Life at the Sharp End: Britain’s Knife Crime Crisis

Steve Narvaez Jara hoped to be a pilot one day. Instead, he was stabbed to death outside an East London flat. He had been studying physics and aerospace and, at just 20-years-old, had everything to look forward to . Jara was one of four young London men knifed within 15 hours of each other, and with only 206 minutes on the clock, the first victim of 2018. It was the heartbreaking start of a blood-soaked year in the British capital.

Homicides accounted for 134 deaths in London in 2018, the highest recorded in a decade. For the first time in history, London outstripped the turbulent streets of New York in the murder stakes. A lethal combination of knife ownership and youth culture seemed to drive the frenzy – at least half the killings involved a blade, with a third of victims under the age of 24. The city’s mayor Sadiq Khan blamed police cuts, branding the violence a “scourge that left families and communities devastated”.

But the UK’s knife problem reaches well beyond the capital. With 285 recorded in the year to March 2018, fatal stabbings across England and Wales have now hit their highest ever level. Birmingham, the country’s second largest city, suffered three teenage knife crime fatalities in just twelve days in February 2019. In the East Midlands, trauma centres recorded a fifty percent increase in child resuscitation between 2017 and 2018. Each of the 28 youngsters had been stabbed.

Such figures fail to tell the human story, though. “Every killing is heartbreaking – a human being with hopes, loves and aspirations,” says Dr Junior Smart of the St Giles Trust, an anti-violence charity that operates in hospitals. “It is simply wrong for a parent to bury their child from such violence.”

This burgeoning knife crime puts an immense pressure on the health service. Just shy of 5,000 hospital admissions were for blade related injuries according to recent statistics, consuming medical resources at a furious rate. Essential patient care is falling through the cracks, says Professor Chris Moran, England’s national clinical director for trauma, while expert staff struggle to hold back the tide of stabbings.

It’s a problem that can’t be solved in the emergency rooms. “Far too many young people are able to buy knives on the high street,” argues Moran, so it’s there, in the community, that the crisis must be addressed. The Government is funneling money into early intervention schemes – some £220 million over the coming years – geared toward preventing youngsters stepping onto the street armed with a blade. The projects will work with children at risk of criminal involvement, steering them towards community groups and away from gang exploitation.

But for some, this longer-term approach comes at the expense of immediate, hard-headed policing. Sir Denis O’Connor, former assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police, lambasted the Government’s strategy as “silent on deterrence”, arguing that it’s “more concerned with its narrative and less with action”. To counter such criticism, ministers have launched new crime prevention orders that can be imposed on suspected knife carriers as young as 12. Curfews, social media restrictions and violence awareness courses can all be enforced, with potential jail time for those found in breach.

One issue however, is quoted time-and-again by those on the front line of law enforcement: police numbers. In the decade it took knife crime offences to reach their record high, the number of officers fell by 20,000. For the most seasoned cops, this is a parallel that can’t be ignored. When Prime Minister Theresa May dismissed a correlation between knife crime and police numbers, the UK’s most senior officer, Commissioner Cressida Dick, asserted there was “of course” a link between violent crime and the availability of officers. The cash needed to rectify this and address the spiralling knife crime crisis is between £200m and £300m, she and her colleagues said. They got half of that.

The money, £100m promised by the Government’s finance ministry, will go to police precincts where violence is highest. Police funding has fallen by almost one-fifth in recent years, again shadowing the rise in knife related murder. For London’s Sadiq Khan, the extra money amounts to “a drop in the ocean”.

But the financial boost has been mostly welcomed among police ranks. The National Police Chiefs Council said it would help pump up numbers of officers patrolling crime hotspots and allow for nationwide training in anti-knife crime practice, including test purchasing blades from suspect shops and educating youngsters in the dangers of carrying.

Perhaps most hopeful though, is the money being channeled into so-called ‘Violence Reduction Units’ (VRU). Modelled on a groundbreaking approach used in Glasgow, Scotland – once Europe’s murder capital – the scheme has a simple principle: violence is preventable, not inevitable. In conjunction with beefing up conventional policing tactics (more stop-and-search, lengthier prison sentences etc.) the VRU adopted a public health approach to violent crime.

Much of the brutality was meted out in the Scottish city’s poorest, most drug addled neighbourhoods. Noting this, police began treating the violence as a symptom of a disease: social deprivation. Addressing the root causes at the very earliest opportunity became the unit’s mission. Victims of violence were approached in hospital and offered counselling and refuge, hoping to steer them away from a path of retribution. Those serving time for violence were channelled toward social work, education and employment programmes.

In the eleven years since VRU’s inception, the number of people admitted to Glasgow’s hospitals for stab wounds fell by 65%. Homicides in the city fell by half over the same period. It’s little wonder that replica schemes are springing up across the UK.

Huge issues face the fledgling VRUs and other knife crime prevention programmes, though. While public confidence in the police continues to grow, Britain’s black population remains less trustful of law enforcement. In London, officers are four times more likely to use force against black people than white. Young black men are disproportionately singled out for stop-and-search, though police are less likely to detect evidence of crime than with white suspects. In spite of this, recent analysis shows a quarter of stabbing victims is black, the highest proportion on record.

These are systemic problems that must be solved if the UK’s knife crime crisis is to abate. Government, police and community groups must pool their resources and coordinate strategies in hope of a breakthrough. If not, they’ll be hundreds more Steve Narvaez Jaras – young, hopeful individuals reduced to a statistic at the end of a blade.