Violent crime: a public health issue? 

 By Senior Campaign Agent Megan Field

2018 has been defined as a year of crime for London; since 1st January, over 50 people have been killed in a spate of violent attacks, sparking a national conversation about what has caused such a shift. A complex narrative has emerged out of the Home Office as two conflicting reports are now in the public domain. Whilst the official 'Serious Violence Strategy' targets gangs that recruit young people as drug couriers, a leaked document suggests a drop in police numbers is at least partly to blame. 

The release of the official report on Monday was overshadowed by a leaked document, which said that although the drop in police numbers was unlikely to have triggered the rise in violent crime, it could have facilitated it’s continued increase. Such conclusions were conspicuous in their absence from the 114-page strategy unveiled by Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who dismissed claims that police numbers were to blame. Speaking on Radio 4, she stated it would be a “disservice” to “the communities and families to make this a political tit for tat about police numbers”. This is indeed a complex issue, but given that the number of officers fell from 143,734 in March 2010 to 123,142 in March 2017, to omit the topic altogether was a grave error. Admittedly, it would be short-sighted to suggest recent trends are solely due to police cuts. However, it is equally unfeasible to construct a narrative which disregards the issue completely. Not only are officers needed to attend to serious incidents, neighbourhood policing also has the potential to build trust and confidence and thus detect issues such as gang crime early on, as outlined by the Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor. The picture is far from complete; indeed, force by force breakdown reveals that not all areas with falling police numbers are experiencing rises in violent crime. So what alternative causes have been outlined?

In some ways, the official report is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s soundbite “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. It outlines a “step change” in the approach to serious violence which purported to establish “a new balance between prevention and law enforcement”. Central to this is a pledge to target gangs who recruit young people as drug couriers, using county drug lines to transport heroin and crack cocaine from the city to rural and coastal towns. This is said to facilitate violent crime both directly, as such drugs are linked to psychoactive and aggressive tendencies, and indirectly, due to violent competition between drug sellers. To this end, the report allocates £3.6m to a national county lines coordination centre and £11m to an early intervention youth fund designed to help those at risk of being involved in violence. 

Less convincingly, the report also casts blame on social media which, it claims, has increased the opportunity for violent crime. Gangs use social media to promote gang culture and incite violence, which has the effect of glamourising knife and gun crime. It also offers a platform from which to promote drug selling activity; it cites instances of drug-related groups posting images of themselves surrounded by money which they have earned through such activity. Whilst social media may exacerbate the problem by recruiting impressionable young people into that way of life, it could easily become a distraction from examining the underlying causes. Young people don’t engage in such high-level crime out of mere opportunism. It nods to deep structural causes which must be addressed. 

Such is the opinion of those who are calling for violent crime to be treated as a public health issue: presenting the issue an epidemic, as opposed to one confined to the Home Office, gives a broader scope for formulating creative solutions. The report hints at this when it speaks of a “multiple strand approach”, reliant on collaboration between a range of partners from various sectors. This has been put in more explicit terms by the MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, who has seen a number of constituents murdered since the start of the year. He criticises dominant narratives such as police cuts for failing to tell the “whole story”. Criticising the money allocated by the report, he asks “Is £40m enough? It sounds good, but it’s about 20 homes in Notting Hill. It’s that lack of grip that frustrates people like me.” When you consider that between 2010 and 2016, youth services were cut by £387m, the scale of the problem becomes all too clear. It is this unwillingness to invest in young people that leaves them unable to access traditional opportunity structures, which is driving them to seek refuge in criminal activity. The only way forward is a “properly funded public health strategy” such as those seen in Scotland and New York, shifting the focus towards intervention across a wide range of services. 

For all this pessimism, it is worth noting that the statistics being thrown around in the media should be taken with a pinch of salt. Crime statistics are remarkably complex and as such, can be easily misunderstood. So although some types of violent crime have shown an increase since late 2014, at least some of this can be attributed to how police forces record crime. In a broader context, the number of homicides in 2016/17 is still 31% lower than its peak in 2003/04. Whether the emerging trend in 2018 will amount to anything significant is also, as of yet, unclear. It could turn out to be an anomaly by the end of the year. Unfortunately, the prevailing opinion seems to be that this is more than just a moral panic and as such, widespread action is needed. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: d26b73 @Flickr

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