“At the end of March I was invited to London by Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, to be part of a round table discussion on violent crime, especially knife crime, ahead of the government announcing its new strategy.
“I went with Superintendent Una Jennings, who is the South Yorkshire Police lead on knife crime. There were about a dozen of us there from those parts of the country where there had been a sharp increase in knife crime in the past year or two.
“We included the Police and Crime Commissioners from West Yorkshire and the West Midlands, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police, Cressida Dick.
“Analysts from the Home Office made presentations that showed that similar increases had occurred across most of Europe. What they were unable to do was to give any evidence-based explanations as to why it had happened. We can, therefore, only guess at the reasons: the easy availability of knives, both in shops and on-line; the glamorisation of knives in videos; the spread of a certain type of culture associated with drug dealing; the reduction in the number of police officers; despair and lack of aspiration among some communities; and so on.
“My contribution was to say that while we acknowledged the increase in South Yorkshire we should not see the problem through an exclusively London prism where almost half of the country’s knife crimes now occur. In fact, as I write these words, murders in London, many of them as a result of stabbing, are as high this year as those in New York.
“There are some things we do know. Where young men (it is men) have tried to explain why they carry knives, it is not with the intent of harming someone but ‘for protection’ or to threaten someone. Nevertheless, carrying a knife increases a person’s chance of being hurt by a blade and causes a general fear in certain parts of our towns and cities.
“We also noted that there is one part of the United Kingdom where knife crime has reduced. Glasgow was plagued with stabbings yet over a ten year period reduced this by 70%.
“It did it by recognising that the problem would not be solved by policing alone. It was a ‘public health’ matter. The men caught up in knife crimes were beset by many issues: unemployment, homelessness, mental health factors, and so on. These had to be tackled as well – by bringing together professionals from the NHS, local authorities, schools and colleges, as well as the police. There had to be a lot of one-to-one work.
“At the same time, stop and search was intensified.
“I pointed out at the round table that the rise in knife crime in South Yorkshire happened when the government, through HM inspectors, required police forces to reduce stop and search. The government did this because it feared the impact it had on community cohesion: some ethnic minorities believed they were disproportionately impacted, especially in London.
“However, in South Yorkshire there was a strong correlation, if not a causal connection, between the fall in the number of stop and searches and the rise in knife crimes. And when Glasgow reduced stop and search at the end of its ten year period, knife crime rose again.
“I was also able to say that in Sheffield, mothers from minority ethnic groups in the Burngreave area of the city, had told me that they wanted stop and search to be stepped up. Provided it was done fairly and proportionately, they were quite sure it would not be seen as the police picking on black and Asian men but it would be a deterrent; and, as one Somali mother put it, ‘I don’t want my children cut’.
“In the absence of research, it would seem that what we need to do is not one single thing but a combination. We need a policing response – targeting the gangs, stop and search – but we also need a longer term public health strategy involving all the agencies.
“The trouble is, in this time of squeezed budgets, if those other agencies prioritise in one area, they will have to take resources from another.”