Cutting and slashing – are policing reductions to blame for the knife crime crisis in London?

Hours of television news coverage and reams of print have been spent discussing how London can learn from the public health based approach to knife crime pioneered in Scotland.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has wasted no time in seeking to ‘own’ this approach to the issue.

He hosted a special meeting in Parliament on the 10th of April, the most notable attendee of which was John Cronachan from the Glasgow based Violence Reduction Unit. The VRU has been lauded for reducing levels of murder and violence in a city once dubbed the murder capital of Western Europe.

Labour are using the capital’s murder spike to bolster support in London as we approach local elections on May 8th. Votes will be cast in elections for all seats in the 32 London borough councils and for the mayoralties of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets. Hotspots of violent crime in recent weeks.

Labour will hammer the message that the Tory government has simultaneously left the Metropolitan Police too threadbare and ragged to respond adequately, have decimated youth services that intervene and provide a haven from gang violence, and have generally been unsophisticated in their approach to the emergent problem.

In short, that the Tories have created a crisis they have neither the will nor the imagination to solve.

Weak leaks

An embattled Amber Rudd was not helped by this week’s leak of documents from a Home Office report into the rise of serious violent crime.


Sections of the report appear to contradict the home secretary, who this weekend said: “While I understand that police are facing emerging threats and new pressures, leading us to increase total investment in policing, the evidence does not bear out claims that resources are to blame for rising violence,”

The opposition and much of the media have grasped two snipped quotes from the report, which even out of context are not overly damning.

As anyone looking to produce criticism should, we can use The Guardian as an example. They reported this week that the leaked documents “reveal” reduced officer numbers have “likely contributed” and “may have encouraged offenders.”

That’s it.

The Guardian did print the offending extract (a single slide) from the report. This gives fuller context to the quotations and therein deflates their supposed significance.

While the report does assert that police resources are indeed stretched – and of course declining police numbers and resources will exacerbate this – the report also states that these shortages are “Unlikely to be the factor that has triggered the shift in serious violence but may be an underlying driver that has allowed the rise to continue.”

Extant resources have been further stretched by increased demand upon the police “largely due to growth in recorded sex offences.” This has seen resources directed away from serious violent crime.

Reading both the home secretary’s statement and the report in full shows a general congruity; that new, unexpected pressures will necessitate more investment in policing, but that a reduction in resources itself is not a primary cause for the rise in serious violent crime.

In direct response to the leaks, the home secretary stressed that part of the statistical increase in serious violent crime can be attributed to an increase in reporting of crime, which she welcomes.

The home secretary also pointed out that there was more serious violent crime in 2008 than there is now. Indeed, a now uncomfortable headline from The Independent in 2014 asked “Whatever happened to London’s knife-crime epidemic?”

The 2014 article reminded us that twenty-one young Londoners were stabbed to death in 2008 including six deaths within a 24 hour period in July. Perhaps this should point us to look deeper at what is really behind the uplift in violence – perhaps to developments in London and European illicit drug markets as the home secretary has suggested.

Urgent action

Rather than announcing new working groups or strategy consultations, the government’s immediate response has been to formulate urgent legislation.

A new offensive weapons bill will include a range of tough measures that aim to restrict access to and possession of those weapons most favoured by violent offenders in the capital.

Acid sales to under 18’s will be banned and a new offence of carrying corrosive substances in public without good reason would be enacted.

People would also be banned from buying any knives online and having them delivered to a residential address. This would help enforce the existing age restrictions on knife purchases. In the same vein, the existing and permissive laws on folding knifes would be amended to reflect changes in knife designs.

Privately possessing knuckle dusters and so called “zombie knives” will be made an offence, while the legal definition of threatening with an offensive weapon will be changed to make prosecutions easier.

The particulars of the changes to legal definitions to aid prosecution will likely receive the most examination by those justifiably hawkish over civil liberties in a time of outcry. However given the public mood their consternations are likely to be muted.

Shadow home secretary, Dianne Abbot, responded to the announcement saying: “Talking tough is not enough. This announcement ignores the factors which we know contribute to crime, including a lack of decent work opportunities for young people, cuts to health services and decline in community policing.

“The Tories need to put their money where their mouth is, give the police the resources they need to keep people safe and pursue a collaborative approach to tackling violent crime on our streets.”

Such a response may not have as rousing an impact as desired, given that Amber Rudd has already announced an additional £40m on a new strategy specifically aimed at reducing serious violent crime.

Passing the new bill quickly would represent a chance for Rudd and the government to be seen as grabbing this most unruly bull by the horns. For Labour, opposition to the bill could be disastrous, inciting accusations that Labour are too-soft on offenders, which would fit on Corbyn more comfortably that one of mum’s knitted jumpers.


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