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.