Barking up the wrong tree
A new moral panic over violent crime in London has generated the usual batch of silly initiatives and pseudo-solutions, argues Eddie Ford
Following a series of killings last week in London, mainly by stabbing, there has been a moral panic about the supposed escalating levels of violence in the capital - if not the entire country. Though probably more a coincidence than a long-term trend, breathless headlines tell us that the Met “have lost control of the streets”1 as “knife and gun crime rockets across England and Wales”2 with “London deadlier than New York”.3 The largely media-driven outcry has predictably generated a bout of silly initiatives and pseudo-solutions from the government and mainstream politicians.
The first killing to make the news was of the 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne-Blake on April 2 after a drive-by shooting in Tottenham. Two days later the media made a big fuss over Israel Ogunsola, aged 18, stabbed to death in Hackney. But far less reported was the fatal police shooting on April 9 of a man in his 40s in Romford, taking the total number of killings so far this year in London to just over 50 - including a suspected burglar fatally stabbed to death by a 78-year-old man in Hither Green.4 This represents a figure up by a half on the same period last year, but hardly amounts to a national crisis.
In fact, since 1990 there has been an average of 171 murders committed each year across London. During this period the lowest annual figure was 89 in 2012 and the highest 204 in the financial year 2003-04. Between 2003-04 and 2008-09, the number of annual homicides decreased by 27% from 204 to 148. After further reductions, with a low of 83 in 2014, it seems the number of recorded homicides in the London region has risen - with 130 recorded in the year ending September 2017, although this will include the combined total of nine deaths in the London Bridge and Finsbury Park terror attacks. Once again, although each death represents a human tragedy, taken together they hardly indicate a terrifying spiral of violence.
As for the comparisons with New York, they are fairly daft. Last year 290 New Yorkers were murdered, more than double the number of Londoners. America’s ‘intentional killing rate’ is 4.8 per 100,000 inhabitants whilst Britain’s is 0.9.5 Within the EU, Britain is far better than the eastern European states, and also better than France, Sweden and even peaceable Denmark. Overall, the UK is marginally worse than Germany, Italy and Spain. As for London, as we have seen above, its murder rate on average has been steadily falling since the 1990s - it rose in the 2000s, actually dropped during the recession, and is still a quarter lower than it was just a decade ago.
But public-governmental policy on crime, alas, is notoriously immune to evidence-based research or logic. Appeasing the rightwing press is far more important. Consequently the demand that ‘something must be done’ has got increasingly louder, almost irrespective of efficacy or consequences. Any quick fix will do if it gets the right headline. Hence the calls to arrest more people, introduce yet tougher penalties and laws, return to a regime of aggressive stop and search, and so on.
Of course, this has led to the ritual row about police numbers based on a widespread mistaken belief - or delusion - that there is some sort of causal link between the number of cops and crime levels. Recent home office statistics reveal that since the Tories came to power in 2010 police budgets have been cut and officer numbers have fallen by more than 20,000. The figures, released in November, also showed a 20% annual rise in “reported incidents” of gun, knife and serious violent crime across England and Wales - albeit weighted towards London. According to the home office, “traditional crime” nationwide has dropped by almost 40% since 2010. Yet there is nothing more argued about than crime statistics.
Naturally, the Met’s commissioner, Cressida Dick - defending her patch - has issued regular dire warnings about how her force will struggle with the additional cuts it has to make as police numbers across the capital are predicted to fall to 28,000 if funding is further squeezed. In October she spoke of the need to find “hundreds of millions of pounds worth of savings” on top of the £600 million of cuts the Met had already made - saying that she finds it “incredible that anybody would think that over the next four or five years we should lose that much extra out of our budget”. Her predecessor, Sir Bernard (now Lord) Hogan-Howe, too talked about “warning lights flashing” during his last speech as incumbent in February 2017. Putting it even stronger in a Guardian interview last November, Neil Basu - the head of counter-terrorism at New Scotland Yard - argued that “national security” was being endangered by cuts to local policing, which amounts to a potential “disaster” in the fight to stop terrorism such as Islamist and neo-Nazi attacks.6
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, has dismissed claims that police cuts are to blame for last week’s spike in violent crime - saying “the evidence does not bear out claims that resources are to blame for rising violence”. She also said, stating what should be the obvious, that violent crime was a “complex” area: “you cannot arrest your way out of this” - though that seems to be exactly what she is planning. Rudd went on to tell the BBC that a reduction in some areas in the number of police community support officers (PCSOs) was down to local decisions - “It’s up to different police and crime commissioners to make their decisions about how the money is spent,” she remarked. “Some forces are increasing their numbers of PCSOs, some are cutting them in order to have more funds available for local policing of a different type”. Trying to capture the moral high ground, but not particularly successfully, Angela Rayner - the shadow education secretary - accused Rudd of being “very naïve” for thinking that losing nearly 21,000 police officers does not have an effect on crime levels, adding that cuts to youth services and education has had a knock-on effect as well: “It’s not just about police, of course it’s not, it’s about the wider public service and supporting families to make the right choices.”
