Cocaine clichés and London blinkers: yet another knife crime myth-buster

Tough on crime, tough on the misidentified causes of crime.

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Well here I am again, writing another myth-buster about knife crime and violence in Britain. After two 17-year-olds were killed in separate stabbings over the weekend, the same old arguments about police numbers and powers are being trotted out, with Theresa May denying it’s a resources problem.

The situation is tragic, with a doubling of under-16s hospitalised from stab wounds over the last five years, fatal stabbings at their highest ever level in England and Wales, and child knife killers rising by 77 per cent in two years, according to an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches.

But as the problem receives heightened media attention, its causes and solutions are increasingly ignored and obscured by the same old clichés and myths surrounding youth crime and violence in the UK.

So here’s the real story behind each of the claims you’ve likely heard on the airwaves this week:

It’s nothing to do with police cuts!

The government has cut police spending to alarming levels since 2010, leading to the loss of more than 22,000 officersAlmost 90 per cent of officers say that there are not enough of them to manage the demands that their team or unit faces. The number of police officers in England and Wales are at their lowest level since the early 1980s.

The Met and other police forces have warned this means they can’t do their jobs properly, with the London Mayor Sadiq Khan warning last year that officer numbers were set to fall to a level deemed “dangerous” by police chiefs.

The Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has contradicted May by telling LBC that “there must be some link” between falling police officer numbers and violent crime. “I agree there is some link between violent crime on the streets and police numbers, of course there is. Everybody would see that.”

As Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor in the north west, who last week lost an 18-year-old family member to knife crime in Birmingham, said on Newsnight when asked about the link between police numbers and attacks: “Of course there is, otherwise why would we have police at all?”

With their resources overstretched, it becomes more difficult to gather intelligence, police neighbourhoods and build trust in communities. This puts increasing pressure on police officers when trying to prevent and solve cases of violent crime. 

It’s all down to police cuts!

This is also not true. There are complex reasons for a rise in violent crime, and simply beefing up policing will not fix it.

Arrests and prison sentences have proven inadequate for solving knife crime. In Glasgow, a police taskforce called the Violence Reduction Unit established in 2005 halved the murder rate. This was largely due to their public health approach to tackling knife crime.

This Group Violence Intervention Approach is described in the Guardian as “caring people into change”. The Centre for Social Justice think tank reports it has also worked in Boston and Cincinnati.

Far from being a “crackdown” on the symptoms of violent crime, the approach tackles the causes of violent crime. Knife crime in Glasgow was treated as a health issue, with police working alongside health, education and social workers to tackle the problem.

Austerity in general is more likely to be a factor in the recent crimewave, as nearly a decade of public service cuts begin to hit. More than 600 youth centres have closed since 2010, with losses amounting to 139,000 youth places and 3,650 staff. Council funding for frontline youth services has been halved since 2010. These are places where the causes of crime can be prevented, tempered, or at least discussed.

reported on the value of such spaces from the last council-funded youth club in Tottenham, which lost one of its teenage peer mentors to a drive-by shooting in a year of violence in the north London borough of Haringey last year.

It’s just a London problem!

No, it’s not. Violent crime is growing four times faster outside of London, according to analysis in the Times this week. Violent and sexual offences elsewhere in England and Wales have increased by 51 per cent on average over the past two years, compared with a 12 per cent rise in London.

It’s started reaching middle-class areas in London!

This is a strange assertion anyway, considering most parts of London include affluent areas alongside more deprived communities.

It’s also not true to say that “inner-city” crime has suddenly begun spilling into outer London boroughs. Violence in London has long been widespread. The top eight London boroughs with the most murders in 2017/18, according to analysis by the Evening Standard, include outer London’s Ealing, Enfield and Croydon. Brent and Hammersmith & Fulham were in the top five London boroughs with the highest violent crime rate in 2011/12.

It’s all white, middle-class cocaine users’ fault!

Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick and Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy have all argued that the demand for drugs comes from people whose lives are separate from the violence of gangs who deal these drugs.

There is something undeniably uncomfortable and often hypocritical about middle-class, white liberals merrily taking drugs when gang crime – which can in part be linked to drug activities – plays out on the streets around them.

But criminalising drug-takers, or focusing on the demand for drugs, isn’t going to make violent crime go away. To bash “the woke who do coke” is a distraction that makes a good headline. It’s also a bit of a myth.

England and Wales Crime Survey research into cocaine usage by household income shows a dip among upper-middle earners in 2017/18 (those likely to hold professional jobs earning between £30,000 - £40,000), with higher use among those earning around the average household income (around £28,000) and the very wealthy (the highest use is in the £50,000 or more bracket).

Only 5.4m households out of 27m in the UK earn more than £50,000. And social background doesn’t dictate level of cocaine use. While 3.4 per cent of people in households with an income of £50,000 or more report using cocaine in the past year, 3.6 percent of unemployed people reported using the drug.

Police should have stronger stop-and-search powers!

There is no evidence that the level of police stop and search powers has an effect on killings. A College of Policing study of Metropolitan Police boroughs looking at ten years of data from 2004-14 found that stop and search had no effect on the levels of violent crime. In fact, in New York, since police reduced their use of equivalent stop and frisk powers, the murder rate has fallen to a record low.

It’s a race issue!

Some newspapers would have you believe knife crime is unique to predominantly black communities.

Black people are far more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and the gap has widened in the most recent year we have figures for – they were about eight times as likely to get stopped and searched as of 2016/17.

In London, they are more than four times as likely to be stopped and searched as white people – an increase on four years ago, when they were 2.6 times more likely to be targeted.

After increasing its use of stop and search last year, official figures show the Met Police disproportionately used the power against black people (in 2018, 43 per cent of searches were of black people, who make up 15.6 per cent of London’s population, compared with 35.5 per cent of searches of white people, who make up 59.8 per cent of London’s population).

Overall, “positive outcomes” (where the police officer detects an offence after a stop-and-search) were higher for white people than black people. For white people, 30.5 per cent of searches resulted in further action from the police, compared with 27.8 per cent of Asian people and 26.7 per cent of black people.

On a national level, four in 1,000 white people were stopped and searched in 2016/17, compared with 29 in 1,000 black people. But whether someone being searched was white or not made no difference to the rate at which police found what they’re looking for. “Positive outcome rates” in England and Wales that year were similar whatever the ethnicity.

The right’s focus on gang-related crime in London has little to say about Glasgow, which was termed Europe’s “murder capital” in the mid-Noughties with a spiral of knife crime and gangs involving majority white men. Today, the UK’s highest murder rate is in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde in Scotland, where the main town of Paisley is 97 per cent white.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.