In his first major speech on crime, Home secretary Sajid Javid is to call for a government shift in mindset with regard to tackling the knife crime epidemic that grips the streets of Britain. Encouraging ministers to see the rise of violent crime as a national emergency that should be treated like the “outbreak of some virulent disease”, Javid is backing a public health-style approach to the proliferation of youth knife crime, which has seen a staggering two-thirds increase from the low-point in the year ending March 2014.
In 2018, the total number of knife offences in England and Wales was 39,818 – the highest number recorded since comparable data was compiled. While most perpetrators were over the age of 18, one in five – 4,459 – was under the age of 18. It’s a worrying figure to say the least; it’s one that reflects the sad state of affairs and the suffering that families throughout the country have endured as a result of such needless loss of life. Doubling down, Mr Javid will tell charities, police chiefs and youth workers today that public bodies should have “the confidence to report their concerns, safe in the knowledge that everyone will close ranks to protect that child”. Of course, it takes more than a statement to create positive change.
If we are to save the lives of children and teenagers not only in the capital but in cities across the UK, we must first understand the root cause of the issue. The sad truth of the matter is that children and teenagers carry knives because they do not feel safe; the cycle is perpetuated by the lack of safety on the streets and so sharp objects are used as a means of protection. Young people no longer have faith in the police force to protect them; relations between youth and police officers is at an all-time low and trust must be rebuilt in order for children to feel safe without the need to carry weapons.
In an article for the London Evening Standard last year, director of Transform Justice Penelope Gibbs called for increased diversity in the force as a first step to tackling the issue: “Until the police become relevant to London teenagers, the least fearful will view crime as something you endure, while the most fearful will ‘tool up’,” she said.
Beyond diversifying the force, it’s clear that most incidents are taking place in poorer parts of London and cities that have suffered from a slump in investment. While the Home Office has announced that six UK companies will receive a combined £460,000 to fast-track new technologies that can help to detect people carrying knives in crowded places, more needs to be done to address the deep-set issues that prompt young people to carry sharp objects for self-defence.
With this in mind, the government must work to raise aspirations of young people; it must focus not solely on policing but take a holistic approach that encompasses schools, workplaces, communities, hospital and prisons. In Glasgow, a public health style model has helped to half the number of homicides in the Scottish city since 2007 – a similar approach in London and the rest of England could help to offer young people new aspirations and young offenders a chance at rehabilitation and reform.
Training opportunities and psychological treatment may seem like soft justice, but the provision of education and mental health support could hold the key in transforming the lives of young people who feel like they’ve been given up on. It won’t bring back the many children and teenagers who have lost their lives to violent crime on our streets, but it’s practical, holistic solutions such as these that will aid in saving the lives of young people in the future and showing them that they can aspire to greater things.