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Knife crime: why it isn’t only the Metropolitan Police that should be worrying

Callyane Desroches, Senior Analyst

Saturday 26 April 2018

The bulletins and news headlines over the next 24 hours have already been written, the narrative set: knife crime is continuing to rise, up by more than a fifth over the last year (22 per cent). But to what extent is this a national trend?

Or are the recent increases in recorded knife crime, much reported in the media, the product of a particular set of circumstances unique to London?

Fortunately, today’s statistics enable us to shed some light on that question. Three things stand out.

Firstly, the total volume of knife crime offences is much higher in London than anywhere else in the country, comprising 36% of all such offences nationally. This is not particularly surprising. London’s population dwarfs the rest of the country and we know that serious youth violence tends to be more prevalent in big cities, where populations are younger and more densely packed together.

It is perhaps more instructive to explore what is happening outside of London (see chart below).

The chart above illustrates that knife crime is an issue in both urban force areas, such as the West Midlands, but also more mixed ones, such as Thames Valley. (It would be interesting to explore whether the phenomenon of ‘County Lines’ – describing gangs and violence seeping out of dense urban centres into their surroundings – may be a factor here.) Also of interest is that while it remains high in volume terms, Greater Manchester has bucked the national trend, with knife-related offences having undergone a significant reduction since 2016.

Secondly, while London represents the highest volume of knife-related offences in absolute terms, the volume of increases has actually been greater in the West Midlands and West Yorkshire, if we take the last five years as our unit of analysis.

In fact, over half of the forces in the country (23 out of 42) have seen knife crime increase by a rate of over 50 per cent between 2012/13 to 2016/17. Clearly some caution is required in interpreting these figures. Some of the forces with the fastest rises will be doing so from a low base. For example, Norfolk has gone from 77 knife crimes in 2012/13 to 318 in 2016/17. Nonetheless, it does appear that what we are witnessing is part of a national trend, rather than being unique to London.

Thirdly, while much of the politics around knife crime (and serious youth violence more widely) hangs on the question of police officer numbers, the evidence is complicated. There does not appear to be any significant correlation between the level of serious violence an area has experienced and uniformed officer numbers. Workforce data shows that the forces that have experienced the greatest losses in uniformed officers do not necessarily correspond to forces witnessing the greatest increases in violence.

The graph above shows that the number of police officers per 1,000 population is not the driving factor explaining victimisation rates in police forces across the country since the R-square value suggests that it only accounts for 7% of the causal relationship.

Of course, that is not to say that officer numbers have no impact on violence. Fewer officers is likely to have depressed the level of police enforcement (e.g. the rate at which offenders are charged, summoned, cautioned etc.), which may have encouraged prolific offenders, though evidence of this is limited. The leaked Home Office research probably summarises the situation best, concluding that cuts to officer numbers are “unlikely to be the factor that triggered the shift in serious violence, but may be an underlying factor that has allowed the rise to continue“.

In truth, there is not one single explanation for the rise we are witnessing in serious violence. The rising influence of crack cocaine markets, social media and the growth in vulnerable groups, such as homeless and excluded children, are all likely to have played a role, in addition to cuts to policing and other public services.

With council elections in London and other metropolitan areas a week away (we will be blogging in a few days about the role policing and criminal justice have played in campaigns), it’s not surprising some explanations for levels of violence are being pushed harder than others. Today’s figures suggest that the debate about knife crime – both its causes and how we respond – will increasingly shape politics right across the country.


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