Better policing alone will not solve knife crime

Street gangs inhabit a Clockwork Orange world, a parallel universe of patois, “drill” music videos and searing violence. Every now and again, their world erupts into ours. Four fatal stabbings in six days, including that of the former Girl Guide Jodie Chesney, have helped push teenage deaths from knife crime to unprecedented levels.

Amid the outpouring of claim and counter-claim, the home secretary has pledged to treat knife crime as a “disease” and to strengthen the law. More police will help. But we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We also have to see some perpetrators as victims — however difficult that may be.

Gang membership can be a form of entrapment. Last month, a report by the Children’s Commissioner found that 27,000 children have been lured into gangs across England. More than 300,000 know someone who is a gang member. Children are being groomed by ruthless thugs who prey on the most vulnerable, offering inducements and threats to smuggle drugs into suburban towns.

This “county lines” drug trade is worth £500m, according to the National Crime Agency. Every local authority I speak to is in despair about the problem. They don’t know how to keep children safe across statutory boundaries.

The police are up against commercial operations of fearsome brutality, as gangs clash for control of new districts. Violence has increased with the spread of social media and with the arrival of new groups from war-torn countries such as Somalia.

We do need more police on the streets: too few, and young men feel they can act with impunity. We also need good local information. When I worked in Lambeth in south London 20 years ago, the neighbourhood “bobbies on the beat” had relationships with communities that can never be built by a vanload of territorial armed officers. Too many beat police have been cut, along with a number of their cheaper replacements, the community support officers.

The police, however, cannot solve the problem at its roots. Officers face an ancient dilemma: the tactics they use to protect the public are resented by communities who protest at the criminalisation of their youth. If government is spending more money, it must also better fund the local authority services, the social workers and youth workers who, along with faith groups and charities, can win the trust of children living desperate lives.

Some years ago, I attended a meeting with teenagers on the fringes of gangland. I hadn’t expected the huge, hulking boys to be so fragile. They felt that nobody wanted them.

Back then, we were talking about the way that gangs offered a sense of belonging and stability. Today, some children are regarded as being part of a local gang simply because they live on a certain street. If they have to cross gang lines to get to school every day, they think it necessary to arm themselves.

We know the characteristics of many of these children. They are significantly more likely to have witnessed domestic abuse at home and to be excluded by schools that cannot cope with the behavioural problems that result.

Many are invisible to public services until they turn up in hospital with stab wounds. Others are on the radar of multiple agencies, but don’t trust any of them. Some end up wandering the streets, because they are in a pupil referral unit that offers only a few hours of lessons a week. They may have a calendar full of appointments with different professionals. But each is in a different silo — some of those geographically near “enemy” territory.

Too few of these boys have what they most need: a trusted adult in their life. That is what saved Karl Lokko, the former member of an infamous gang in Brixton. By the age of 15, Mr Lokko had gone from being an animal-lover who hoped to become a vet, to a strutting gang leader, “putting on a mask” every day so his family didn’t find out. At the age of 16, one of his best friends was killed.

Mr Lokko has eloquently described the restless ambition, the glamour and the sense of powerlessness that drove him on to that path. He was reformed by an extraordinary woman, Pastor Mimi Asher, who decided the only way to reach her own son was to start inviting his gang friends, including Mr Lokko, into her home. She welcomed them and gradually made them feel that they were worth something more than gangland provided. Her Christian faith and her belief in those boys worked miracles.

Mr Lokko has argued for that kind of rehabilitation approach to be applied more widely. Many experts, including the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, agree. They support a “public health” approach of the kind which halved violent crime in Boston, Massachusetts, in the mid-1990s and later worked in Glasgow. This involves identifying core offenders and offering them a choice between long jail sentences or help with jobs, housing and sometimes relocation.

The magic ingredient is empathy. We need the police to be able to do their job against organised crime barons and henchmen, who deserve everything they get. We also need society to give young men alternatives.

Crisis summits about “multi-agency working” are fine. But providing a troubled teenager with one trusted adult is what could make them feel safe enough to abandon mindless violence.

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, is senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and chair of Frontline: Changing Lives


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