The numbers behind the UK’s knife crime “national emergency”

Budget cuts are at the center of the debate over knife crimes in the UK.
Budget cuts are at the center of the debate over knife crimes in the UK.
Image: REUTERS/Darren Staples
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Jodie Chesney and Yousef Ghaleb didn’t know each other, but they had a lot of common. The 17-year-olds both attended high school in big cities—London and Manchester, respectively. Friends and teachers described them as hardworking and ambitious students. And they both died last week from violent stabbings in public places, 24 hours apart.

The two teenagers are just the latest faces of a rising epidemic of knife attacks in the UK that National Police Chiefs Council chairwoman Sara Thornton described this week as a “national emergency.” While such attacks have been on the rise in the UK since 2015, they recently reached unprecedented levels. Two hundred and eighty-five people died in knife- or sharp instrument-related homicides in the year ending in March 2018, the highest number since record-keeping began in 1946.

The attacks have been especially shocking for the age of many of the victims. Several of the 18 people recorded by the Metropolitan Police as having been stabbed to death in London so far this year were teenagers; the youngest victim was 14 years old. UK prime minister Theresa May said this week it was the responsibility of “the whole of government” to respond to the epidemic. But for many people, the blame begins, in part, with the government itself.

How bad is the UK’s knife crime “emergency”?

For David Wilson, a criminologist and professor at Birmingham City University, the rise in knife crimes in England and Wales is a “real issue … not a moral panic.” It’s also one “we can’t wish away,” he says. Between September 2017 and 2018, there were approximately 40,000 offenses involving a knife or sharp object in England and Wales, an 8% increase from the previous year, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). That number is likely underestimated, due to an error in data collection from one police force.

Hospital admissions for assault by a sharp object rose by 8% during the same period. Doctors speaking to the BBC said “the injuries they were treating were becoming more severe and the victims were getting younger, with increasing numbers of girls involved.”

It’s important to contextualize these numbers, Wilson says. While knife attacks, and homicides by knife, are on the rise, figures from ONS show that a large majority of violent incidents in England and Wales this past year didn’t involve any weapons, and that it’s rare for victims of knife attacks to need hospital treatment.

Why is there a knife crime “emergency” in the UK?

A major reason cited in the rise of knife crimes is budget cuts in policing and social services resulting from the Conservative government’s policy of austerity (paywall). As home secretary between 2010 and 2016, now-prime minister Theresa May oversaw large reductions in police budgets and workforce, with the number of police officers in England and Wales falling by 21,364 in that period (pdf).

May has insisted that there is “no direct correlation” between a reduction in the number of officers and the rise in knife crimes. Instead, she argues that the government and justice system “need to step in to tackle the underlying causes of the crisis. “What matters is how we ensure that police are responding to these criminal acts when they take place, that people are brought to justice,” she said this week. UK chancellor Philip Hammond added that the government would not give the police force more than the £1 billion it already pledged, and instead argued law enforcement should allocate its resources more effectively to fight knife violence.

More police officers doesn’t always mean less crime. But policing levels can contribute to communities’ security in other ways: “Having more ‘bobbies on the beat‘ provides other forms of reassurance to the community that there are agents of law and order that they can turn to,” says Wilson, “and provides a great deal of local intelligence.” That’s why, he says, “the idea that you can imagine the cuts in the numbers that we’ve been describing wouldn’t have some correlation in relation to what happens … in the streets seems to me to be burying your head in the sand.”

Wilson says that cuts in social services have also contributed to the impoverishment of local communities, making the situation worse. “We’re talking about schooling, we’re talking about training opportunities, we’re talking about mental health support, we’re talking about help for addictions, and we’re talking about giving young people a stake in their community that the cuts and austerity have gone some way to undermine.”

Together these cuts have fueled insecurity, diminishing the ability of police officers to create relationships communities they work in. “We just haven’t got the capacity; we haven’t got the numbers to do that in the way we’d like to,” Thornton says. The reduction in public funding for social services has also shifted the burden of these services onto the police, as the New York Times writes (paywall): “The police now spend hours answering calls involving mentally ill people and sitting with them in hospitals, work that had been done by agencies that have suffered their own funding cuts or been eliminated entirely.”

In a recent letter to the prime minister, seven police commissioners and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, wrote that cuts in school funding and youth programs meant at-risk kids were falling through the cracks. “It cannot be right,” they wrote, “that so many of those who have committed offenses have been excluded from school or were outside of mainstream education.”

Activists often point to the Scottish city of Glasgow as an example of what can be done when police forces invest in community-based violence prevention initiatives. Glasgow’s successful Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) encourages local firms to hire former convicts, offers mentorship services to those looking for jobs or struggling to keep their jobs, and works to reduce school exclusions. In 2005, the year the VRU launched, the World Health Organization named Glasgow the “murder capital” of Europe. Since then, the murder rate in Glasgow has dropped by 60%.

Wilson says the Glasgow model of policing shows us that “you can’t police a solution into existence.” Rather, law enforcement should be given the support and the means to help communities “in terms of education and training, housing, mental health support, health support, and so forth.” But first, he says, a change of mentality about the perpetrators of these crimes is needed. They “are not alien others,” Wilson argues. “They are our young people, and they are like you and me. We cannot simply stand by and watch this generation suffer.”

This article has been updated with an adjusted number of offenses involving a knife or sharp object between September 2017 and 2018, due to an error in crime data reporting for one police force.