New research from the Home Office on the murder rate was in the news last week. “Homicide rise linked to fall in police numbers,” said the BBC, and the report fuelled further exchanges in a London Mayor election campaign already focused on what Conservative activists are characterising as the capital’s “crime emergency”.
“The government has finally admitted that its huge cuts to the Met Police and youth services caused violent crime to rise in London and the UK,” said Sadiq Khan, while Tory contender Shaun Bailey reiterated his pledge to increase Met police numbers to a record 40,000.
Homicide rates in England and Wales, still relatively low by international comparison, increased by 39 per cent between 2014/15 and 2017/18 – the final year covered in the Home Office study – and London saw an increase from 94 killings in 2014 to 149 in 2019. So is reducing homicides in London purely a police numbers game?
The Home Office researchers’ conclusion, that “if all else is equal, more police officers means fewer homicides”, is tentative at best on this point. For a start, as they point out, “all else is never equal” and they also examine longer-term trends showing that “rising police numbers are no panacea”. Police head counts rose steadily from the 1960s, and the homicide rate, along with the overall crime rate, did the same. A drugs-fuelled murder peak in London in the early 2000s coincided with police numbers being higher than they’d ever been.
While US research did suggest more police could influence homicide rates, numbers were a “contributory” rather than a “driving” factor, and the impact was small, says the report. And a lack of research in England and Wales means that “no strong conclusions can be drawn about the extent to which changes in police numbers may have driven homicide trends here”.
So the question may be not so much how many police there are, but what they – and other agencies – do. And a big part of identifying what the best things to do are entails understanding more about homicide itself.
Homicides are described in the report as “varied and complex” but some trends are identified: a “long wave” upward from 1960 until the early 2000s, with more of a surge from the 1980s; an abrupt 40 per cent drop in homicides in England and Wales between 2002 and 2014; and then the sharp increase since 2014, with the London surge beginning in 2016.
Interestingly, this long-term trend of steady increase and then decline alongside more locally-specific and shorter-term increases, can be seen in many developed nations. And while the “long wave” remains hard to explain, drugs seem to be clearly at the root of the shorter-term surges.
Drug-related cases in England and Wales accounted for half the increase in killings from 2014/15 to 2017/18 – killings which are also increasingly male-on-male and with younger victims. “More cases have involved weapons”, the report says, and “more cases seem to have been embedded in an ‘economy of violence’ – the illicit drugs market.”
What actually causes these surges is less clear. Destabilisation of drugs markets seems to be one trigger, prompting disputes “that cannot be resolved legally, so individuals and groups resort to violence (and establish reputations of violence) to avoid being taken advantage of in the market.”
Supply activity in the 1980s became more linked to street gangs and organised crime – and more violent – while recent years have seen a glut in cocaine supply and use of crack cocaine and heroin declining in major cities but going up elsewhere, encouraging the “county lines” development of new markets, with accompanying increases in violence. And a war between groups may as easily be caused by “some casual insult” as by surges in demand or supply in the drugs market, the report suggests.
So what is the way forward? The most obvious policy direction, already widely accepted, the report concludes, is early intervention, focusing on “gradually reducing the numbers of individuals who suffer multiple risk factors at an early age”, and targeted on the “individuals who need it most”.
Tackling wider poverty in the most deprived areas could be significant, alongside treatment for drugs users and demand-reduction, plus offering employment, training and alternative leisure activities to those engaged in drug dealing, though evidence is less clear on how well those approaches work and whether they are reaching the right people.
There’s a need too for rapid response to tackle “short wave” flare-ups. “Hot-spot” policing and problem-solving approaches like “focused deterrence” and a “carrot and stick” strategy working with specific offenders or groups of offenders are seen as effective, though more research and better intelligence is also required – a “more systematic and data-driven understanding of the nexus of gangs, organised crime groups, drug markets, their enforcement and serious violence offences”.
Overall, there remains a lot we don’t know about homicide and how best to tackle it. “The data and evidence…do not suggest a simple explanation for trends or one that translates into a simple unarguable policy ‘to do’ list,” the report says. The various mayoral candidates’ prescriptions need to be judged against that caveat.
Meanwhile, on the ground, last month saw the lowest numbers for “knife crime with injury” in the capital since March 2014 on top of reductions of 10.5 per cent in 2017/18 and a further 9.3 per cent in 2018/19. These are “strong signs of a downward trend since summer 2017,” according to independent researcher Gavin Hales. While the politicians wrangle, could the latest violence surge already be beginning to wane?
Photograph by Omar Jan.
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