Knife crime and murder in London: imagining solutions beyond policing

The 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

“Scotland has dramatically reduced deaths from knife crime. Their approach combined conventional policing methods 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.”  


The recent spate of knife crime and increased murder investigations in London has led to some natural concern across the UK. Indeed, knife crime has seen a more widespread increase in the last three years across the country with the West Midlands showing one of the biggest increases outside London.

Various explanations have been proposed for this rise, from falling police numbers, decreases in stop and search, escalation of gang feuds via social media to ultra-violent (drill) music. While all these might be contributory factors towards a longer term trend that may reverse the falling crime numbers that one has seen recently, none of these quite fits the bill to explain the recent spike in knife crime.

In fact, the spike may well be due to non-systematic factors and need not represent a trend. Given a period of relatively falling crime numbers, it may well be that the increased knife crime and murder may simply represent a blip. That does not mean that some form of intervention is not needed. Indeed, even a short run visible policing presence can be helpful, not least because it lowers fear of crime.

Short run policing intervention can also guard against unleashing a sudden spurt of criminal activity because of a perception among potential criminals that the police are stretched and are less likely to be able to tackle crime. And a sudden spurt can lead to a spiral where the police are indeed much stretched causing a lot of crime to go unpunished, leading to a state of high crime and low apprehension rates. Thus, without a check, small increases can cause a tipping point to be reached, unleashing a huge spurt in criminality.

Does better policing deter crime?

While the police crime link is controversial among some social scientists, there is a reasonably robust association between policing activity and crime. A challenge of course has been to understand whether this link is causal. Some areas of research have looked at increased policing presence for factors unrelated to crime, for example the increase in police presence following the July 2005 bombings in London and then looked at whether there is a causal link.

Given the complex forces that lead to criminal activity, policing alone will not solve the problem of crime. There is a need to better understand the complex social interactions that lead to crime and disorder. 

Beyond Policing: what makes a criminal?

We need to look more closely at the socio-economic profile of criminals to be able to design interventions that modify the conditions that breed criminality. That requires recognition that crime is a public health issue and that early support may stop someone from a path of crime. There has been a recognition that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can lead to a host of negative behavioural traits, including later day criminality. Yet, the precise relationship between ACEs and offending patterns is not well understood but may prove to be key in finding a sustainable solution towards crime prevention. This focus on the perpetrator is not inconsistent with the principle of placing the victim first.

Unless we understand what triggers criminal behaviour, we are unlikely to do a good job of protecting the victim. 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 methods 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.

The increase in knife crime and murder in London needs to be taken seriously not least because left unchecked it could trigger a bigger wave of criminality. But this is also a time to take stock and think somewhat more deeply about the problem of violent crime. That requires us to understand the social circumstances of criminals and find ways to intervene effectively. 

Benjamin Franklin’s axiom that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is true not just for fire safety but should be a guiding principle of 21st century crime policy.

Have your say...

  • flo
    1. At 11:15PM on 09 June 2018, flo wrote

    Yes, time to dig to the deeper issues that are surrounding this surge of violence!!!

    Lets take a young man as an example.

    He is a young guy maybe in his late teens, early twenties. He grew up on a council estate. He grew up in a home where there was daily violence. He saw his Dad beat the sh*t out of his Mum ( or maybe vice versa). His mum was depressed and abusive towards him, sometimes verbally, other times she would throw stuff at him. Then he had to deal with his Dad- an angry, frustrated man lashing out at his family. Blaming his son, making him feel like utter sh*t. This young guy goes to school, he finds it hard to connect with people, he has never been show how to connect with himself or others- he is in PAIN. He has no one to talk to. He bottles it all inside.

    He then masks his pain with aggression, he seeks solace in the local gang, they give him a feeling of belonging, they take him under their wing and he finds a space where he is accepted. A space where he can release his pain. Pain in young men manifests as RAGE, VIOLENCE, AGGRESSION. Remember young boys are told- ''don't cry, be a big boy''.

    I could go on with this story but it would be very long.

    My point is: The surge in crime is to do with trauma and PAIN. These young men were once little babies, with little fingers and toes, they were vulnerable little toddlers.They have seen sh*t that probably most of us cannot imagine. You leave these young men with all their traumas and PAIN, and this is going to manifest in the ugliest of ways. Do not blame these men. THEY NEED URGENT HEALING, THEY NEED HELP. The whole structure in the UK needs to be addressed. From how people raise their children, to how schools deal with kids who struggle. To how the government deal with issues, local communities etc. These are very very very very deep issues, that will not be solved by implementing more laws, putting more police on the streets. That is a PATHETIC bandaid for a serious dilemma!!! We have to go into the depths of this. We have to heal trauma. We have to help young men express their pain, and get them away from TOXIC situations. That means abusive households, care homes etc. If the government really wanted to solve this, they would take the time to really uncover what lies beneath the violence. Again I repeat what is beneath is TRAUMA AND PAIN. I guarantee if you look deeply into the histories of these men, you will find a whole host of traumatic experiences. And if you scratch below the surface of their violent and aggressive personas, you will discover how much pain and suffering they are actually experiencing. A HUGE amount of work needs to go into this, and pumping money into whatever the Mayor of London is pumping his money into, is not going to help!

    IT IS TIME TO HEAL THE TRAUMA THAT FESTERS INSIDE THE HUMAN PSYCHE. There is no quick solution, but I can definitely confirm the government hasn't a clue what it is doing regarding this seriously severe situation.

    Our world is in a tremendous amount of pain and has been for centuries. UNTIL we wake up and work on individual and collective healing these problems will only get worse!!!!!

    Remember this- that young guy walking around with a knife is in absolute agony! His only way to survive is to fight. But maybe if someone showed him the fight is within and actually he can heal that internal fight, then we will begin to transform our society. But first the work has to be done. No brushing the issues under the carpet, or coming up with temporary solutions that really just avoid dealing with the deeper issues.

    No one on this earth was born bad. Trauma, pain, sadness, sorrow, grief, hurt, repressed emotions is the cause of the distress and destruction on this planet.