Knife crime has hit a record high in England but it is hardly a new phenomenon. Jonathan Owen looks at what is driving current levels and how police and civil servants are responding in new ways
Political footballs don’t come much bigger than knife crime, an area of policy dominated by debate and knee-jerk responses to a rising tide of deaths and injuries. Over the past decade, knife crime in England and Wales has been on a rollercoaster ride in terms of numbers. Recorded offences fell from 30,620 in 2010-11 to 23,945 in 2013-14.
But knife crime has soared in the years since. It is now at record levels, with 44,771 offences in 2018-19 – a 46% rise from 2010-11.
The human cost of this all too obvious – 221 people were killed and thousands more wounded last year.
In the space of a few days last month, a 10-year-old boy was knifed in front of his mother outside their home in Leicester; three men were stabbed to death in a brawl in east London; and a 33-year-old mother-of-two was killed in her home in Newmarket.
These are just a tiny fraction of violent attacks which are becoming commonplace.
So what lies behind the rise in this form of crime, and what are the barriers to tackling it?
There is no shortage of opinions about what is to blame for the rise in knife crime, whether it be drugs gangs operating across county lines – expanding from large cities into smaller towns, often using violence to drive out local dealers – or a breakdown in community cohesion.
But many criminologists, politicians and police point to the legacy of austerity as a factor, as significant funding cuts have reduced the size of police forces and compromised the effectiveness of youth services.
Labour MP David Lammy, a member of the serious violence taskforce set up by then-prime minister Theresa May last year, tells CSW: “Beyond drugs, many of the root causes of violent crime have been the same throughout history. Social deprivation, isolation, alienation and poverty push people towards criminality. Rising inequality, a decade of austerity and the housing crisis have helped drive this surge.”
Ben Bradford, professor of global city policing, University College London, agrees: “Violent crime clusters very heavily in deprived neighbourhoods... this is not rocket science. Violent crime is more likely to occur in poorer neighbourhoods because they are poor, and being poor has an effect.”
He adds: “We shouldn’t be surprised by this. This is one of the most consistent findings from 200 years of criminological research.”
Bradford is part of a team at UCL that has been researching the impact of Universal Credit on crime. The findings are being reviewed and are yet to be published. But he tells CSW there appears to be “quite a strong” link. We found quite a strong effect. The introduction of Universal Credit into an area looked like it had the effect of increasing recorded crime in that area.”
There’s little doubt that there’s a relationship between cuts to services and rising crime.
But the full picture of the precise causes of knife crime remains hazy.
The government’s 2018 Serious Violence Strategy acknowledges that: “We still do not really know the most important causal drivers of serious violence at the individual level, nor the exact types of interventions that are most effective in England and Wales.”
It outlines the importance of taking “a multiple-strand approach involving a range of partners across different sectors”.
A spokesman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council says: “The causes of knife crime are wide-ranging and complex and so it’s not a problem police can tackle alone. Government, schools, health and social services and charities all have a vital role to play.”
While there is no “one size fits all” solution, greater importance, and investment, should be placed on neighbourhood policing and analysts, argues Professor Martin Innes, director of Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute.
“If we are serious about trying to deal with violent crime, the local capacity for tactical preventative intervention that neighbourhood policing officers offer is vital,” he says.
A knife-crime briefing produced by the College of Policing last year states: “Tailored approaches are most likely to be effective in tackling specific problems.”
It adds: “Approaches such as problem-oriented policing, focused deterrence strategies, targeting high-risk offenders and early preventative work aimed at supporting potentially ‘at-risk’ individuals are most likely to be effective.”
When it comes to reducing crime, there “is consistent evidence to suggest that an everyday level of police activity, including stop and search,” works, the briefing continues.However, it points out: “Beyond this level, there is limited evidence to show increases in activity reduce crime.”
The briefing concludes: “The best available evidence suggests the most effective approaches tend to be multi-faceted and involve prevention at the earliest opportunity and multi-agency collaborative working.”
A joined-up approach is easy to articulate but far harder to achieve. In a bid to force greater collaboration between different agencies, the government is to bring in legislation to place public sector bodies such as local councils, NHS trusts, and police forces under a legal duty to work together to help prevent and tackle serious violence.
Mark Burns-Williamson, serious violence lead at the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, said: “Sustained government support for policing, youth services and community safety work is essential to help achieve that whole-system approach that is required.”
Police Federation chair John Apter says the government should treat the record levels of knife crime as “a wake-up call and ensure there is long-term investment in policing”.
There’s nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes. And the call for joined-up working between departments and agencies has been the common thread running through a series of government responses to knife crime in recent years.
These include the Tackling Knives Action Programme set up under the last Labour government and the Ending Gang and Youth Violence Programme established by the coalition.
The violence-reduction units now being set up appear to be little more than a contemporary reimagining of the community-safety partnerships brought in under the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act.
