Current focus on addressing knife crime fails to address its root causes – a more complex, grassroots approach is needed
London has been facing a surge in knife crime recently, with shocking statistics revealing that between 2017 and 2018, a person was stabbed to death on average every four days.
In response to this worrying phenomenon, the government has upped its efforts to curb knife crime and youth violence by both increasing stop-and-search powers of the police force as well as holding teachers and healthcare workers responsible for failure to recognise warning signs. However, both these policies are misguided as they fail to directly tackle the root cause of the issue and put increased responsibilities on already-strained individuals and groups without giving them the appropriate support they need to carry out such responsibilities.
At the start of this month, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced at a knife crime summit that the government will make it easier for officers to invoke a section 60 order, enabling them to stop and search any individual in a particular area as long as they believe serious violence is imminent. Critics have argued that stop-and-search powers are frequently misused and tend to disproportionately target black men. Not only does this undermine community cohesion and trust, it appears to have little effectiveness in reducing crime rates. For example, the Metropolitan police had already increased their use of stop-and-search in 2018 with little impact.
In addition, increasing the stop-and-search powers of the police force merely serves to pile additional responsibility on “already cash-strapped public services,” argues Allegra Stratton, ITV National News Editor. This is a worrying trend in the efforts to address knife crime. As mentioned, another example of a policy set in this direction is that of increasing scrutiny of teachers and health workers, and holding them responsible for knife crime. Home Secretary Sajid Javid believes this policy will help spot the warning signs of knife crime, such as troubling behaviour or conflict at work or school.
However, it is rather disingenuous to believe that teachers and health workers are not already aware of their safeguarding responsibilities and to suggest that they may actually be enabling knife crime. On the contrary, for instance, schools have plenty of strong safeguarding practices in place. However, schools often lack the resources to deal with such issues effectively after they have been identified due to austerity cuts to social services like pastoral support, special needs teachers and school counsellors.
Austerity measures and budget cuts have severely restrained public services, and the link between these cuts and rising crime rates is not unfounded. For example, there appears to be a link between cuts to police services and rising crime rates. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, Cressida Dick, has argued that there has been an increase in demand for policing accompanied by a fall in police officer numbers, which she believes, is responsible for escalating crime rates. Indeed, the number of police officers in England and Wales has plummeted by over 20,000 since 2010.
It is certainly promising to observe that the Home Secretary has understood the need for greater funds for the police force. In a path that appears to clash with the Prime Minister Theresa May, Sajid Javid has agreed to push for an emergency grant of at least £15m to fund a short-term increase in officers to fight knife crime. However, while improving enforcement of justice is an important part of addressing knife crime, more specialised and effective policing is needed to ease community distrust that arises from racial profiling. Not only this. but relying on enforcement alone to solve this problem is ineffective, asour CEO Sajda Mughal OBE has pointed out.
Instead, what is needed is a multi-faceted approach that gets at the heart of the disenfranchisement that many youth experience. The Safeguarding Children and Young People in Education from Knife Crime report published in 2019 has found that the common factor among students who carry bladed objects into school is their vulnerability. For example, these children are often found to have experienced poverty, abuse, neglect and may be living in broken or troubled families. Additionally, BAME youth are at greater risk, for they are also likely to have experienced social exclusion related to their race or socio-economic background.
This is the reason Sajda believes it is vital to support community services and youth projects. Many youth workers have argued that cuts to important youth programmes, for example, have had the outcome of leaving few safe places for children to spend their time outside school hours. Focusing on such services, as opposed to a merely justice-driven strategy, has proved effective in addressing youth violence in Scotland and Sajda believes these lessons can be applied here in London as well. In order for that to occur, she believes it is important to fund voluntary organisations that have “trusting relationships with families in affected communities” and operate closely at the grassroots level.
Unfortunately, it appears the government fails to be consulting these very individuals and families. In light of the recent knife crime summit, British prosecutor Nazir Afzal OBE pointed out that those in attendance included ministers, community leaders, agencies and experts, yet the summit lacked the voices of victims and their families, community groups, the police force, teachers and NHS professionals.
As a charity that has been working closely with BAME women on the grassroots level for 30 years, JAN Trust strongly believes in the effectiveness of grassroots efforts in tackling complex, multi-faceted societal issues such as youth violence and knife crime. These issues cannot be addressed by single entities, and instead call for everyone in all levels of society – the police, health services, youth services, welfare services, housing services, local communities, families and even social media companies – to work tirelessly to address them.
This can only be done if the government offers support to these groups rather than heaping responsibility on them in the midst of budget cuts and watching them flounder.
To read more about JAN Trust’s grassroots work to address youth violence, extremism and gender-based violence, visit www.jantrust.org.