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  • Writer's pictureTimothy Lambden

The Knife Crime epidemic in London

The facts about knife crime in London, why the problem is only seemingly getting worse and how to prevent it.

Source: Knives collected by Metropolitan Police.

Up until now I just accepted knife crime as part of life in London. It’s a problem that I’ve been surrounded by growing up in the city and become desensitised to, and it seems the problem is only getting worse, but why is that the case? In this article I’ll cover:

  • My personal experience with knife crime.

  • Why is knife crime so common in London and the UK.

  • How it can be prevented.

My personal experience with Knife crime

In the beginning of May, someone threatened to stab me, it no doubt affected me quite deeply. My experience was by no means an isolated incident near me. My borough of Tower Hamlets has the 4th highest rate of knife crime, above Hackney and Croydon, with knife crime increasing in London in the last several years (before the coronavirus pandemic).

Source: Metropolitan Police

Within a mile from my family home, there have been 4 stabbings in the last few months. Scariest of which was a few months ago when a pupil from my old secondary school was stabbed in his chest multiple times on his way to school. He was only 13. He was stabbed in the very same park that I walked through to get to school every day. Thankfully he survived. But reflecting on it now, I get this sense that it could have been me.

Knife crime isn’t new. 12 years prior when I was 11, starting in my new secondary school a child in my class was expelled for bringing a knife to school. He was expelled and sent to a pupil referral unit. Our school introduced metal detectors and random bag searches became common in my year following the incident. Knife crime isn’t new, it was a problem then, and remains a problem now, 12 years later.

Why is knife crime so common in the UK?

Knife crime is an issue across the UK, but more specifically London where rates are highest.

It features prominently in political debate in Parliament and up upcoming elections, most notably the 2021 Khan Vs Bailey London mayoral election. Khan accused Bailey of standing idle while special youth advisor to David Cameron and oversaw cuts to youth centres (which strongly correlates with increase in crime) and cutting over 23,500 police staff across the UK, with London taking the biggest hit. Bailey accused Khan of not funding more police in London to reduce knife crime despite saying 15 years prior for a right wing think tank that police are “useless” at deterring crimes. A comment I imagine he regrets saying considering his first mayoral manifesto statement was on hiring 8,000 new police officers to tackle knife crime. No matter your political affiliation in the London mayoral election, it's clear violent crime/knife crime was a major talking point, with the topic taking up half the air time of the BBC debate between the two candidates.

Violent crime in the UK vs America

While the most common homicide weapon in the UK is a knife, in America it’s a gun. It’s also important to note that the homicide rate in the UK is 3x lower than in the US due in part to guns being a far more deadly choice of weapon. With guns illegal, more knives are used as an alternative.

But it’s far harder to limit access to knives compared with firearms. You can’t ban them outright otherwise all chefs around the country would be in uproar, so you need to take a different approach and first examine the attitude around carrying a knife in the UK.

Why people carry a knife

Like guns, the main reason people carry a knife is for protection. Other factors such as gang affiliation, glamorisation are also key contributing factors. Many children are groomed into gangs by older gang members, often preying on those who are most vulnerable. As knife crime increases across London, so too does fear of safety, which encourages people to carry knives for protection. It’s a self-propagating cycle.

Preventing Knife crime:

People forget that those that carry knives are often victims themselves. They often live on the outskirts of society, living in poverty without access to the same opportunities as others. Issues with inadequate education, care, crime, poverty, poor housing, addiction issues and poor mental health are the root cause which turn people towards crime. These are much more complex issues to solve. Stop and search, while acting as a deterrent to carrying a knife does not solve the deeper underlying issues.

With this in mind, my borough of Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of child poverty, with 57% living below the national poverty line and huge issues of wealth inequality. Since the London riots in 2011, there has been a 44% cut in funding to youth services across London, with Tower Hamlets being the worse hit out of any London borough. From this scope it’s easy to see why knife crime is so common here. With the recent pandemic disproportionality affecting the most vulnerable in society, and a widening attainment gap making it even harder for those in cycles of poverty to escape, it seems matters will only get worse.