In contrast to the various approaches taken in England and Wales in recent years, the Scottish Government has remained committed and consistent in its support for a Violence Reduction Unit, which began 15 years ago and is held up as an example of how a multi-agency cross-government approach can reap rewards.
Even then, there’s no quick fix. While tactics such as knife amnesties and increased patrols in problem areas can achieve short-term results, real change takes time.
Will Linden, co-deputy director of Scotland’s VRU, told CSW that: “What we have really benefited from is that we have got a corresponding team that work within the civil service, a violence reduction team within the Scottish Government, that allows us to connect to government a lot closer in order to help shape policy and strategy.”
“We still do not really know the most important causal drivers of serious violence at the individual level” Serious Violence Strategy
Having a “long-term mindset” is critical and sustainable change takes 10 years, although “results can change within a few years in terms of what you are delivering,” he adds.
The key is finding the right programme for the right problem and putting it into practice under local conditions, according to Linden.
“Policing is your emergency medicine here, but everything else underneath it is actually your long-term treatment,” he says.
Mounting concern at the surge in offences, and the unwelcome headlines that go with them, have prompted the government to take a more holistic approach, of which policing is one element. This is encapsulated in the government’s Serious Violence Strategy.
Alex Stevens, professor in criminal justice at the University of Kent, says: “Rhetorically, we are heading in the right direction in terms of a public-health approach to reducing violence, including knife crime. But practically, what’s happening is that the Home Office is drip-feeding money to local partnerships, which means they can only think of short-term strategies which are unlikely to be effective.”
There needs to be a long-term approach, backed up by investment “to deal with the holes that have been created in the social fabric by a decade of cuts to all the services that one would expect to have a role in reducing knife crime,” he says.
The past year has seen £70m in funding for police and crime commissioners in 18 of the areas worst affected by violent crime to create VRUs which will bring together police, healthcare workers, education specialists, local authorities, community leaders and others to work to reduce and prevent violence.
But this funding will only last until next year, leaving the fledgling VRUs facing an uncertain future.
The lack of funding beyond 2021, with the exception of the £200m Youth Endowment Fund which will provide resources over 10 years, threatens to undermine the long-term approach needed to make multi-agency working a reality.
And it is not helped by what amounts to a patchwork quilt of various funding pots available for different types of interventions aimed at reducing and preventing crime.
However, there has been greater priority placed on tackling the issue.
“The Home Office is drip-feeding money to local partnerships, which means they can only think of short-term strategies which are unlikely to be effective” Alex Stevens, University of Kent
A ministerial taskforce was established last year by May to drive cross-government action on knife crime, complemented by a serious violence team created in the Cabinet Office to encourage and support cross-departmental co-ordination.
This came after a cross-party serious violence taskforce – including ministers, MPs, police leaders, local government and the voluntary sector – was established in 2018 to work with government on the issue.
Momentum was lost, amid the quest to get Brexit done – not to mention the snap general election in December. However, Boris Johnson has moved swiftly to take charge of moving the issue forward, establishing a special cabinet committee on criminal justice, with a focus on knife crime and serious violence.
Meanwhile, advances in technology and the rise of data analytics are helping to promote more intelligence-led policing, with the Metropolitan Police using data on assaults as an indicator of where fatal stabbings might take place.
The Home Office has been funding a trial of technology that can detect weapons concealed under clothing at distances of up to nine metres by physical blocks to body heat, which could replace traditional stop and search as a method for determining the presence of knives.
There is also the National Data Analytics Solution, a predictive analytics programme which brings together nine police forces. NDAS uses police data on knife and gun offences and on those who have previously committed them to identify patterns and common traits among offenders.
Funded by the Home Office and led by West Midlands Police, it is an algorithm that has been created with the aim of flagging specific individuals – already known to the police – judged to be at high-risk of committing their first serious violent offence in the next 24 months.
The growing use of tech in the war on knife crime is just one aspect of the Home Office’s response.
The Offensive Weapons Act brought in last year will give police extra powers to seize dangerous weapons, while Knife Crime Prevention Orders – which evoke the failed ASBOs used to tackle anti-social behaviour – will enable police to place individuals aged 12 or older under curfew, ban them from certain areas and limit their use of social media.
Asked to comment on its approach to knife crime, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is delivering on the people’s priorities by recruiting 20,000 extra police officers, jailing violent criminals for longer and expanding stop and search powers.”
They added: “We also intend to introduce legislation to change the law so that police, councils and health authorities are legally required to work together to prevent and reduce serious violence.”
Reflecting on the pressures facing officials trying to get to grips with knife crime, former civil service head Lord Bob Kerslake urged departmental staff to avoid pretending there are easy solutions to an evidently intractable problem.
“My message to civil servants would be to tell the story as it is and resist the temptation to come up with quick answers which might please the minister,” he said.