Missing the point: how policy exchange misunderstands knife crime in the capital
A recent Policy Exchange report made waves in criminological circles, (mis)identifying drill music and ‘gangs’ as prime suspects in connection with knife crime, while also defending more stop and search – despite the report’s own criticisms of it. Unsurprisingly, this ill-thought, badly researched and politically dubious intervention inspired a fierce rebuttal from 49 experts in Criminology, youth justice and rap music. In support of the criticism that this report has already drawn, we write to further expose various factual errors and wild claims contained in it – out of concern for its potential to mislead the public and misrepresent the people and communities that are worse affected by such irresponsible punditry. This is important not just as an exercise of setting the record straight, but as an indication of the dangerous precedent that such inflammatory policy entrepreneurship sets for social justice. In the context of draconian new police powers that this report validates, we consider the threat that the criminalisation of public life poses on human rights, civil liberties and factual accuracy too. While we concentrate on the Police Exchange report itself to reveal only some of its many failures, we also illustrate what is at stake when evidence-less, ideologically-driven policy is written into law and what that means for democracies that behave in disturbingly authoritarian ways.
Among the many ironies of this report is the fact that the policing strategies the report advocates for tackling knife-enabled violence are precisely those which have spectacularly failed to address the problem effectively for some two decades (Williams & Squires, 2021). Furthermore, the report and its purported ‘solutions’ are endorsed by a senior MPS Commander who was himself responsible, in part, for those failed strategies. As Elaine Williams and Peter Squires have recently demonstrated in their newly published book, Rethinking Knife Crime, ‘knife crime’ is very much a construct of the police and media themselves. Not unlike the racialised problem of ‘mugging’ in the 1970s, reporting on knife crime is plagued by recycled images of confiscated knives and grieving victims that sensationalise the issue, instead of informing readers about the nature or the scale of the problem.
This is not to deny that unacceptable levels of knife enabled violence persist, especially in London. Rather, it is to note that existing, enforcement-led, policing strategies have arguably made the problem worse, reinforcing a predominantly racialised understanding of knife crime and its claimed association with ‘gang’ culture. After almost a decade of rising concern about knife violence, triggered by a series of brutal murders, the report of a Home Affairs Select Committee concluded in 2009 that ‘there is no Home Office definition of knife crime’ (HASC, 2009: 6). We are left with two words that are used arbitrarily and selectively to describe a variety of disparate offences in which the presence of a knife may have been recorded. As such, there is no ‘knife crime’ to refer to – other than as a vague and misleading shorthand. Credible, year on year comparable, data for knife crime trends do not become available until after 2011 – although four years later, the incorporation of ‘aggravated knife possession’ into this dataset imported a wholly new range of offences into the knife crime trend (Williams & Squires, 2021: 225).
Moreover, this is an offence trend almost entirely driven by stop and search. For the twenty years during which we have been so preoccupied by ‘knife crime’, therefore, we have lacked a stable definition and reliable data about it. Instead, concern has generally been orchestrated around other issues, generally ‘race’, class and ‘youth’. We have certainly been here before. In the 1950s, when parliament debated the rise in violent crime MPs were quick to blame ‘foreigners’ and their supposed penchant for flick knives (ibid., 28-37), for the problem in ways that bring to mind the myth of ‘black criminality'. This framing of urban violence has generally persisted even though roughly half of serious violence is domestic and intimate in nature and does not primarily involve young people (Cook & Walklate, 2020).
Twenty years of police-led discourse on knife crime have brought us to a situation whereby rates of recorded ‘knife crime’ (especially in London) are higher than ever and knife homicides, having peaked in 2018, are rising again. Our responses are increasingly punitive, with a higher proportion of knife offenders now receiving sentences of immediate prison custody. By contrast, police sanction/detection rates for knife offences are at an all-time low, having fallen by almost half, to 13%, over the past eight years (Williams & Squires, 2021: 198). Something in our responses to ‘knife crime’ is clearly not working. In such a situation, it seems quite bizarre, even somewhat blinkered and negligent, to recommend yet more of the failed police-led strategies, which have brought us to this desperate predicament in the first place. Policing the crisis is no more a solution in 2021 than it was in 1978.
The report relies on a number of assumptions about ‘gangs’ that have a thin evidence base and a number of troubling implications. There is no universal definition of a ‘gang’ and the various definitions used by criminal justice agencies are broad enough to be selectively applied to particular communities and groups of people. Under section 34(5) of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, something is ‘gang related’ for the purposes of granting an injunction ‘to prevent gang-related violence and drug-dealing activity’ if it relates to the activities of a group that: ‘(a) consists of at least three people; and (b) has one or more characteristics that enable its members to be identified by others as a group.’ Such definitions can include a range of friendship/peer groups, and tend to be deployed according to existing prejudices. This report, therefore, draws unsupportable conclusions about the reach and power of so-called ‘gangs’, attributing to them the power to significantly corrupt and corrode the social fabric. In truth, street crime and violence in the UK tend to be highly individualised. Knife crime is absolutely tragic, but it tends not to be the result of powerful street collectives. Instead the ‘gang’ label is a lazy shorthand to refer to street-crime involving young, marginalised people of colour.
Attributing so-called ‘gang’ membership and involvement in collective offending is one of the ways in which this group becomes disproportionately criminalised.
Politically, it can be convenient to blame gangs for street crime and violence. Yet, the drivers of such phenomena are more likely to be deep socio-economic factors that the report chooses to ignore – in direct contrast to the general consensus in criminology. If we are to successfully drive down rates of violence, which surely everyone is committed to, then it is essential to first properly understand what is happening and why; a goal which this report by Policy Exchange hinders rather than helps.
