London has a knife problem. By the time of writing, ten people have died in 2019 from stab wounds. By the time you are reading this, that number will likely have increased by two or three. But people are not just numbers on a spreadsheet. Lives are being lost, and a blanket of fear is descending upon the youth of London. Knife crime has increased year on year since 2014, with the greatest increase among young people, namely those between 13 -17. In fact, there are over 1,000 recorded admissions to hospital for young people a year just from stabbings, and this has risen by 60% since 2013. Why is this happening, and how can we address it?
Experts refer to knife crime as a ‘health problem’. They do this because knife crime spreads like a disease. If knife crime were a disease, then we are very close to a pandemic scenario. More and more teenagers are carrying knives because they are afraid. There is this illusion that carrying a knife will make you safer, that you are less likely to be stabbed if you carry a knife. However, the opposite is true. The escalation of a situation to violence is far more likely given the false sense of security and confidence people experience when carrying a knife. To give an interesting analogy, drivers who have taken lessons to learn how to drive safely on ice are more likely to have an accident on ice, as they overestimate their own ability and become confident. The combination of fear and false confidence results in more and more violent crimes, which has reached the highest on record, over 250,000 offenses in London alone for 2017.
The young are more vulnerable to this kind of crimes, in both carrying knives and being wounded from them. Students who are expelled from state schools are most likely within their age group to commit offenses. They are also perfect targets for recruitment from gangs in London.
What has been done so far?
In response to the problem, Sadiq Khan the London mayor launched a task force of 272 in February 2018, whom in the first six months made 1,361 arrests, and seized 340 knives and 40 fire arms. Inching closer to the source of the problem, every London school has been offered access to knife wands, to detect students carrying knives. 200 schools have taken up the offer thus far. Glasgow once held one of the highest murder rates in western Europe. But since treating knife crime as a health issue, the number of offensive weapons has dropped by 69% over a decade. The number of children and teenagers murdered has dropped to zero for five straight years (2011 – 2016). Experts who worked with Glasgow police to tackle violent crime there have since come to London, working with the Mayors office to help to solve London’s problem.
What else can be done?
This is a good start, but it does not tackle the heart of the matter. Young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or have mental health or behavioral issues, are turning to crime. They do this for several reasons. Firstly, teenagers are less well-off, and have less resources and opportunities available to them than in previous years. Turning to crime can be very lucrative. It also offers something to do and provides social opportunities. Students who have fallen out of the state school system, through suspension or expulsion, are particularly vulnerable to these motivations. Youth services are a great way to provide support and social opportunities to young people in a safe environment.
They are often touted as great institutions for preventing youth crime and for collaborating with police. But in the past three years, funding has been cut down by a third. In my hometown, the youth club was forced to close. Some research suggests that well-run youth clubs help reduce crime, but poorly funded and badly supervised clubs can encourage crime alongside other social problems such as underage drinking. The number of students expelled from school has increased year on year since 2013, hitting 35 a day in 2015. School spending on students was cut by 8% since 2010, with the greatest cuts being sixth form funding at 25%. Often, schools and sixth forms do not have the resources to address the situation of problematic students or to offer them additional support. It is now easier for schools to expel students than to allocate enough resources for them to continue. As well as tackling knives on the street and the sale of knives to young people, the government needs to stop the source of these crimes, in a compassionate way. Our youth are not criminals: they are vulnerable people who have become victims of fear and circumstances. The government must bring back funding for the institutions that can help them.