Knife crime: folk devils and moral panics?

Dr Will Mason
Thursday, 7 February 2019

2018 saw a significant increase in attention to knife crime.

A review of the evidence published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Young people, guns and knives last year has documented increases in:

  1. Police recorded figures of offences using a knife or sharp instrument,
  2. Admissions to hospital for assault by a sharp instrument, and
  3. The possession of a knife or offensive weapon.

Excluding an earlier peak in recorded violence with injury in 1995, these figures suggest that compared with earlier years, people during the year 2017/2018 were increasingly carrying knives and using them .

Recorded increases in knife crime have prompted high levels of media alarm, much of which has positioned serious youth violence as a moral panic, focused around the racialised image of ‘black crime’. In an echo of themes raised by classic texts like Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics and Policing the Crisis by Stuart Hall and others, signifiers of race are evident across the media discourse, manifested in references to ‘postcode wars’, ‘drill music’ and ‘gangs’. Black men are positioned centrally within the social imaginary that knife crime evokes.

Yet, evidence about ethnicity as a predictor of victimisation or offending remains unclear. A recent study of weapon carrying, published in the British Journal of Criminology, found no statistically significant relationship between ethnicity and carrying a knife.

Statistics published by the Home Office show that the volume of recorded homicide suspects for the three years between 2013/2014 and 2015/2016 was far higher for White people than it was for Black people (954 and 232 respectively). Patterns are similar for the victims of homicide.

Conversely, the rates per million were far lower for White people than they were for Black people (7 and 41, respectively). This suggests that though more White people are the victims and suspects of homicides, compared with Black people, a higher proportion of Black people are likely to be both victims and suspects of homicide compared with White people. Various demographic factors are likely to influence this disparity.

Demography and deprivation

Recent evidence from a major trauma centre in London has shown that a significant majority (71%) of the patients under 25 were treated for stab injuries came from the most deprived 20% of London neighbourhoods . Only 1% came from the least deprived 20% of neighbourhoods. Earlier Scottish research has also evidenced a social gradient between occupation and rates of deaths from assault with a sharp weapon. Deprivation, it is widely agreed, is a major predictor of serious youth violence.

Compared with the White majority population, people from all ethnic minority groups in England are more likely to live in deprived neighbourhoods. Using census data, researchers studying child welfare inequalities have shown that around half of all Black children live in the most deprived 20% of neighbourhoods in England, compared to only one in five White British children . In more deprived areas, where the rates of knife crime are highest, Black children are over-represented.

Despite this, much of the current reporting on knife crime reflects an ambivalence about victims and perpetrators, without investigating the diversity of opinions and experiences of young people in multiply deprived areas.

In January 2019, for example, the family of Jaden Moodie, a 14-year-old who was tragically stabbed and killed in east London, publically criticised the press for continually referencing London gangs, to which he had no affiliation. The press have since raised issues about the reasons for his exclusion from school and his father’s criminal record. The Times article ‘Half of black children do not live with their father, and we wonder why they’re dying’ is one example .

Such reporting feeds the stigmatisation of already disadvantaged groups, whilst obscuring the structural conditions that foster serious youth violence in the first place. Knife crime is clearly associated with multiple factors, but poverty, with its intersecting harms, is perhaps the most convincing driver.

Emerging response: public health

Reference to poverty and the effects of spending cuts in Britain have not been entirely absent from the commentary on knife crime. Public health currently dominates the narrative about what is to be done. Youth violence is widely described as an ‘epidemic’ and a ‘public health issue’.

In September 2018, The Mayor of London launched a new Violence Reduction Unit to deliver a long-term public health approach to tackle the issue. This approach emphasises evidenced based partnership, working with the communities most affected alongside all public agencies (youth services, schools, criminal justice etc.) to prevent the spread of violence. However, as the Youth Violence Commission 2018 have cautioned:

There is an increasing risk that the term ‘public health model’ is being used without a proper understanding of what is actually required to affect lasting change.

For example, the new Knife Crime Strategy for South Yorkshire introduces serious youth violence as ‘a public health problem’, before recommending increased stop and search volumes in all districts. Evidence for the efficacy of stop and search is weak and the damaging effects of stop and search for police-community relations are widely recognised.

The introduction of new Knife Crime Prevention Orders by the Home Secretary has also received widespread criticism. These orders, which can be imposed on any person aged 12 or over, can enforce attendance at knife crime awareness courses, impose geographical restrictions and limit social media use. None of these actions will address the root causes; poverty or racial inequality.

As such, there is a real risk that in some instances the language of public health is being co-opted to justify more of the same punitive measures associated with racial profiling and control.

The fruits of proposed public health responses are yet to bear. However, critical attention to the emerging disjuncture between public health discourses and the actions proposed in Local Authorities will be necessary, if the mistakes of the past are to be avoided and the benefits of a public health model are to be achieved.

Dr Will Mason is a sociologist, a volunteer youth worker and lecturer in Applied Social Science at the University of Sheffield