Until they feel safe, young people will risk their lives by carrying knives
The senseless murders of two 17-year-olds, Jodie Chesney and Yousef Makki, have caused a national outrage. Even though the killings were 200 miles apart, were not linked and do not appear to be gang related, they have forced Sajid Javid, the home secretary, to finally call the growing number of knife attacks a national crisis.
He’d had countless opportunities to do so since taking up his post nine months ago – there had been a number of black victims, including 14-year-old Jaden Moodie who was viciously murdered in January – yet he had refused. This had led many people, especially within the black community, to suggest that his declaration of a crisis, and the subsequent meeting with police chiefs, happened only because the latest victims were white and from the suburbs.
I have been calling for a central government response and clear leadership for the past year – in the form of urgent Cobra emergency committee meetings, in a similar way to terrorism attacks. Therefore I am pleased to see politicians and senior police officers are also calling for Cobra, to convince the home secretary that he needs to get a grip on knife crime and the normalisation of violence, which is spreading across the country. To do this, Javid must invest in, and make full use of, the complete spectrum of government assets, in partnership with community and grassroots organisations, and reverse the fracturing of public services, which need to be more joined up.
I know the previous Metropolitan police commissioner, Lord Hogan-Howe, has been looking into knife crime, and I agree with him that this is a national crisis, not merely a London one. Hogan-Howe pointed out that twice the amount of knife crime occurs outside the capital than inside it, and two-thirds of knife-related injuries treated in UK hospitals are outside London. And he did not repeat the false narrative that reduced stop and search leads to a rise in knife crime, as churned out by Boris Johnson this week. The figures are stark: a 93% rise in under-16s treated for stab wounds in the past five years. Hogan-Howe called for a national knife tsar – a move that has its merits as long as he or she does not over-emphasise enforcement at the expense of the public health approach.
Yet I believe a lot can be learned from the West Midlands police force, and the way it dealt with the aftermath of a double murder. Charlene Ellis, 18, and Letisha Shakespeare, 17, were shot dead in Birmingham in 2003 – two innocent young women caught up in a gang-related feud. This was a defining moment for that force, who knew they could not stop-and-search their way out of the problem of violence. It demanded a more wide-ranging approach, in partnership with the community.
In a similar way, and around the same time, I was based in east London and worked with my Hackney Safer Neighbourhood Teams, Safer Schools officers and my outreach teams. We significantly reduced firearm and knife crime, and school exclusions too, using early-intervention and prevention programmes to encourage young people to make the right choices and turn their back on crime. In addition, sustained high-visibility patrols carried out targeted and respectful intelligence-based stop and search, without raising community tensions. It meant the criminals were always looking over their shoulder, and people going about their lawful business were not stopped unnecessarily.
This is where austerity has had a massive impact: these resources have been slashed, hampering our ability to act to reassure people, especially young people, and make them feel safe. Theresa May was clearly wrong to claim this week that austerity has not contributed to knife crime. It is at odds with the home secretary’s demand for more money to strengthen police numbers to their pre-austerity level. The prime minister was also contradicting a Home Affairs select committee report last year that stated the reduced number of community officers risks making police become irrelevant to communities, especially for young people who face the daily fear of being a victim of violence. Ultimately, we all have to face up to the fact that if police cannot make young people feel safe, then they are more likely to buy into the misplaced thinking of arming themselves.