The "Glasgow model" has been widely praised as a way of tackling violent crime. Now, the same approach will be tried in London. But as knife crime continues to dominate the front pages, can it really make a difference?by Shanae Dennis / March 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
Police activity at the scene in Russell Square, central London, after a woman was killed. Photo: PA It is rare for a week to go by without news of bloodshed on London streets. 17 teenagers have already tragically lost their lives as a result of knife crime this year. With the number of knife crime offences in 2018 being the highest in almost a decade, what can we expect for 2019? On the 8th January, the city was shaken by the brutal murder of Jayden Moodie, aged only 14 when he was killed in an attack which police say lasted 30 seconds. Since then, further attacks have highlighted the urgent need for a solution. The solution being presented by the Government, and led by Mayor Sadiq Khan, is a public health approach, to be implemented by the new London Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) which having been awarded an initial £500,000 funding has now received further £6.8m investment. (A “public health approach” is evidence-based, focussing on causes and attitudes towards violence rather than enforcement techniques.) This will be modelled on the VRU which was established by Strathclyde Police in 2005 as a reaction to the extremely high levels of violent crime in Glasgow. The first major initiative of its kind in the UK to adopt a public health approach, the original VRU’s aims were to reduce violent crime and behaviour, achieving long-term societal and attitudinal change by working with agencies in fields such as health, education and social work. This programme has been widely praised and independently evaluated, making it a seemingly useful intervention to mirror. A preliminary evaluation found that the so-called “Glasgow model” was effective, with a 59 per cent reduction in knife possession—and an overall 85 per cent reduction in weapon possession—among those involved, contributing to 46 per cent fewer violent incidents. In 2004/05, there were 137 murders in Scotland. By 2016/17, this number had been reduced dramatically to 61. Sadiq Khan and his team have subsequently spent time in Glasgow investigating how a similar approach could be scaled up. A public health approach is apparently also favoured by central government, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid announcing late last year that he would be pushing for this approach to end “the source of violent crime.” A policeman holds up crime tape. Photo: PA The question this raises is whether this is an approach central and local government are willing to collaboratively support. The Metropolitan police have already reduced costs by nearly £600 million since 2012-2013; the government’s funding plan requires them to make a further £400 million in savings by 2020-2021. Philip Hammond has made it clear that police forces must use their existing budgets to tackle knife crime. Where would the funding come from for the extra police time needed to create the strong, trusting relationships within target communities that are at the core of the model? In Glasgow, the police worked closely with health and social care organisations to target at-risk individuals and enrolled them in diversionary activities, such as football clubs and dance classes. The police play a key role in this approach, but the reduction of funding from central government means the necessary resources may not be available. Speaking in an interview last year, ex-Met police Chief Lord Blair publicly voiced his concerns that the rise in violent crime comes alongside a dramatic reduction in police funding. Khan has already warned that the number of officers in the Met will fall to its lowest level since 2002 unless significant additional funding is found. The Met police need resource if they are to turn around the current situation on London’s streets. Flowers hang on a fence from a previous incident near to the Marcus Lipton youth centre in Brixton, south London, where a 23-year-old man was fatally stabbed. Photo: PA It’s not just cuts to police, either. The services provided by local councils are key. In Glasgow, social care services were instrumental in identifying at-risk individuals, as well as helping remove young men from the streets and into initiatives such as the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) employability programme, which helped prepare young people for job interviews and life in the workplace. The authorities were also able to relocate at-risk young men if there were strong enough evidence to suggest that their current location was increasing the likeliness of them being involved in gang activity. Yet Chair of London Councils, Peter John, recently warned: “In 2019-20 alone London boroughs will need to make savings of more than £500 million to balance their budgets.” After facing such a steep reduction in funding, it is uncertain whether London will have the necessary resources required to apply this same approach. Youth services were another integral part of Glasgow’s public health approach that it will be difficult to copy in London: from 2011/12 to 2017/18, at least £39 million has been cut from council youth service budgets. At a time when London youths are in desperate need of important outreach activities, such as mentoring, government funding is disappointingly unable to support the demand. Most notably, in Glasgow, it was clear that the intent to solve the problem was made a priority by the police, education, health, housing and other services. Which leads us onto London’s other major problem: who is knife crime a priority for? Police vans attend to a stabbing. Photo: PA Recently, Javid commented on new strategies that the Home Office will be implementing to tackle violent crime. Surprisingly, these do not align with the public health approach he previously stated he would be