At the beginning of the week, the home secretary launched an anti-violent crime strategy backed by £40 million of home office funding - something which government officials have apparently been working on for months. A taskforce will be set up bringing together ministers, councils, police commissioners, health and education experts, plus uncle Tom Cobley and all. This new strategy, if you can call it that, includes an offensive weapons bill with tougher powers to seize acid from people who cannot provide an acceptable reason for why they are carrying it and a crackdown on so-called ‘zombie knives’ that can be purchased online for as little as £10. Coming in bright colours, these knives often have serrated edges and are emblazoned with words like “zombie killer” or “slayer”, like something out of a jokey horror movie. There is also talk about putting more pressure on social media companies to take down content “glamorising” or “celebrating” violence or perpetuating gang feuds. Exactly what that means in practice remains a bit of a mystery - but it will almost certainly involve an irrational crackdown on freedom of speech (or ‘anti-extremism’). In typically grandiose but meaningless rhetoric, Amber Rudd declared that “the time for political quarrels is over” - now is “the time for action”.
Unfortunately for the home secretary, her ‘initiative’ was overshadowed by yet another rather synthetic row about police numbers - with the Guardian getting hold of documents which home office officials had prepared in February on the alleged factors behind the recent rise in violent crime. Marked as “official - sensitive”, a section on police resources says: “Since 2012-13, weighted crime demand on the police has risen, largely due to growth in recorded sex offences. At the same time officers’ numbers have fallen by 5% since 2014. So resources dedicated to serious violence have come under pressure and charge rates have dropped. This may have encouraged offenders. [It is] unlikely to be the factor that triggered the shift in serious violence but may be an underlying driver that has allowed the rise to continue” - with a highlighted box emphasising the point: “Not the main driver but has likely contributed.”
When Rudd admitted or claimed she had not read the documents, Angela Rayner huffed and puffed about how the home secretary is either “incompetent” or “chose to mislead” over the impact of police cuts on violent crime. And Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Commons home affairs committee, tweeted that this was a “shocking” revelation. However, the home office documents do argue that it was unlikely that “lack of deterrence” was the catalyst for the rise in serious violence as “forces with the biggest falls in police numbers are not seeing the biggest rises in serious violence” - pointing out that half the rise in robbery, knife and gun crime can be explained by improvements in police recording.
Significantly, the home secretary’s strategy focuses heavily on the links between illegal drug markets, particularly for crack cocaine, and violent crime - especially identifying rising crack cocaine use as a “key driver” behind rising violence, and also for fuelling urban crime gangs moving into rural areas to sell drugs (known as “country lines”). According to yet more home office figures, but treat with caution, between 2014-15 and 2016-17 killings where either the victim or the suspect were involved in using or dealing illegal drugs increased from 50% to 57%. In addition, there has been a 14% rise in the number of people seeking treatment for crack cocaine between 2015-16 and 2016-17.
But Amber Rudd and the government fail to draw the obvious conclusion from all this research, which is that drugs should be legalised precisely in order to break the link with crime - violent or otherwise. Nothing would do more to quickly reduce violent crime than drug decriminalisation. Instead, the home secretary recklessly wants to do the exact opposite, with more anti-drugs crackdowns and prohibitions. Perversely, she has highlighted the recent banning of legal highs as an example or model of the way forward - when it has been a totally predictable disaster driving users into the hands of more dubious criminal dealers who ultimately do not give a damn about quality control or safety, only increasing their profit margins.
Sounding like a mainstream politician himself, Jeremy Corbyn proffered the view that Amber Rudd has been “completely undermined” by the leaked home office documents - which “make a nonsense of the Tories’ repeated claims that their cuts to police numbers have had no effect”. He also demanded that the home secretary “explain herself” to parliament. In this spirit, Corbyn hosted a roundtable meeting on April 10 that included police officers, families who have lost children, and organisations working to end knife and gun crime. Labour sources, rather desperately, pointed to Sadiq Khan’s pledge of £45 million of “new money” over three years for disadvantaged young people in London and compared it with the government’s £40 million serious violence strategy for the UK as a whole, of which £11 million will be spent on youth services over two years.
In other words, if we are to believe Jeremy Corbyn, more police is the answer - plus a few more youth centres. No mention, of course, of changing Britain’s mad and irrational drugs laws - that would be to court controversy, something the Labour leader has no intention of doing. Play it safe, play it respectable.
Returning to the London/New York comparison, that city’s shift over the last two decades from being one of the most violent places in America to one of the safest has been endlessly cited as proof that ‘zero-tolerance’ policing works. As Simon Jenkins put it in The Guardian, this “period has been studied to destruction” (April 6). However, Jenkins refers to the work of Mary Tuck, the home office’s chief researcher in the 1990s. She regarded urban crime as reflecting demographics, age groups and the urban culture of cities like New York with high levels of poverty associated with illegal immigrants forced to live outside the law. She predicted that New York’s then appalling crime rate would fall when newcomers settled down and accepted domestic patterns of group behaviour - thus the decline of the mafia. They would move out of illegal employment, especially anything related to drugs. Tuck also thought the murder rate would improve if New York did something about its dire hospital trauma services. Essentially, all this came to pass - New York’s violent crime rate has halved since the 1990s.
Indeed, study after study has found no causal relationship between urban crime and incarceration, sentencing or police numbers. Nor is there, anti-gun liberals please take note, any relationship between gun crime and local gun controls. Trying to ban guns altogether, or obsessing about the undue political influence of the National Rifle Association, is completely barking up the wrong tree. After all, we need weapons to make revolution - we will not wake up one fine morning to find that we are magically living under socialism. But as communists have always argued, crime is not the product of aberrant individual psychology, or irredeemably ‘bad people’, but of social conditions. Any socialist who bangs on about the need for more ‘bobbies on the beat’ or getting tough on ‘law and order’ is not worthy of the name.