in which the emergency services meet – not a mere instruction to report incidents as per the latest UK government instruction. There is another factor however. A quarter of those who commit knife crimes have been excluded from school. Scotland had its fair share of school exclusions. But through concerted effort by all concerned these have dropped from a high of 292 in 2003 to a mere seven pupils in 2017. Compare England with its ongoing exponential rise to 7,720 school exclusions in 2017. Why for heaven’s sake? Well much of the blame rests on the shoulders of “academies” who can improve their rankings if they get rid of unruly pupils. How to deal with that? Simple. Regard academies that exclude pupils as failed schools. Reduce their ranking by 10% for every child permanently excluded. They would soon change their current practice. And knife crime figures would fall. Especially if we also deal severely with the associated and abysmal practice of ‘off-rolling’ where secondary schools use measures other than exclusion (e.g. encouraging children to “home school”) to try to remove pupils with challenging behaviour, or whose poor exam results might damage league table performances.

We next need community service dealt out at grass roots level – a very different sort of restorative justice. Countries like Holland and Bahrain, nations not noted for the most harmonious community relations, have made giant strides by adopting this approach. Indeed, Holland’s jails are so empty now that they rent space to neighbouring Belgium. We have experimented with this approach in Britain but have never adopted it fully. There was a little-known experiment conducted by a woman police constable in Brixham for a year or two. She coordinated with a local community project. Her approach was to say to the tearaway caught making mischief, “OK, your choice. Go and serve in the community project for a fortnight and we’ll say no more about it. But if you fail to turn up you will be charged and proceed through the criminal justice system.” And it worked. Youth crime was reduced.

Essentially, that is much the approach being adopted in Holland. And it has worked. Note the difference here. We have community service in the UK but it is doled out by the courts. What we need to see is community service given before and in place of entering the mainstream criminal justice system.

And what about Targeted Zero Tolerance Policing? Distasteful? Too American? Well it has worked where it has been applied. And surely if it works elsewhere it needs trying here. This is a way forward. In cities like Birmingham, paramedics are going to the same areas, the same streets, the same estates, day after day and night after night. The same applies to London, as highlighted by a group of Cambridge criminologists who have recently released a study confirming this is the case. As a consequence there are moves to target police resources to statistically more vulnerable areas. However, I want to suggest a very slightly different approach here. I would suggest increased levels of saturation zero tolerance policing in areas with the highest levels of all violent crime, that includes rapes, domestic violence, knife crime, everything. And zero tolerance means zero tolerance, yes including very high levels of stop and search under section sixty of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act – but not just targeting minorities as has been the case in the past. Or else you can end up criminalizing a social issue. Zero tolerance in a high violent crime area means zero tolerance of all criminal behavior, right down to the city slicker that cycles through a red light – the lot. The policy has to be seen to be nondiscriminatory. Would it help? Of course it would.

Then there is the alcohol issue. As a young man I served for more years than I can remember as a volunteer prison visitor in Swansea jail. The prisoners I visited were Category C prisoners in for violent crime (category C prisoners being those held in closed prisons who do not need maximum security). I would go in every Wednesday night and visit half a dozen prisoners in their cells. Rapists, people in for GBH, all sorts. And in all the years I visited, I never visited one prisoner who had not been tanked up on alcohol when they beat someone to a pulp – not once. Dr Christine Goodall of Medics Against Violence claims that more than 80% of assault victims in hospital emergency departments have been drinking, as have the people who assault them. You may dispute those figures. But that alcohol fuels violence including knife crime to some degree is a given. What can be done? Well minimum pricing for alcohol would be a start. These days a pint of beer costs about the same as a double whisky in many a pub. When I was a boy – Ok that’s a long time ago – drinking shorts in a round was severely anti-social because it was so blooming expensive. Another thing that needs dealing with is preloading. Kids tank up with cheap drink at home before their night on the town. One approach that has been piloted in parts of Devon is the breathalysing of people before they enter clubs and the refusal of admission to those over the limit (the #RU2Drunk scheme). At least some of the clubs seemed happy to cooperate. After all – more revenue for them if the drinking was done in the club rather than before people arrive. More thought must be given to the alcohol issue.

Does the above address drug and gang rivalry related knife crime which is often though not invariably conducted by people who are stone cold sober? Yes. Reducing our culture of violence does help. And alongside targeted zero tolerance policing, it makes life difficult for the gangs that are the scourge of some of our major cities. There is more to do. But we have to make a start.

Calling for an end to the “Pervasive horror” of knife crime as Prince Charles has done is exemplary. But now action is needed to respond to that call. We must give the next generation greater hope. We can do so. And to fail to do so is nothing short of a crime in itself.

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