Serious violence and knife crime: Law enforcement and early intervention

Recorded offences involving a knife or sharp instrument have been rising steeply since 2014/15.

Knife crime has been on the rise in England and Wales over the past few years. Although some of the reported increase is due to improvements in police recording practices, there have been some real rises.

Between April 2018 and March 2019 around 47,500 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument were recorded in England and Wales. This is 82% higher than in 2013/14 according to Office for National Statistics data, which excludes data collected by Greater Manchester Police, due to the force undercounting knife crime.

Since the publication of their Serious Violence Strategy in April 2018, Conservative Governments have been trying to tackle knife crime by investing in law enforcement and ‘evidence-based early interventions.’

An increase in use of stop and search powers

Hospital admissions for assault with a sharp instrument have also risen since 2014/15 but less steeply than recorded crime.

Since July 2017, the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs Council have been running ‘weeks of action’ to prevent knife crime, called Operation Sceptre. Although Operation Sceptre has not been entirely about stop and search, it has been a key component. For example, a March 2019 operation saw officers conduct around 1,900 searches.

The Home Office has also been encouraging forces to use stop and search powers more frequently in their day-to-day operations. Between March and July 2019, it slowly repealed strict guidance restricting ‘no suspicion’ stop and search powers introduced when Theresa May was Home Secretary in 2014. These powers allow officers to stop and search anyone in a specific area affected by serious violence, for a time-limited period, without a reasonable suspicion that they may have a weapon.

With more freedom and encouragement to use stop and search powers, the number of searchers increased for the first time since 2009/10 in 2018/19, though it is still much lower than at the beginning of the decade.  

Source: Home Office, Stop and search collection, SS.01

Does stop and search lead to a reduction in knife crime?

Senior police officers have linked stop and search to recent reductions in knife crime. However, the effectiveness of the power is not clear. Home Office statistics show that most searches (around 60% in 2018/19) were conducted to find drugs rather than offensive weapons like knives. When officers did search for offensive weapons, they didn’t always find what they were looking for. Only around one in 10 of these searches resulted in an outcome linked to the reason for the search. Long-term studies, including one of Metropolitan Police data, show that stop and search has only a marginal impact on crime reduction.

Who is more likely to be stopped and searched?

Black people were 10 times more likely than white people to be searched in 2018/19.

In August 2019, the Johnson Government released an Equality Impact Assessment of the recent changes to guidance on ‘no suspicion’ searches. It concluded that it is “possible that this disparity is at least in part a result of discrimination/stereotyping on the part of officers and forces carrying out searches.” The assessment acknowledged that this could negatively impact the relationship between black people and the police. The Government expects senior police officers to pay “continued attention to the issue of community relations, public trust and racial disparities” to mitigate this potential impact.

The Government has prioritised early intervention to prevent crime

Alongside increased law enforcement, the Conservative Governments (from April 2018 onwards) have been increasing funding for projects that aim to divert young people away from crime. Inspiration has been taken from Scotland, which established a public health approach to violent crime in the mid-2000s. This approach has seen the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) try to tackle the root causes of violence through co-ordinated multi-agency projects. In May 2019, the May Government set aside £35 million to fund 18 VRUs in English and Welsh police forces.

In October 2018 the May Government announced it was investing £200 million over ten-years to the Youth Endowment Fund. The Fund provides direct funding to individual early-intervention projects across England and Wales and evaluates these projects to inform future policy making.

There has been growing cross-party consensus supporting early intervention projects and treating knife crime as a public health problem. In July 2018, the Youth Violence Commission, a cross-party group of MPs, published its interim report advocating the approach. In July 2019, the Home Affairs Select Committee praised the Government for taking a public health approach.

However, there has been some scepticism of how the Government has been implementing this approach. The Home Affairs Select Committee argued in July 2019 that the Government needs to give more thought to “what sustained and coherent preventative measures should look like, and how to ensure that public funding is diverted towards the most effective approaches.”

What might the new Parliament do?

The new Parliament will likely be looking at how the police can effectively prevent knife crime and how the public and third sectors can work together to address its root causes. It looks set to scrutinise the use of stop and search powers. The Labour Party manifesto pledged to “eliminate institutional biases against BAME communities.” The Labour Party has said that a disproportionate use of stop and search against black and Asian men is “poisoning relations between the police and the local communities they serve.” The Conservatives have pledged to back the “increased use of stop and search as long as it is fair and proportionate.”

Both major parties have been supportive of multi-agency early intervention polices. The Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto stated that “effective policing” requires forces to work “collaboratively with youth workers, mental health services, schools, drug rehabilitation programmes and other public agencies.” The May Government published legislative proposals to create a legal duty on local services to implement a public health approach in July 2019. The Conservative Party manifesto committed to introducing this legalisation if re-elected.

Further reading

Insights for the new Parliament

This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.