Improving health and creating wealth: the two keys to reducing knife crime and violence

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The recent knife crime incidents in Birmingham as well as the stabbings in London a few days earlier has been a reminder that knife crime has seen a widespread increase in the last three years across the country.”


The recent knife crime incidents in Birmingham as well as the stabbings in London a few days earlier has been a reminder that knife crime has seen a widespread increase in the last three years across the country. While some of this has been blamed on gangs and various other causes from police cuts to violent rap music has been proposed, some incidents seem random and defy explanation. However, these random violent acts more often than not hide some underlying cause, including untreated mental ill-health.

During the lockdown while violence outside the home was low, one instead saw crimes within the house, such as domestic violence and child maltreatment on the rise.

Now, as the UK is in a phased ‘unlock’ we see violence returning to the streets. Some of it can be considered as pent up demand, exacerbated by the anxiety and stress during the lockdown and the continuing uncertainty over the progress of the disease.

In an earlier analysis, in work done with Anindya Banerjee and Juliana Pinto, we analysed knife crime across the 42 Police Force Areas (PFAs)  and used regression analysis to understand the impact of spending variations in police and other public services across time and PFAs, as well as the role of socio-economic factors that can potentially affect crime. Given the possible persistence of these effects, we used past values of knife crime that also partly capture ‘peer effects’. Our key findings were:

  1. Past crime is the primary predictor of future crime. We find that a 1% change in crime rate in a year is associated with a 0.7-0.8% increase in the following year, showing a high degree of persistence.
  2. The second most important factor is unemployment, which increases knife crime significantly. A 1% increase in unemployment in the past year increases knife crime by 0.1-0.2%. In terms of numbers, a rise in unemployment levels from 5% to 6% could lead to over 3600 more knife crime incidents yearly.

Unemployment Magnified: Implications for Violent crime

While some care must be before we extrapolate these results, the grim unemployment scenario is not good news based on our analysis. The furlough scheme may have kept the worst effects of unemployment at bay but with it coming to an end, the impact of unemployment will be felt keenly. While a sudden upwards shift in unemployment does not necessarily indicate a big spike in violence, both our analysis as well as other work on both domestic violence and violence outside the home indicate strong associations with employment status of individuals.

Combining public health approaches with a blueprint to boost employment post lockdown

What do we need to do in terms of policy? We need to recognise that crime is a public health issue and that early support may stop someone from a path of crime. Recent work that our team has done shows promising results in a number of early intervention focusing both on the young person and their family. In the specific context of knife crime, we do not need to look far to find an example of how a public health approach may have helped reduce knife crime. Scotland has dramatically reduced deaths from knife crime. Their approach combined conventional policing approaches with courts offering perpetrators the help they need in terms of employment, relocation, housing and training to get out of the cycle of criminality. While each region has unique features, there is much to learn from the Scottish experience. In the context of the current pandemic, a public health approach needs to consider the hidden burden of mental health seriously and find innovative ways to improve health surveillance – the systematic collection, analysis and interpretation of health data. For example, in the context of violence in the home it means measuring the trends of domestic violence and child maltreatment across different sectors of the population in a systematic way using data that is routinely collected.

Given the role of employment, such public health approaches must be combined with ways to improve employment opportunities by empowering citizens with skills needed for gainful employment. This is especially important as Covid-19 is causing sharp changes in the sectoral demand for labour (some of which will be non-transitory) and some re-training of the labour force will be needed. New entrants to the market need to acquire skills to match the changed employment opportunities. This will require further investment by the state but given the high societal costs of violence, such investment will be cost effective.

Health and wealth have been seen at odds during the current pandemic, when the debate has been about how much we need to trade off one against the other. When it comes to violence reduction they however play a complementary role, with the effect of one reinforcing the other.