Stop and search
On stop and search, the report manages to be (partly) right but for the wrong reasons. It is right when it notes that police have ‘relied too heavily’ (p.9) on stop and search in their attempts to tackle knife crime, but wrong when it claims that stop and search ‘is a very effective tool that has undoubtedly saved many lives’ (p.10). The report misrepresents the effectiveness of stop and search and the work of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (SVRU) which is hailed as a success story. There is little if any measurable effect of stop and search on crime levels, including violent crime, and the evaluation of Blunt 2 (which is given as an example of previous ‘successful operations’ (p.10)) found that the increased use of section 60 searches had no measurable impact on knife crime or violent crime. As for the violence reduction strategy in Scotland, what the report fails to stress is that the emphasis of this initiative involved a conscious shift away from traditional police enforcement tactics, although it did indeed involve policing. Such a move towards a recognition that violence reduction involves non-policing solutions to ‘crime’, recognises what the report fails to properly stress – namely, that poverty and inequality are the key drivers of serious violence.
The denial of disproportionality is another well-established feature of the report’s misleading narrative. Such denialism enables the police to continue racist practices, undermining trust and confidence in impacted communities. While we might agree that: ‘“It’s time for a more constructive, innovative and collaborative approach to solving this all too real tragedy’” (p. 7), this is unlikely to happen while senior police leaders continue to deny the realities of racist policing and misrepresent the real causes of serious violence in impacted communities. Implying that disproportionality is no longer a problem denies the fact that some communities are subject to higher rates of stop and search than others. Worse still, it actually results in a commitment to continue disproportionate stop-searches of young Black men and attempts ‘to decriminalise the word disproportionate’.
The report acknowledges that drill music can provide a route out of poverty and that many drill rappers are story-tellers. Participation in rap culture can also be cathartic, helping young people develop linguistic and communication skills, and a sense of themselves and their place in society. The genre has become hugely popular and is enjoyed by young people of all backgrounds across the country. Yet, the report seeks to position drill as a cause of violence, warning that ‘it would be foolish and naïve to ignore the link this genre has with violent crime committed on the streets of London’ (p.11).
According to the report, ‘analysis by Policy Exchange found that of the 41 gang related homicides in 2018, at least one third were directly related to drill music … This figure was 23 per cent in 2019’ (p.11). Policy Exchange’s so-called ‘analysis’ is largely absent throughout the report, but this figure seems to have been achieved by noting the victim or perpetrator’s status as an aspiring drill rapper (despite there being no evidence of a comparative propensity for rappers to commit crime), and through the use of drill music videos as evidence in criminal trials. What the report neglects to consider or explain is that, where drill lyrics or videos are adduced as evidence in court, they often have no direct connection to the offence charged, making the report’s assertion that offending was directly related to drill questionable at best. Rather, prosecutors often seek to draw weak inferences of gang association, familiarity with weapons or propensity for violence from what are essentially generic or common-place lyrics about gangs, weapons and violence. We see this especially in joint enterprise cases, where rap can be used as a ‘racialised signifier’ to draw multiple young Black people into a murder charge, including those who were far removed from, or had no involvement in, the offending behaviour.
The report also neglects to mention the potential for drill videos to cause undue prejudice in the courtroom, as jurors may lack understanding of the artistic conventions in rap music, including the way in which (and why) criminal themes are normalised and expected within drill. Likewise, using rap as evidence has the potential to cause racial prejudice, as prosecutors are able to draw on stereotypical narratives of young Black men and boys as gangsters and violent rapping criminals, much as the report seems to do. Thankfully, there is mounting alarm about the use of rap in criminal proceedings. Academics, NGOs and lawyers have all spoken out about the flagrant racist bias in this practice.
Much more could be said about the report’s attempt to blame drill for violent crime. Not least that, while it is possible to find isolated instances of violence that are connected to things said or done in a drill video, there is nothing to substantiate claims that drill as a genre causes or influences crime. One particularly interesting suggestion is that we ‘view the impact of drill ... through the lens of hate crime’ (p.54). The report questions why ‘if a far-right activist was jailed for branding immigrants and refugees as rapists at a series of marches that were linked to an attack on two Asian men, drill rappers, whose lyrics are frequently linked to the hundreds of stabbings based on gang identity in London, do not receive similar scrutiny and treatment’ (p.54). This leaves one questioning whether Policy Exchange is suggesting that ‘gang identity’ should be recognised as a protected characteristic for the purposes of hate crime legislation.
As Policy Exchange insists on considering their ‘work on knife crime to be robust and an informative analysis of the available data’, writing this blog piece against such fallacious claims was inevitable. Despite its desperate attempt to pose as a research report, this Policy Exchange document is political, not scholarly. Claiming to be an ‘independent, non-partisan educational charity’ (p.1), Policy Exchange is anything but. Not only does it boast members like David Goodhart, Eric Kaufman and Trevor Phillips, who are well-known political partisans, it also features as one of the government’s ‘secretly funded lobby groups’. Such credentials would not pose any real danger – were it not for the fact that Policy Exchange has the ear of the government. Combining an obvious lack of rigour with misleading, inaccurate and baseless claims, this report shows scant regard for factual truth and ethical responsibility and ought to be exposed for what it really is. Having only scratched the surface of what is wrong with this dubious report, we are all too aware of the limits of our response. Yet, we hope it serves as a reminder to resist noisy headlines that promise ‘facts’ about ‘knife crime’, ‘gangs’, stop and search, drill music and social media that do more harm than good.
Blog post by Lambros Fatsis, Jonathan Ilan, Habib Kadiri, Abenaa Owusu-Bempah, Eithne Quinn, Michael Shiner, Peter Squires
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