Tackling violent crime in London
We met with Detective Superintendent Sean Yates from the Metropolitan Police, head of the Violent Crime Task Force, charged with tackling violent crime across London. We discussed why violent crime is such a problem today, what’s in place to tackle it and looked to the future for solutions to this complex and serious problem, with its devastating impact on young people and families.
Prevalence of knife crime today
The increase and prevalence of knife crime has caused much heartbreak and desperation to the families affected and deep-felt concern to the public, government and police alike. There is no simple explanation for the current high level of violence, in particular, knife crime in our cities. However, there are some clear contributing factors. For many working in this area, one common thread is deprivation, compounded by the austerity measures of the last decade and their impact on policing and intervention services, like the work with troubled families, drug misuse services, and the closure of youth clubs.
Gangs, drugs and vulnerable young people: a toxic mix
In addition to deprivation, much of the current knife crime is linked to gangs and their involvement with the distribution of illegal drugs. It is a toxic mix. Sean explained, “A young person may be vulnerable due to issues at home, like domestic violence, alcohol or drug misuse, and this person is then exploited by predatory gangs.”
Sean went on to describe how young people are at risk of criminal exploitation. “If you are a local criminal network, you target the most vulnerable, whether that’s due to their young age, or those that don’t have support or a strong family network, or those who don’t have long-term goals but are looking at shorter-term gains, like expensive clothes and trainers. Basically, they are happy to exploit young people and the most vulnerable in order to make money or settle turf wars.”
Social media has its part to play
The altercations that were previously contained in the local school or streets are now instantaneously shared with thousands of people on social media. Disrespect of another person is a common theme and can quickly escalate into the physical world with dire consequences. The perceived pressure to retaliate and not to be seen as vulnerable or “weak” is a strong driver that is hard for young people to see past.
Carrying a knife normalised
It is hard for many of us, who cannot possibly understand what it is like to walk in their shoes, to understand why a young person would choose to carry a knife. In some ways it is becoming a vicious circle that is hard to break. Everyone, including young people, sees the news of almost weekly knife-related murders and it makes people feel unsafe. It can encourage some young people to carry a knife for their own self-protection. The perception is that everyone is carrying a knife, whereas in reality, 99% of young people in this country don’t carry a knife (Home Office statistics), and in fact, carrying a weapon makes them more at risk of knife crime.
Those young people that get involved with gangs may have to prove themselves by committing a crime at knifepoint. So, in this instance it’s not about protecting yourself, it’s about being part of the gang and forced into risky situations by people who are supposedly your friends.
So, what’s being done to tackle violent crime in London?
Violent Crime Task Force (VCTF)
Following a peak in violent crime, the Violent Crime Task Force was launched in April 2018 with £15 million of Mayoral funding and consists of a workforce of 300 police officers solely targeted at violent crime. The VCTF forms part of the wider MPS response to pan-London violence, focusing on violence across the metropolis.
“Our approach is organisation-wide, with officers from Local Neighbourhood Teams being supported by specialist units such as the Violent Crime Task Force working together not only to detect, but vitally prevent violent crime, and they are having an impact.”
In the VCTF there are about 200 plain-clothed proactive police officers joined daily by 90 officers from local boroughs. At their daily 10.30 a.m. tasking meeting they decide where to deploy, giving the team a surge capacity, deploying resources to where they are needed to both prevent and deal with violence.
Sean says, “We have agile operational responses that monitor and track violent crime so we can ensure that our resources are best placed to deal with issues. We are confident that violence isn’t merely being displaced to other areas due to police intervention, but is effectively disrupted through targeted and intelligence-led activity.
“The VCTF can bring a large number of police officers to areas that are at risk of violent crime and can reassure members of the community. Visible policing both deters a person from carrying knives as they may be searched, but it also brings an element of doubt to those considering carrying a weapon. For example, the presence of police may cause a suspect to conceal a knife and therefore not have ‘immediate’ access to it in any confrontational situation; this potentially gives time for the individual to think about the consequences of using the weapon and possibly defuse and minimise any ‘heat of the moment’ response.
“We have been using all the tactics and powers available to us, particularly within public spaces, both from a preventative and enforcement perspective, including the increased use of Stop and Search. This has led to thousands of weapons being removed from the capital’s streets. Every one of those weapons seized potentially means the prevention of a violent incident, injury or death. We are confident that this tactic is one of the most effective methods of bearing down on violence and the carrying of weapons in London.”
Section 60 Stop and Search trial
The use of Stop and Search is a key violence suppression and safeguarding tactic used by the VCTF. The Met, together with six other police forces, is currently trialling a modification to Section 60 Stop and Search. This section of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives police the right to search people in a defined area during a specific time period when they believe that serious violence will take place or has taken place, and that dangerous weapons are being carried and it is necessary to use this power to prevent such violence – for example, following a stabbing further retaliatory incidents are prevented, saving further violence.
A Section 60 is normally authorised by a very senior police officer, Commander and above. The trial for Section 60 is that a local Inspector can authorise a Section 60 where he or she believes serious violence is likely to occur.
Sean says,“This means a speedier process. I believe this is a really effective method in minimising violence, particularly retaliatory stabbings. An Inspector on the ground understands local intelligence and can respond accordingly. The pilot will be the subject of ongoing scrutiny at the most senior levels of the organisation and will involve our key community stakeholders.”
The community reaction is mixed. Certain parts of the community ask, ‘Why aren’t you doing more?” They know it suppresses violence, and that other long-term intervention is needed.
Sean says since the VCTF has been operating and the suppression tactics put in place, “We are seeing significant impact on street-based violence. The statistics for the rolling year show an almost 20% decrease in under-25 stabbings; this is about 400 fewer victims. We are holding the ground, now we need to move to early intervention that deals with the longer-term drivers and stops young people carrying weapons in the first place.”
