Published 26 April 2019
What do the latest crime statistics tell us about what is happening to violence? Answering this question is not as straightforward as it might sound, with the data appearing to tell us different stories. Understanding what is happening requires both a bird’s eye and a microscopic lens.
The big picture according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (which is victim-led and therefore considered more accurate), is that overall violent crime continues to fall from historic highs, albeit with only a small decrease over the last year. Meanwhile, though police recorded violence has shown dramatic increases since 2014, it is widely accepted that much of this increase is due to better recording by police and a greater willingness to report offences.
Does that mean we’re all worrying over nothing? Is this just another media-induced moral panic? Not exactly...
1. Low-volume, high-harm violence is increasing
Aggregate violence figures mask the fact that, when viewed close-up, patterns of violence and crime are changing very significantly, and disturbing trends cannot be explained away by recording practices.
A sub-set of low-volume but high-harm crimes - robbery, knife crime, firearm offences and murder - have been rising since 2014. Whilst firearm offences showed a slight downturn, the latest figures confirm a five-year upward trend for all other types of offence, with recorded knife crime in particular at record levels, driven principally by increases in ‘knife-enabled’ threats to kill and robbery.
There are changes too in who is affected, where and how.
2. Serious violence is becoming more severe
The latest figures also indicate a growing severity in violence, with the highest number of ‘knife-enabled’ threats to kill, assault with injury, robbery and rape since recording began in 2011. These figures tend to support a range of frontline voices, from police officers to A&E surgeons, who say that the violence they are witnessing is becoming more extreme.
Similarly, although the homicide rate continues to rise (an increase of 12% over the last year), many hospitals fear the toll would be much higher were it not for the life-saving capacity of the NHS’s trauma units.
3. Violence is increasingly affecting young people
Perhaps the most concerning trend is that those caught up in violence appear to be getting younger. Doctors have commented that the average age of gun crime victims needing treatment at the hospital had decreased from 25 to the mid-to-late teens since 2012. The data reflects this frontline experience: for example, incidences of violence with injury against children aged between 10 and 15 have increased over the last year from 330,000 to 383,000. And a large proportion of the increase in homicides since 2014 has been driven by a dramatic increase in the number of victims in the 16-24 age bracket: the most recent data available shows that this age group now has the highest rate of homicides.
Furthermore, in relation to robbery, our analysis shows that there has been a substantial increase in offences committed in the afternoon, indicating a shift towards robberies committed after school, increasingly enabled by knives and offensive weapons.
4. Victims and perpetrators overlap
There is a considerable overlap between victims and offenders within serious violence. Metropolitan Police Service homicide analysis referenced in the Home Office Serious Violence Strategy (p. 29) found that within London, 220 of the 306 suspects named in 2017 homicide investigations had previously been a victim of crime (72%); furthermore, 26% had been a victim of knife crime specifically prior to the investigation.
5. Location of serious violence
Finally, this escalating trend in serious violence is not limited to inner-city boroughs and major urban areas. Whilst volumes remain highest in urban areas, the English forces experiencing the largest rises in recorded knife offences over the last five years are located further afield. The latest statistics reaffirm the spread of serious violence outwards from cities into Britain’s towns and surrounding rural areas, including along the rail network; excluding the City of London, the largest rises for robbery relate to Lincolnshire, Cumbria, and British Transport Police (BTP), and the largest rises for weapons possession relate to Norfolk, Kent and again BTP.
Serious violence is an increasingly national issue, driven in part by the ‘county lines’ phenomenon, where organised crime groups establish county lines to distribute cheap, pure drugs product - mainly cocaine and heroin - across the country, driving competition for drugs into new areas. Substantial rises in drugs, weapons, and robbery offences recorded by BTP reflect this reality.
While overall crime - including violence - continues to fall, certain categories of violence are increasing. These trends reflect genuine underlying trends and are concentrated in the most deprived sections of the population. Rather than leaving the police to cope alone, the government needs to lead a renewed drive from the centre, using all the tools at its disposal to coordinate action across government.