At a recent anti-knife crime summit in Southwark, youth workers, heath professionals and police concluded that violent crime should be treated as a health issue, not just an enforcement one.
One youth worker told the conference: “There are three things you can do to a disease. Quarantine it, treat it, or leave it to fester. These kids have been left to fester.”
This new approach has proven to be successful in Scotland, where last year it is believed there was no fatal knife crime amongst youths.
Elena Noel, co-chair of Southwark’s Anti Knife Crime Forum (pictured in green scarf), first came to the borough twenty years ago as part of a home office pilot scheme, when knife and gun crime had escalated.
“I have been working with serious violence for about 20 years in different ways,” she told the News, before the Knife Crime Summit, held at Bells Gardens Community Centre in Peckham on Wednesday, June 20.
“I am ex co-chair of Southwark safer neighbourhood board and I have helped nineteen projects in Southwark get funding from the Mayor, and created many young leaders.
“Really there is a lot agreement to understand the problem of knife crime and why it is happening – but this event is about finding solutions.”
Speakers at the summit included youth workers, Southwark police, ex-cops who volunteer in the community and specialists from King’s College Hospital including Redthread, a charity helping victims of violence turn away from violent crime.
A key theme was how Southwark could replicate Scotland’s success – last year, speakers at the summit claimed that there was no fatal youth knife crime, widely credited to a 20-year strategy which treated violent crime as a health issue, not just an enforcement one.
And Ms Noel is in no doubt that Southwark’s problem has escalated, saying the forum started planning the event in late March, as the latest upsurge began to hit headlines.
“Communities across London are saying there is too much discussion and not enough problem solving.
“Many mothers are saying ‘we are terrified for our children’s lives’.
“Youths are angry. They are not seeing changes– and they are not seeing too many people who make those changes coming to their estates.
“They want routes out of crime, they want employment and training, but do not have the bonds and the structure in their lives they need.
“A lot of young people on the street have also lost friends. They are victims as well as perpetrators – putting up a bravado.”
She says systemic deprivation, illiteracy, and high exclusion rates in the borough have all played a role in serious youth violence – but that there is also a ‘culture of dependency’, where not enough young people are trained up properly to navigate a world of applications, budgets and form-filling for receiving funding.
“What young people want are quality opportunities,” she argues, admitting apprenticeships and other training schemes struggle to compete with the cash a drug dealer can pocket.
Twenty years ago Peckham, and Southwark, was a very different place. Is the situation now as bad as it was back then?
“I am concerned about the numbers going up, we have an epidemic of knife crime we have to look at how we are going to reduce that.
“Too many people are losing their lives on the street – it has never been this high.”
‘Sentimental things aren’t helping’
Youth worker Alika (pictured above second left) grew up on the Walworth Road after moving to the UK from Lagos, in Nigeria, aged eleven.
He described finding out his friend had been stabbed to death, and the moment a youth worker told him: “Get used to it”.
“How is it that this place is so much richer than Nigeria, but you are telling me to get used to it?” he pondered, baffled.
He believes there can be ‘too much intellectualisation’ and not enough basic intervention from people living near troubled young people – many of whom are battling mental health problems and what is known as ‘adverse experiences’ in childhood.
Alika told the audience about his own struggles with mental health, and the times he was hell-bent on retaliation – but found his way back.
Today he is one of many people backing a ‘public health’ based approach to tackling violent crime.
Rather than believing law enforcement can fix the problem of knife and gun crime in the capital, advocates for the public health approach see violence as like a contagious disease, which spreads as it comes into contact with people.
He said he was stunned to hear that Scotland had achieved such success – but their approach made sense.
“There are three things you can do to a disease,” he said. “Quarantine it, treat it, or leave it to fester.
“These kids have been left to fester.
“We have done enough of marching, lighting candles and making statements – sentimental things aren’t helping.”
Dad who lost his son says lack of funding is taking lives
Paul Barnes’ son Quamari died last year when he was stabbed three times at 3.24pm, on January 23.
Both his son and his killer were just fifteen. His attacker received a fourteen year sentence. Paul believes if more support had been given to his son’s killer, Quamari could still be alive.
“His mother had reached out to the authorities for help as she saw that there were problems – but the money was not there.
“Funding is a big part of why some of these youths are doing this.
“They become latchkey kids – hanging about on estates.”
Hospital says one third of injuries are from knives
According to Dr Duncan Bew, consultant and surgeon head of trauma at King’s College Hospital (pictured above far left) on Denmark Hill, around 30-40% of trauma injuries they see are caused by knives.
The total number of knife injuries has increased by a third in just a year – and gunshot injuries are up by a staggering 75%.
But Dr Bew believes the way we talk about violent crime as ‘gun crime’ and ‘knife crime’, masks a more complex picture where everyday objects like hammers and screwdrivers are weaponised, and many injuries are inflicted due to mental health problems.
His colleagues George Parnavelas and Rivka Benjamin (pictured above centre) spoke about their work at the charity Redthread, which began life at King’s to help young people aged eleven to 23 receiving treatment for injuries as a result of serious violence.
George explained: “We simply ask the question: ‘what can we do to help you right now?’”
He described the moment they are still hospitalised as a ‘moment of vulnerability’, and ‘their lowest ebb’, when they are most likely to be responsive to intervention.
Their help could be just making a phone call, or helping with paperwork, but it could also start them on a journey away from gang culture.
A key challenge, they said, is to stop professionals ‘victim blaming’, and challenge the assumption that people who commit violent crime aren’t also victims.
According to the charity, two thirds of gang members have been a victim of crime themselves, with one in three suffering a violent crime, and 15 per cent have been shot or stabbed.
New law will ban zombie knives, knuckle dusters and death stars
The forum coincided with home secretary Savid Javid announcing a new offensive weapons bill.
The legislation will make it more difficult for young people to buy knives and acid online as sellers will be made to use rigorous age identification – or face prosecution.
And a raft of weapons will also be completely banned – including zombie knives (blades up to two feet long, often with serrated edges), knuckle dusters, and death stars (circular bladed weapons).