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3 April 2018updated 01 Aug 2021 12:12pm

The truth about violent crime in London

Busting myths about the “lawless” capital.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It’s quarter to eleven on a Friday night. A stretch of pavement outside east London’s Mile End tube station, usually reserved for a newspaper stand and commuters and students marching swiftly past shopowners on their cigarette breaks, is cordoned off.

Police cars and vans surround the area, filling the site with flashing lights and the hum of engines. Armed police circle outside the entrance to the underground, which is closed with a scarlet shutter.

About ten minutes before this, two men in their twenties were shot. Messages from residents began peppering social media, fearing violence on their doorstep – “this is all getting too local” – and asking no one in particular what on earth is happening in their city. They immediately connected it with incidents of violent crime across the capital since the year began.

Although the victims didn’t have serious injuries, this shooting on 23 March 2018 has been listed beneath doom-laden headlines as part of a recent pattern of violence in London.

There have been six fatal shootings and 31 fatal stabbings in London this year so far. If the current rate of more than three murders a week continues throughout the year, London could be seeing its highest number of homicides in 13 years.

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Ever since London saw four unrelated fatal attacks on New Year’s Eve and Day – a “highly unusual” number over a 24-hour period, according to the Metropolitan Police – 2018 has been defined as a year of crime for the city.

The latest story on this, which fuelled hysterical headlines over the Easter weekend, is that London’s murder rate has overtaken New York’s.

In fact, this is one of the many myths being used to mislead people about the state of violent crime in the capital, and Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty.

Let’s have a look:

More people are not murdered in London than New York

This year, London has had fewer murders than New York (46 against 55). It also had fewer last year. Weighted for the size of population, the rate of murders per 100,000 people was higher in London than its American counterpart in February and March, but, so far in 2018, the Met has investigated fewer murders than the NYPD.

Also missing from these headlines: incidents of New York crime have recently plunged to record lows. Last year saw the lowest number of murders in the city since records began. Crime has declined for 27 consecutive years to its lowest level since the 1950s. So even if London is moving closer to New York’s murder rate, it’s hardly a meaningful comparison.

Violent crime in London is no argument against gun control

Opponents of gun control have been jumping on the news of shootings in London to suggest banning firearms doesn’t stop violent crime:

Based on the bogus “more murders than New York” story, this argument doesn’t take into account that New York has gun control, that the US has 25.2 times higher murder rates from guns than other high income countries (including the UK, which is third lowest on the chart of 23 countries), and has 31 per cent of global mass shooters, despite making up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population.

The far-right are wrong about London

There’s nothing the hard right loves more than a story about bad things happening in communities with high immigrant populations, and London’s latest woes are a prime example.

From people who want to denigrate Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty to those who see ethnic minorities as criminals, there are all sorts of nasty smears about crime in the capital flying around at the moment.

The Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley Jr apologised for sharing a tweet by far-right troll Katie Hopkins, which read: “London has a higher murder rate than New York… And Ramadan’s not yet begun.” She has also tweeted that the crime rate is Khan’s “legacy”, said he “play[s] the minority struggle card”, and she used the hashtag “#LondonHasFallen”.

Usually best ignored, Hopkins’ views represent what many on the hard right think of London – or of racial diversity in London – who claim it has “no-go” areas and refer to it as “Londonistan”. These views make their way into public discourse via the tabloids, and are propagated by other mainstream platforms, such as the Brexit campaign, Leave.EU:

The right-wing news site Westmonster has been covering all of London’s recent violent crime incidents with the tagline “Lawless London”, and is using these stories to call for “more police on the streets, tougher sentences and stop and search backed by the government”.

A month before that piece, Khan had announced a “significant increase” in police’s use of stop and search, but it seems there’s nothing he can do that will stop the right accusing him of being cowed by political correctness. (Black people are at least eight times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched, even though they are statistically less likely to be found with drugs.)

There is a problem with police funding

City Hall has accused the Home Secretary of “ducking responsibility” in funding the Metropolitan Police.

Khan has asked the Home Office for urgent talks on violent crime, warning that officer numbers will fall to what is seen as a dangerous level by police, if the government doesn’t increase the Met’s budget (which it looks like it won’t).

The Metropolitan Police has faced government cuts of more than £700m since 2010.

Over £1.9bn of the Met’s £2.5bn funding in 2018-19 is from the government, so simply blaming the mayor for a tighter policing budget doesn’t make sense.

In general, police budgets have fallen by around a fifth since 2010 and the police watchdog says forces will have £700m less a year and fewer officers to fight crime in future.

London is one of the safest cities in the world

“London is the safest global city in the world and one of the safest cities in the world,” Khan told CNN last October, following a terrorist attack.

When I spoke to the Met for this piece, it echoed this claim: “London remains one of the safest cities in the world.”

How true is it?

According to the Safe Cities Index 2017, London is the 20th safest city in the world (out of its 60 biggest cities), and according to Safearound, London is the 46th safest out of 148 world cities.

It’s also worth noting that violent crime is rising nationally, not just in London. Knife crime offences are up 21 per cent (from 2016-17), and violent crime offences up 20 per cent in England and Wales (to compare, the rise of knife crime in London in the same period is 23 per cent).

Scaremongering makes us less safe

A former consultant to the Metropolitan Police and London citizens on stress and law enforcement, Dr Charles Marmar, told me last year after a spate of terrorist attacks in the capital that, “most people in London are sufficiently stress-inoculated… Londoners are strong people and British culture is very strong when dealing with trauma”.

From his experience working with the Met, he urged the media to reflect this stoicism – which he referred to as a “population strategy” – instead of scaremongering.

Rather than panic about a terrifying wave or inevitable pattern, as was my first instinct – and that of many locals on social media – that night in Mile End, it’s healthier and safer for both London’s population and the press to take each case as it is, and, as Dr Marmar emphasised, keep the victims and their loved ones as our “greatest concern”.

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson commented:

“The Met is concerned at the increase in murders in London, and specialist detectives from the Met’s Homicide and Major Crime Command are investigating. One murder is one too many, and we are working hard with our partners to understand the increase and what we can all do to prevent these tragedies from happening in the first place.”

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