Knife crime in London has claimed yet another life after the fatal stabbing of a sixteen-year-old boy in Tulse Hill. It is the fifth instance of fatal knife violence in just six days, a spate of killings that have taken three teenaged boys’ lives. It’s easy to recite statistics, but behind every number is a life prematurely ended, a community derailed, a family suffering. It is heartbreaking, and it is almost impossible to comprehend the scale of the grief and the loss.
On a national level, this grief is struck through with anger. How have fatalities now surpassed previous years’ figures? Why is it no longer surprising to hear of children having their lives cut short in deadly conflicts on London’s streets? Who is to blame?
For some Brits, the answer is Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who claimed just days ago that his public health approach could take up to a decade to solve knife violence in the capital. This has attracted criticism from both public figures and the general populace. The Daily Mail furiously reported ‘Sadiq Khan says it could take a GENERATION to tackle the bloody knife crime epidemic gripping the capital as London's murder toll hits 116 this year alone’, while on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time, one man in the audience claimed that ‘it is a particular breed of person who puts a knife into another person, and they should be treated like the cancer they are and exterminated’. The Conservative mayoral hopeful, Shaun Bailey, told the Evening Standard that Khan had ‘lost control’, favouring an approach of using cutting-edge technology to track down criminals, and the Met Chairman Ken Marsh has claimed more funding for stop and search and to increased police presence is the solution. Everywhere we look, we see a fundamental denial that a long-term approach is useful.
However, it is an uncomfortable truth that there is no quick fix to solving knife crime. As the adage goes, “Prevention is better than cure”. It is no use pursuing criminals without considering first why Londoners – overwhelmingly young men – are carrying knives and turning to crime in the first place. Furthermore, short term solutions such as stop and search have proven themselves to be largely ineffective, with less than 10% of those stopped producing a knife. What stop and search has done is led to an increased police presence, which has understandably aggravated black and minority communities where trust in the law is low and black people are disproportionately searched. It is too simplistic to blame knife crime solely on policing cuts in the aftermath of the deaths of Stephen Lawrence, Mark Duggan, and Rashan Charles. Neither can we forget the damning Macpherson Report that investigated the ‘institutional racism’ of the Metropolitan Police in 1999, a historic first in addressing police relations with the BAME community.
How much has really changed since? According to a charity, Inquest, as of April 2018, the proportion of BAME deaths in custody was two times greater than it was in other deaths in custody where restraint, use of force, or mental health-related issues were features. In 2018, police custody deaths hit their highest level in a decade. Rising poverty and material deprivation play their own role in crime and violence within communities – and race inequality is inextricably bound up with class inequality, as ethnic minorities have disproportionately high rates of unemployment and are more likely to live in poverty.
So for many, particularly for young people, crime can seem like the only economically viable option. For those who grow up in an environment of entrenched poverty, it’s a vicious cycle. Simply cracking down on criminals with the full force of the law doesn’t prevent crime in the first place, which then imperils more young lives. Crime reduction is the way forward to make communities safer, by supporting youth work and social services, offering an alternative for gang members and improving young people’s educational prospects. The strategy worked when adopted in former “murder capital” Glasgow in 2005 – and from 2011 to 2016 not a single person under the age of 20 died in a knife-related incident. It will also work on London’s streets.