Serious Youth Violence and knife crime

The death of 17-year-old Jodie Chesney in the Harold Hill area of Romford on Friday 1 March takes the death toll from fatal stabbings in London to 18 so far this year.

So frequent have such incidents become that we have almost stopped being shocked. But behind each headline there are parents consumed by grief, devastated family members and traumatised communities.

After decades of falling crime levels, incidences of violence and murder are firmly on the rise. And it is not just in London. Knife crime is on the rise across the UK.

As well as scores of senseless deaths, there are countless non-fatal attacks that don’t make the news. Speak to any group of young people locally and almost everyone in the room will know someone who has been attacked. Many carry knives or have considered doing so purely because they believe it might stop them becoming a victim themselves.  

We cannot go on like this.

There is no clear and simple solution to serious youth violence and knife crime. Even determining the causes is a complex business.

Police cuts are without doubt a contributory factor but, the truth is, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. The closure of youth centres and the lack of adequate education, sport and cultural activities has also played a part, as has social media. But so have poverty, inequality, school exclusions, mental illness, and chaotic family circumstances.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers about how to address the epidemic of knife and gun crime and youth violence in our area or our city more widely. And when it comes to this issue in particular, I’m sceptical of the value of turning only to academics and experts for explanations. The starting point has to be young people themselves, why they think this is happening, and what they think can and should be done about it.

Listening to young people locally has convinced me of at least one thing: we need to start treating knife crime as a public health problem. To do so does not mean denying the responsibility of individual criminals. No one forces anyone to carry a blade or to maim with one, whether rashly or with a deliberate intent to kill. Seeing the issue through a public health lens is simply to recognise that we need to look at the causes in the round, not just the crime.

The Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) launched by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, last year is based on this principle and is proving what can be done by bringing together specialists from health, police, local government, probation, and community organisations. Coupled with initiatives that provide for investment targeted at preventing and diverting young people from crime, such as the Mayor’s Young Londoners Fund, I believe it can make a real difference over the long-term.

But we also need Government to get behind a cross-departmental programme of action which is both ambitious and properly resourced.