Youth centres play a big grassroots role in tackling knife crime, but the government has little incentive to keep them running as those who often campaign for them are either too young or the least likely to vote. This is why we don’t see the same levels of cuts to other public areas such as pensions were the 65+ age range are the most reliable age group to vote. What’s worse, this is a self-propagating cycle. As more policies fail to benefit the youth in society, they further become disenfranchised with politics, leading to even less voting and less policies made by politicians to support them.

Celebrity support and influence:

Many athletes have been very outspoken on the issue to raise awareness, from the likes of Anthony Joshua to David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand. Rio Ferdinand went to the same school as Stephan Lawrence, whose racially motivated murder in 1993 sent shockwaves across London.

Two prominent UK Mixed martial arts fighters who had issues with knife crime created a program of combating it. One had been stabbed and fled Liverpool/UK as a result, the other had a childhood friend stabbed to death in Birmingham. This new avenue of knife crime ambassadors are looked up to and glamorised in the world of violent crime. I’m certain they will make a large impact through not just the awareness but also their understanding of the issue through personal experience.

Knife crime and ethnicity:

Knife crime is a complex issue, and it would be silly to discuss this issue without considering the larger role race plays in it. This can be seen in the murder of Stephan Lawrence in 1993, and from statistics from the London metropolitan police which shows that in 2019 Afro-Caribbean are massively over represented as both the victims and perpetrators in cases of knife crime. Moreover, Stop and search by police has overwhelmingly targeted young black men.

Operation Trident was set up by the metropolitan police in 1998, working with police and black communities to tackle knife and gun homicides. This coincided with the rise of grime music in the UK, which Trident was critical of for their role in the glamorisation of violence. Grime artists were outspoken about the censorship and discrimination they faced from the police. Overall, however the program was deemed a large success at driving down knife gun crime and encouraging cohesion with police and local communities. However, the program was disbanded in 2013, and knife crime incidents rose in the following years.

Decriminalising Drugs

With violent crime often connected with drugs and gangs fighting over territory, decriminalizing drugs would reduce violent crime associated with the drug trade. It also would help facilitate the treatment for those suffering from addiction who are often the most vulnerable in society. Portugal has arguable the most famous example of this, being motivated by having the highest HIV/AIDS transmissions in Europe due to used needles they decriminalised drugs in 2001.

Glasgow, how they cut knife crime in half with one big swing:

Glasgow, just like London, had a knife crime epidemic 15 years ago. In fact, it was even worse than London today, with Scotland having the second highest murder rate in Europe at the time. However, in the last 15 years, with the introduction of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), knife crime has now halved. But why was it so effective? In short, they treated knife crime as a disease, and treated it not just a police issue, but a holistic issue. They treated those involved in knife crime as victims and acted to help them and get them support they needed.

They worked closely with communities and listened to their struggles. They launched mentoring programs in schools and prioritised early intervention, which further saw a reduction in school exclusions, and taught workshops to ex-gang members to learn vocational skills. The police didn't work alone, they worked alongside doctors, care workers, and schools to tackle the issue.

There is much to be learned from Scotland’s tactics, and a system that tackles knife crime successfully will have to be a holistic one. It’s a complex issue, but it’s one that has been solved. Scotland has shown we know the solutions, which makes it eerily more worrying why knife crime remains an epidemic in London. Similar measures must be implemented in order to drive rates of knife crime down.

Thank you for reading my article.

Note: I note that I have covered a topic that is very complex. My purpose was to give a broad overview of where the issue stands. London overall remains a very safe city, despite knife crime trending upwards in recent years, and a recent dip during the enforced lockdown measures, it is still thankfully a very rare event.

Thank you to those who all supplied feedback and read drafts of this article.

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