Multi-agency working and Community Safety Partnerships
Early intervention is managed by Community Safety Partnerships, overseen at a senior level by borough commanders and local authority chief executives. They devise and implement locally coordinated violence plans for these multi-agency partnerships which include police, local authority, schools and businesses, working together to tackle crime. A top priority is violence.
In the past year, all community safety partnerships have reviewed and refreshed their approach and implemented a range of local initiatives to tackle violence.
Sean says, “One fantastic example is a football match (Kick-off at 3) involving police officers and local young people who are involved in street based violence or on the periphery of it.” Of course, these kinds of initiatives have been going on for years but had until recently decreased due to reductions in police numbers. “There is so much going on again, at a local level; there are people doing excellent work every day: reducing reoffending by working with young people in custody, early intervention, schools engagement, working with social services and both funded and non-funded services as an example.”
Sean is also positive about OFSTED becoming involved in measures taking place in schools, “We need to have serious conversations about violence and this can start at school.” This is particularly effective when delivered by teachers or others who are respected in the community. A teacher speaking to class appreciates the classroom dynamic more than any police officer could, so it is important that the anti-knife crime and anti-violence message comes from them.”
And when a young person is identified as at risk, there needs to be help to divert them from this path. “Everyone has a part to play. It’s about working with these young people from an early age.”
Increase in police officers
The aim of current recruitment of police officers to the Metropolitan Police is to reach 31,000 once more. This means it will have the capacity to continue with the high level of visible policing and suppression tactics for violent crime.
Continuing with and improving Stop and Search
The MPS has increased its use of this tactic, which has seen an increase over the last twelve months from an average of 10,000 stop and searches in London per month to 26,000 (August 2019) and this is set to continue. Sean is clear that a continued focus on training for stop and search is needed. “Talking to the public is a skill. A new officer may be a young person themselves, required to wear body-worn video, to talk through their reasonable grounds, perhaps with a violent gang member; this is quite a challenge and we need to make officers confident and to get it right. Stop and search should be done with humility and respect. This is the key message from our Commissioner all the way down to our staff who are using this tactic on a daily basis.”
County Lines and drug related violence
Serious violent crimes, such as homicides, are likely to be linked to gangs and drugs. “Whilst stop and search has increased, so have incidents of finding drugs: every time we find a knife, we find a significant quantity of drugs, so we know there is a link.” The MPS has launched its drug plan focusing on reducing demand, harm and supply.
County Lines is the term for drug gangs expanding their operations beyond their own area, often into neighbouring counties and beyond and often exploiting children to sell drugs. “The Met will continue work with surrounding forces around the exporting and importing of violent criminality. Our efforts will be focused on county lines activity and criminal and sexual exploitation of young people, linked to gangs.”
How Security Officers can help tackle violent crime in London
We discussed with Sean Yates how those working in security can help support efforts to tackle violent crime. As with other crime types, witnessing incidents and providing intelligence that could identify those involved is very useful. Sean understands that security staff may get frustrated with a slow response to non-urgent reports but asks for patience. “The key message is Call, Retain and Share. Officers will come; due to prioritising existing call demand, it might not always be an immediate response, but being able to view CCTV of a group of people responsible for a subsequent incident is very important.” He also explained that it is really helpful if you can isolate the time slot on the CCTV. “If you think you see something, isolate the time, so we can find it quickly on your system and review it.”
We went onto to discuss how security officers could support by sharing messages with young people. “Those working in security can potentially be more influential and have more respect from potential gang members and can have relevant conversations which are more likely to be received positively than if delivered by a police officer. If you are able to have a conversation with a young person then tell them where they can find help or support – organisations such as #KnifeFree or The Prince’s Trust. Encourage them to get involved in sport or music, talk to them about potential consequences and risks.
“This is an issue affecting thousands of these people across London, so if you feel that you could assist, that there is something relevant you can give, like speaking to young people in youth clubs, let’s have some ideas to move forward. We don’t have all the answers. It’s only by the police, our partners and the public working together that we will solve this issue.”
How retailers can help tackle violent crime in London
Another area of the community that can help are those retailers that sell knives. Sean’s request to them is that they make it more difficult for young people who in a flashpoint situation run into a shop and pick up a knife off a shelf. “We have seen a number of violent incidents in the last twelve months where we know they have run into a store in this way. Please join the Responsible Retailer’s Scheme. It helps with staff training and storage issues; let’s put the knives out of reach, either behind glass or locked away for example.”
Retailers are also asked to put in another tier of supervision or difficulty when a knife is sold, whether from a corner shop or a major outlet, in the same way there are policies around selling alcohol.
“You need to be checking people’s age and ID. Training, especially for younger staff, is needed to handle this potentially challenging conversation.
“The scheme lays out the law in regards the storage and retailing of knives and helps to provide training for staff to deal with tricky conversations, ID checks and other issues at point of sale. You can find details on the Trading Standards website.”
Retailers are really keen and very receptive to these ideas and about making staff safe. “But we only have a finite number of officers to go into this institutions and retail outlets. Perhaps the security sector can support the sharing of these messages?”
Business can help share the message
Businesses can help by providing practical advice for staff to share with the young people in their lives. “Have those conversations with your children, siblings and family friends to raise awareness. A young person, from any background, that feels threatened, may carry a knife. Any young person is capable of arming themselves. A knife that is there to chop onions could become a weapon for someone who feels at risk, who feels a need to arm themselves. But the sad fact is that arming yourself with a knife increases your risk of harm.”
Much is being done to solve this very difficult problem. It is going to take time and investment from government, police and other public organisations. The wider community and our young people play a key part in addressing and finally resolving this issue.
Editor, City Security magazine