David Davis MP writes in The Telegraph on how we must be smart, as well as tough, to tackle knife crime


As published in The Telegraph:

Few things are more horrifying to the public than stories of people being knifed to death. Last year witnessed the highest level of knife crime since records began, and 2019 will be worse. This has triggered a fierce argument as to how to stop this.

Inevitably there has been a competition as to who can sound the toughest, but this is a time when a thoughtful response will deliver bigger dividends than simple political machismo. There are good arguments for more police on the streets – there always are – although it is doubtful that the numbers required to check the growth in violent crime on their own are plausibly available. And there are strong arguments that extra resources could be better employed in other ways than extra cops.

There are calls for more stop and search powers. When she was home secretary the Prime Minister restricted the use of stop and search, because there were concerns that it was aggravating racial tensions. As a result there has been a dramatic fall-off in its use in London, from nearly 600,000 stops in 2010/11, down to 135,000 last year.

The truth is that the actions taken by Theresa May were sensible. Nevertheless, she was careful to leave in place the so-called section 60 powers which allow a senior police officer to authorise general stop and search when they believe that “serious violence will take place and it is necessary to use this power to prevent such violence; or that a person is carrying a dangerous object or offensive weapon”. These are precisely the targeted powers necessary to cope with an epidemic of knife violence.

But they are just one half of the toolkit. Around the world there have been a large number of experimental approaches to cutting crime in general, and violent crime in particular. They go under a plethora of names – “broken windows” policing, “zero tolerance”, “public health models of crime”. Many have been effective.

Inevitably the underlying causes are hard to pin down. They range from drink, drugs, and deprivation through to toxic models of masculinity.

Most effective was the so-called contagion model of violent crime. Violent crime tends to be found in clusters. Violence generates more violence. Fear makes people carry knives for self-defence, which makes confrontation spiral out of control. Victims become perpetrators, out of fear or revenge. Violent gang leaders become models for the younger members of the gang to emulate.

The most effective interventions are designed to break the cycles of crime. Education has proved effective, pointing out the terrible consequences of violence and how to escape them. Dramatic reductions in school exclusions have helped. But most dramatic has been action by people explicitly tasked with intervening and steering back into normality youngsters identified as at risk.

These sorts of measures have to be coordinated with tougher, more active, and more visible policing. But the lesson is clear. The “get tough” message of the Home Secretary has to be matched by the “act smart” policies that we can learn from countless successful experiments everywhere from Chicago to Glasgow.