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Cuts to police numbers are only one part of a complex picture
YOUSEF MAKKI and Jodie Chesney, two 17-year-olds, were stabbed to death within 24 hours of each other on March 1st and 2nd. Mr Makki was killed near Manchester and Ms Chesney in east London. The victims—one a successful pupil at a private school and the other an Explorer Scout—have received more coverage than most of this year’s other teenage casualties. But they reflect a broader trend: knife crime is on the rise.
In the year to March 2018, 285 people were stabbed to death in England and Wales, the highest number since records began in 1946. The number of people aged 18 and under being treated for stab wounds has risen by two-thirds in the past five years, bringing the total close to a peak reached about a decade ago.
What is behind the outbreak? Many police officers blame deep cuts to their funding made by the Conservative-led government from 2010. The number of officers has since fallen by 15%. Theresa May, who as home secretary in 2010-16 oversaw these cuts, insists that there is “no direct correlation between certain crimes and police numbers”.
This is not a popular view. Sajid Javid, the current home secretary, says that “we have to listen to [police] when they talk about resources”. Cressida Dick, the country’s top cop, argues that there “must be something” to the fact that violent crime has risen just as budgets for the police and other public services have shrunk. One of her predecessors, Lord Stevens, is blunter: “I don’t think [Mrs May] listens, quite frankly, to what she’s being told.”
The prime minister may have overstated the police’s invulnerability to cuts. But her opponents probably overstate the impact. There is so far no sign that those police forces suffering greater reductions in manpower have seen greater rises in knife crime (see chart). And although attention has focused on big urban areas, the country’s largest cities have in fact seen smaller rises in knife crime than most other places.
There is no simple explanation for why stabbings are rising at a time when overall crime is flat. Funding cuts—not just to the police but to the services that keep young people on the straight and narrow—probably have more to do with it than Mrs May admits. A steep drop in the number of stop-and-searches, another change which began during Mrs May’s time in the Home Office, may have made it easier to carry a knife. And changes in the drug market, in which big city gangs have branched out to challenge dealers in provincial towns, have sparked turf wars on previously quiet patches.
The overall homicide rate, at 1.24 per 100,000 people, remains well below its recent peak of more than 1.5 in the early 2000s, and is trifling by international standards. But the public are becoming worried. Mrs May should be, too.