Within the first few hours of 2019, two people in London had been stabbed to death. This came just after the Metropolitan Police revealed 134 people had been killed in the capital in 2018, with just over half the victims of knife crime.
The spate of knife crimes in London has whipped the media and politicians into a frenzy. Knife crime is now described as an “epidemic” that’s spiralling out of control. Its impact on victims and communities is horrifying and the police and courts are seemingly powerless to address it.
The typical perpetrator, allegedly, is young and working class, part dangerous, part feckless. This new breed of violent child offender seemingly cannot control themselves, and can barely be controlled by others. The result is a society that feels impotent and is growing fearful of its children.
But in reality, the UK is witnessing the construction of a moral panic about knife crime: the problem is politically constructed, its causes falsely identified, and the “solution” ineffectively articulated.
Research into knife crime, and government strategies aimed at tackling it typically adopt an “epidemiological” approach that treats knife crime as an individual pathology or disease which requires medical treatment. Alternative approaches focused on public health centre on the causes of knife crime – such as exposure to psychological and social risk factors from family, peers, or at school.
Either way, knife crime is committed by a broken child in need of fixing. But both these approaches are counter-productive and harmful.
To counteract the moral panic and identify appropriate solutions to children carrying and using knives, society urgently needs to bring the issue into its proper perspective. Knife crime is a complex social problem. It is a symptom of the toxic environments that adults create around children, who then become both perpetrators and victims. These toxic environments can leave children disaffected, fearful and vengeful. They are scared and provoked into carrying knives, joining gangs and committing violent acts.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the vast majority of knife crime takes place in neighbourhoods suffering from huge social disadvantage and disinvestment.
Children pass through many different environments in their daily lives relating to their families, education, neighbourhood, employment and recreation. Environments become toxic, harmful and can cause crime when children’s relationships and experiences fail to meet their basic needs, in particular, their right to be protected, nurtured and enabled to achieve positive outcomes.