adopting. Instead, they include the introduction of a knife crime prevention order which could place anyone over 12 years old on curfews, and social media bans—failure to comply with which could result in two years in jail. An increase in enforcement tactics is not only not enough to tackle the problem; such measures could have a potentially negative effect. Even if the police had the necessary funds to implement a public health approach, is the force as it stands able to engage and create real change in the communities which are most affected? Act too hastily—in order to appear to be tackling the problem—and further harm could be done. Knife crime is strongly associated with deprivation, and fear is a common cause of knife carrying—a public health approach aims to tackle causes and intervene at an early stage with those who are most at risk. In Glasgow, the VRU used contracts which young men would sign. In these agreements, they would commit to staying away from gang activity and violent crimes. For this to work, however, there must be an element of trust between both parties. If not, the contracts will not work. In London, the relationship between the police and the residents of the most prevalent crime areas is either negative or non-existent. As early as 2010, then chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority Kit Malthouse warned that relations between the public and the police were “in danger of breaking down.” A key limitation to implementing the Glasgow model is the difference in demographics: in Glasgow, the problem largely affected young white males. In London, black males are disproportionately affected: in 2016-2017 black males aged between 15 -24 represented over half of all knife homicides. (Black people are more likely to be both victims and suspects of homicide, with various demographic factors, including deprivation, thought to be behind this disparity.) “Only 3 in 5 black people aged 16-24 had confidence in the police across the UK” Academic studies have suggested that the police will need to change approach if they wish to retain public trust, particularly amongst London’s black community, whose relations with police continue to suffer from “the legacy of discrimination and over-policing.” A racial disparity audit produced by the Cabinet Office reported that only 3 in 5 black people aged 16-24 had confidence in the police across the UK. If young men in London who are largely affected by knife crime do not trust the police, will they unable to cultivate similar relationships to those forged in Glasgow, or have confidence in the exit strategies being presented to them. This is another important key limitation for the implementation of the Glasgow model. The police officers in Glasgow had a good understanding of the communities they operated in and built relationships within local areas—not only were they from the same ethnic background, but many of the police officers had extensive experience of working in Glasgow. The Metropolitan police are different: only 14 per cent of officers are from BAME backgrounds, with black officers only making up 3.3 per cent of the task force. Moreover, Green Party leader Sian Berry released a report in June 2016 which showed that almost half of the officers who work for the Metropolitan police live outside of London. (Her report highlights that the Metropolitan Police agree this is something that needs to change, but on which have not made much progress.) London mayor Sadiq Khan speaks to the press as a knife search is conducted. Photo: PA London is a diverse city, with a unique demographic compared to the rest of the UK. If the police force is not representative of this, how effectively can they tackle a problem which disproportionally affects black men? Mayor Sadiq Khan’s manifesto states that he aimed to “promote a police force that looks like the communities it is charged with keeping safe, with the aim of having a Met that is as diverse as London’s population.” (The Mayor’s office did not reply to a request for comment by the time this article went to press.) Yet only this month, police commissioner Cressida Dick claimed that a key cause of knife crime was young black men growing up surrounded by criminals and former offenders—something for which there is little evidence, and which only furthers the gap between black communities and the police. Collaboration and relationship building are key. Non-profit organisations and local services will need to streamline effects aimed at tackling the problem—but more importantly, so will central and local government. If London is not equipped to deal with the current knife crime epidemic it is unclear how there can be real change. London is meant to be a city of opportunities, but it is currently failing many. Knife crime isn’t a problem for certain communities—it is a problem for all. Young Londoners should not be falling victim. We all deserve to feel safe. Update 11/03: a spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: “The Mayor is determined to have more women and more black, Asian and ethnic minority officers working for our police service, which the Met Police is working to achieve through innovative recruitment techniques. However, Sadiq is clear that there is not enough representation at senior officer level, which must change if we are to tackle the barriers and inequality still facing our great city. “Sadiq is leading a public health approach to tackling the complex causes of crime that are deep-seated and decades in the making, as well as taking criminals and dangerous weapons off our streets- right now- through the Met’s dedicated violent crime taskforce. We are learning the lessons from Glasgow, but there are significant differences between the two cities and London’s approach will involve working with councils to boost capacity so we can make successful interventions much earlier to divert a young person from a life of crime.” This article has been amended to reflect the fact the Mayor has pledged a furhter £6.8m of funding for the VRU.