London’s knife-crime epidemic is back in the news. Tomorrow the Damilola Taylor Trust is holding a lecture at which the founders of Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit will explain what lessons London might learn from their experience. Their distinctive ‘public health’ approach is widely held to have been successful and it is frequently contrasted with a strategy of law enforcement. Champions of the public-health approach can be identified by their predilection for referring to the problem of knife crime as ‘issues around’ knife crime and their enthusiasm for finding ‘reachable and teachable moments’ when dealing with offenders caught with a knife. They oppose a pure criminal-justice approach but do not seem to have noticed that arresting criminals, trying them according to law, and punishing them as the law stipulates also reaches and teaches. It not only reaches and teaches the offender but also others who might be tempted to carry knives. It arms parents, teachers, youth workers and others who hope to discourage young people from joining gangs with a very powerful argument: do you really want to end up in jail along with the previous generation of gang members?
But it’s not just that campaigners for a public-health strategy fail to see the true impact of effective enforcement, they also conveniently ignore how Scotland achieved its reduction in violent crime. They should take note, for example, of public statements made by John Carnochan, the co-director of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit from its inception in 2005. Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan is now retired and better able to speak freely about how the scheme worked. He told reporters earlier this year that, while prevention was a major part of the project: ‘Criminal justice still needed to be there and seen to be done swiftly. Sometimes it gets portrayed that we didn’t do that. But we increased stop and search, we spoke to the government and they changed the legislation to increase the sentence for carrying a knife. Things were bad and we needed to demonstrate we were serious.’
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went to Carnochan for advice, but he found them bad listeners: ‘I don’t think they were happy to hear that stop and search is an integral part of stopping knife crime.’ He also told them that Scotland’s success had been exaggerated: ‘In Scotland, we found that only one third to one half of people in accident and emergency as a result of violence report it to the police. So, if we had 500 reported attempted murders, the actual figure would be between 750 and 1,000. If we had 1,500 reported serious assaults, it was actually between 2,500 and 3,000. The ones that didn’t report it to us had resolved to deal with the matter themselves, which led to more violence.’
Carnochan’s successor, Niven Rennie, made the same point this summer: ‘One of the reasons we’re in the press, particularly in London, at the moment is because we’ve had an amazing turnaround from ten years ago, but violence in Scotland is still running at a level where we as a progressive society should be concerned.’ Official Scottish government statistics show that recorded crime is at its lowest level since the mid-1970s, but according to Rennie: ‘We’re still at the stage where we see more victims of violence coming to A&E than we do to the police. When someone from government stands up and says crime is at a 43-year low, I always say it’s recorded crime that’s at a low.’
Fortunately it seems that Home Secretary Sajid Javid has not been taken in by enthusiasts for Scotland’s strategy and he has been calling for increased use of stop and search. His main problem is that the prime minister, Theresa May, was responsible for a catastrophic reduction in police effectiveness while she was Home Secretary. Figures for stop and search are available from 2001/02, when there were 770,100. The number peaked at 1,519,561 in 2008/09 and then fell dramatically as a direct result of Theresa May’s policies, introduced during 2014. In the first full year after the reforms there were 383,595, and the latest figures show a continuing fall to 282,248 in 2017/18.
The changes happened because Theresa May ignored the evidence that Home Office officials had painstakingly gathered. She wanted to portray herself as a defender of justice for ethnic minorities and chose to believe claims that stop and search was being used in a racially discriminatory manner. Alasdair Palmer, was her speech writer and has described how the facts came to be ignored.
A special adviser had asked him to write a speech that would help the Home Secretary to improve her standing with Afro-Caribbeans by making a statement that was critical of the police’s use of stop and search. The grounds were to be that the tool was racist: the statistics demonstrated that you were six or seven times more likely to be stopped and searched if you were a member of an ethnic minority. However, Alasdair Palmer found that the Home Office had tested this claim some years earlier and found it to be false. The researchers had identified the percentage of the street population made up by each ethnic group and then compared it with the percentage of stop and searches that were made up by each ethnic group. They discovered that, if you looked at who was available to be stopped and searched the ethnic bias disappeared. In fact, the police stopped slightly more white people by comparison with their proportion of the street population. Moreover, the police did not stop and search people because of their race, they used the power in areas where street crime was most common.
Despite the fact that there was no demonstrable racism, Mrs May delivered the speech anyway, and as we now know she imposed policies that led to a sharp fall in the use of stop and search and a corresponding increase in crime. This was a classic case of political image building triumphing over political problem solving. Politicians get elected partly by being good at faking sincerity and presenting themselves as champions of identity groups who it is hoped will gratefully return the favour with votes at election time. Pandering to ethnic minorities by falsely upholding their sense of victimhood no doubt seemed at the time to be clever politics with no harm done. In truth, Theresa May, shamelessly undermined the effectiveness of the police, which led to the increase in violent crime we are now living through. Moreover, a political leader with a functioning conscience would have noticed that many of the victims of knife crime are members of ethnic minorities.
David G. Green is Director of Civitas