Is knife crime a public health problem?
In April, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, likened the recent rise in knife crime in the UK, typically involving young men in gangs, to a ‘virulent disease’. Indeed, the number of fatal stabbings, 285 last year, is at its highest since records began. But the disease analogy is not just a way of highlighting the extent of the problem. Increasingly, experts and policymakers, from local-authority level to the World Health Organisation, believe a ‘public health’ approach could be part of the solution to knife crime, just as encouraging healthy lifestyles is seen as preferable to treating ill-health after the fact.
This approach has been pioneered in Scotland since 2005, when a Violence Reduction Unit was set up with the motto, ‘Violence is preventable, not inevitable’. The unit set about proactively talking to young people about the deadly consequences of knife violence and monitoring gang activity both in the streets and online. Subsequently, the number of homicides has more than halved. With the murder rate in London at its highest in a decade, the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has put the public-health approach at the heart of his Knife Crime Strategy. This has included placing youth workers in trauma units to ‘help steer young Londoners’ away from violent crime, as well as introducing metal detecting ‘knife wands’ into every school.
Earlier this year, the then prime minister, Theresa May, hosting a summit of experts on knife crime, said we ‘cannot simply arrest ourselves out of this problem’. But the notion that violent offences are best seen as a public-health issue is not uncontroversial. After all, unlike putting on weight, a stabbing is an act of deliberate malice. Moreover, the Scottish public-health approach involved extensive use of stop-and-search powers. In London, this is far more controversial because of accusations of police racism, and some fear ‘public health’ is a way of avoiding political difficulties by shifting responsibility on to other agencies.
At the same time, not all discussion of the ‘underlying causes’ of crime is equally welcome. When Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle blamed black absentee fathers following the murder of 14-year old Jaden Moodie, he was met with outrage, as was Sadiq Khan when he told parents, ‘it’s your job to stop them leaving the house with a knife’.
Is this public-health approach a welcome innovation to solve an intractable problem? Is it right to enlist teachers, medical staff and local-authority officers to report young people ‘at risk’ of committing knife crime? For all the talk of the public-health approach addressing ‘root causes’ and healing society’s wounds, are important debates about underlying social problems, related to culture and parenting, being shut down? Would a more traditional ‘law and order’ approach, with more arrests and exemplary sentences, be more effective?