Knife crime: myth and reality
by Ian Sinclair
6 May 2019
Fuelled by the right-wing media, a number of myths have grown up around the topic of knife crime. With the number of knife offences (39,818) and homicides committed with a knife (285) reaching record highs in 2018, according to the Home Office, it’s worth interrogating these falsehoods, and considering interventions which might help.
Myth: Knife crime is committed “almost exclusively” by young Black men. Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in March, co-host Piers Morgan stated “statistically, it looks like in London, right now… the perpetrators and the victims appear to be almost exclusively young Black men.”
Reality: Citing Freedom of Information requests made to police forces, in July 2018 Sky News noted that in London “Almost half of murder victims – as well as suspects – were black despite the ethnic group accounting for just 13% of London’s population.” However, Sky News also explained “Numbers for the rest of the country painted a different picture, with murder victim and suspect figures more or less proportionate to the makeup of the population.” For example, in February BBC News noted the worst place for fatal stabbings in the UK, in proportion to population, was Inverclyde in Scotland. A few miles to the east the 95 per cent white Glasgow was, until recently, dubbed – by the Daily Mail – “the knife crime capital of Britain”.
“There are likely to be important socio-economic factors in homicides that cannot be examined using” the basic data, a 2019 Office for National Statistics report conceded. Indeed, according to the Serious Violence Strategy published by the government last year “the evidence on links between serious violence and ethnicity is limited. Once other factors are controlled for, it is not clear from the evidence whether ethnicity is a predictor of offending or victimisation.” Taking a “wide range of factors into account”, including ethnicity, a 2003 study by the Youth Justice Board titled Young People & Street Crime echoed this conclusion. It found “two main factors explained differences in the levels of street crime between [London] boroughs… the level of deprivation… and the extent of population change” – the number of young people as a proportion of the total population.
“Crime is prevalent in poor areas, and since black people are disproportionality poor, they are disproportionately affected – as perpetrators and victims”, The Guardian’s Gary Younge noted in 2017, after extensive investigative work into knife crime. “It’s class – not race or culture – that is the defining issue.”
Myth: Stop and search is effective in reducing knife crime. “Police in England and Wales are being given greater stop and search powers to tackle rising knife crime”, BBC News reported at the end of March. “Home Secretary Sajid Javid is making it easier for officers to search people without reasonable suspicion in places where serious violence may occur.”
Reality: “There is a misconception that just doing loads more stop and search is the solution… that is simply not the case”, explained Nick Glynn, the former College of Policing lead on stop and search, on Channel 4 News last month. The news programme compared Metropolitan Police figures on Section 60 stop and search powers – which allow the police to introduce stop and search without suspicion in a designated area at a specific time – with knife crime offences from the Mayor of London’s office. In 2016 the Met used Section 60 442 times, and there was 11,132 knife crime offences. In 2018 the Met massively increased their use of section 60 to 7,326 times. However, there was also an increase in knife crime offences in the same year – to 14,714.
“The inconsistent nature and weakness” of the association between stop and search and crime levels, “provide only limited evidence of stop and search having acted as a deterrent at a borough level”, a 2017 College of Policing study concluded after analysing data from 2000-2014.
This is not news. Citing a study conducted by Marian Fitzgerald, a Visiting Professor of Criminology at the University of Kent, in 2010 the Guardian noted “there is little connection between the use of stop and search powers by the Metropolitan police and reductions in knife crime.”
Fitzgerald analysed the use of Section 60 in London. “The boroughs which have resisted politically driven pressures to take a gung-ho approach to using Section 60 have been as successful in reducing knife crime, and often more so, than the boroughs where the police have been happy to let Section 60 searches go through the roof”, she noted.
Myth: More and tougher prison sentences will reduce knife crime. “Despite the rhetoric you hear from politicians about being tough on those who carry knives two-thirds of people who are convicted don’t face prison”, John Apter, Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, noted on Good Morning Britain in March. “We have a Justice Secretary saying we need to scarp shorter sentences because the prisons are full. My argument – build more prisons.”
Reality: The evidence shows that compared to ten years ago those convicted for carrying a knife are more likely to be jailed, and if jailed they are more likely to spend longer inside. Quoting Ministry of Justice figures, in March BBC News explained that 37 per cent of offenders were jailed and a further 18 per cent given suspended prison sentences in 2018, compared to 20 per cent and 9 per cent respectively in 2008. The average prison term has increased from five months in 2008 to well over eight months in 2018, with 85 per cent serving at least three months in 2018, compared to 53 per cent in 2008.
More broadly, the UK has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe (141 prisoners per 100,000 people).
However, it is essential to understand “there is no link between the prison population and levels of crime”, as the Prison Reform Trust explained in its 2018 Bromley Briefing, directly quoting the National Audit Office. Robert Reiner, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, confirmed this awkward fact in the Guardian in 2007: “A plethora of research shows that the criminal justice system can have little effect on crime overall, which flows from deeper social and cultural wellsprings”.
Tackling the real causes of knife crime
Speaking on Good Morning Britain in March Akala, a hip hop artist and author of Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, noted “the social indicators” of violent street crime have remained “consistent for 200 years: relative poverty, masculinity, exposure to domestic violence, lack of education.”
His take broadly echoes the thoughts of Patricia Gallan, who was Assistant Commissioner Specialist Crime and Operations in the Metropolitan Police. “If you start looking at where crime impacts, it happens in the poorest areas of society”, she told the Guardian in June 2018. “Those that end up in the criminal justice system tend to be the people who have less money and less opportunity in society.”
The austerity implemented since 2010 by the Tories (and Lib Dems until 2015) has created a perfect storm of harmful societal effects. Inequality and absolute poverty increased in 2017-18, according to Department for Work and Pensions data; over 100 youth centres have closed in London since the 2011 riots, according to figures obtained by the Green Party’s Sian Berry; the number of primary school children who have been excluded across the country has doubled since 2011, according to official government data. Most frightening is the recent warning from the Resolution Foundation’s Adam Corlett that the “bulk” of the effects of the government’s planned £12 billion benefit cuts will be felt over the next few years, with poverty rates likely to increase to a record high.
Poverty, inequality and deprivation – these are the factors that need to be addressed if we want to significantly reduce knife crime. However, beyond these big shifts, it seems positive change is also possible within the current political and economic system.
In Glasgow, until recently the so-called “murder capital of Europe” with acute levels of knife crime, a Violence Reduction Unit was set up in 2005. Taking an arms-length relationship with the police, the unit has adopted a holistic, public health approach to the issue, working with the health, education and social work sectors, shifting away from seeing the problem as a purely criminal issue. The result? A substantial reduction in the number of children and teenagers killed by knives.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.