Dave Hill: Let’s get the London ‘knife crime’ story straight

Dave Hill: Let’s get the London ‘knife crime’ story straight

What is “knife crime”? The question may seem daft, even flippant. But when media voices and politicians proclaim, often with political motives, that it is rising, soaring or even “spiralling out of control” it helps to know exactly what is being discussed and what is really happening.

The term “knife crime” brings chillingly to mind people being stabbed and injured, sometimes fatally. However, incidents categorised by the police as knife crime also include criminal acts in which no one is physically hurt.

They encompass a variety of offences covered by different laws. The Metropolitan Police crime data dashboard sets out a definition of knife crime which encompasses everything from murder to robbery to offenders intimating that they have a knife and their victims being “convinced weapon present” even if one isn’t seen or used against them.

The knife crime data subdivisions include a distinction between all offences recorded as knife crime and those that result in an injury to the victim.

In late March, in the context of claims about London knife crime being made during the mayoral election campaign, crime and policing researcher Gavin Hales published an instructive chart (below) mapping trends in total recorded knife crime and knife crime “with injury” in London going back to 2010.

He described the story since 2016, when Sadiq Khan was first elected Mayor of London, as “mixed” in the sense that the overall number of knife crime offences was higher, but the number “with injury” was lower. It was also lower than in the period leading up the pandemic – which saw drops in crime levels as a whole – as was the overall knife crime figure.


A further qualification of narratives portraying knife crime in London, including with injury, as rampant and all-pervading, is provided by maps on the Met’s knife crime dashboard. The one reproduced below shows how levels of knife crime per head of population vary across the 606 square miles of Greater London, broken down by borough.

Screenshot 2024 05 01 at 07.11.21

The two with the darkest colouring, Westminster and Croydon, are those with the highest rates of knife crime at present. In Croydon’s case it is 1.8 offences per 1,000 people living in the borough. In Westminster’s it is 2.6 per thousand. At the other end of scale, the rates in Bexley, Kingston and Richmond are 0.7, 0.5 and 0.4 respectively.

This gives an indiction that the knife crime problem tends to be greatest in specific parts of London and is relatively small in other parts. Furthermore, it is probably safe to say that the scale of offending also varies within boroughs where it is high (and also where it is low), affecting, for example, some parts of Croydon more than others. The most recent figures for the whole of Greater London show a rate of 1.3 per thousand Londoners.

The uneven distribution of knife crime rates across Greater London points to the issue at its worst being quite localised and concentrated in particular neighbourhoods.

The Met’s figures also show, unsurprisingly, that knife crime injury victims are disproportionately young men below the age of 25. This has long been the case. For example, Mayor Khan’s knife crime strategy, published in 2017, says Met data from that time showed that 75 per cent of all knife crime victims fitted that profile. Perpetrators too are highly likely to be young males. And the strategy added: “It is also recognised that there is a huge overlap between victims and offenders”.

All of this indicates that polemical descriptions of London as a whole as, to pick a particularly crude example, “stab city” are at best glib and irresponsible and at worst exploit both victims and anxiety about victimhood.

There are, thankfully, more insightful and therefore more useful characterisations of the knife crime problem which in no way minimise its seriousness for those most affected by it. Here’s an example written in 2021:

“Fatal stabbings are merely the tip of the iceberg in the knife crime data. Below the surface [in the capital] hundreds of injuries are inflicted on young people by knives every year. It is only improvements in NHS trauma care that have prevented the numbers of those killed in stabbings skyrocketing over the past decades…

The real injustice is that crime lands very unevenly across communities and consequently policing is bound to follow…We need debate that recognises the true injustices these communities face and bring them and the police together to find the best mix of tactics to solve this wicked problem.”

The author also wrote about knife crime victims and perpetrators alike not only being very likely to be young and male but also from a particular ethnic group:

“A young black man growing up in London is nine times more likely to be murdered than his white peers,” he stressed. He added, bemoaning what he saw as undue concentration by critics on which groups of people were most often selected for stop-and-search:

“Policing is a tough profession and inevitably contentious, operating as it does at the fractures in communities where the dangerous and the vulnerable collide. The real injustice is the disproportionate way young black men are victims of crime, not policing tactics. It’s time for a more constructive, innovative and collaborative approach to solving this all too real tragedy.”

The author was Sir Mark Rowley, who has since become Commissioner of the Met. Debate about the right mix of tactics and its implementation continues. But it is surely the right debate to have.

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Categories: Analysis

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