Why conservative leadership candidates are missing the mark on knife crime

18 June 2019
By Aidan Shilson Thomas
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Knife crime offences are at their highest level in nearly a decade. The number of young people being convicted has risen by 50%. In the year to March 2019, nearly 4,500 10-17-year olds committed offences with a knife.

Those vying to be the next Prime Minister want to show us that they can be tough on knife crime. So what do they suggest? Like Boris Johnson, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid thinks that to end the “sickening violence”, we need 20,000 more “bobbies on the beat”.

There is no doubt that policing is under pressure. Police forces have 20 000 fewer officers than they did in 2010. But the evidence on the relationship between “pounding the pavements” and levels of violent crime is unclear. The police certainly don’t need more officers in all “towns, villages and the countryside” like Javid suggested.

Neighbourhood policing is touted as the gold-standard, but a universal approach is a waste of time and money. Successful neighbourhood policing is targeted and truly embedded within the local community. It would be ridiculous to send more police officers to Gwent, which has the lowest level of knife crime in the country, when knife crime in Kent has increased by 161% since 2010.

Politicians call for more foot patrols because they want to reassure the public. But the evidence has long shown that this is not an effective way to fight crime. It was estimated some 40 years ago that, based on burglary rates in London at that time, a foot patrol might pass within 100 yards of a burglary in progress once every eight years. This isn’t what’s needed to stop young children carrying knives – Johnson and Javid will know this.

It should be clear to any would-be Prime Minister that we aren’t going to arrest our way out of this: arrest rates are rising, sentences are getting longer, and knife crime is still going up. Enforcement is clearly an important part of any strategy to reverse the rise, but on its own it is woefully inadequate – at best it might displace, perhaps disrupt for a time, but it will do little to address the root causes of youth violence. For that, a whole community response is needed.

As Home Secretary, Sajid Javid has pushed for a “public health approach” to tackling knife crime: if you treat the social causes of violence, you can cure the disease. A multi-pronged prevention, intervention and enforcement approach was used to confront violent crime in Glasgow, and it fell by half.

A £1 billion pledge of 20,000 more police officers could be spent far more effectively helping communities to address the root causes of knife crime, such as poverty, income inequality, poor mental health, and aggression at an early age. There is good evidence, for instance, that mentoring programmes can encourage children to challenge violent behaviour by their peers.   

Those already carrying knives need a strong police response and intense support. In Glasgow, likely offenders were given an ultimatum: engage with us or face police action. An attempt at this ‘pulling levers’ approach in the England was hampered by bad implementation, but recent evidence from other projects is promising. Bristol has adopted a model where prosecution of young gang members is deferred if they engage with a mentor. In London, a programme that counsels young people in hospital with knife wounds reports that over half are less involved in violence in the months that follow. If we want young people to turn away from knife crime, policing is, at best, only half of the picture.

Sajid Javid has said that we need more police doing foot patrols because it’s ‘what the public want to see’ – this is not effective policy. If the next Prime Minister wants to reverse the rise in knife crime, they need to follow the evidence and give communities what they need.

It should be clear to any would-be Prime Minister that we aren’t going to arrest our way out of this: arrest rates are rising, sentences are getting longer, and knife crime is still going up.