How Worried Do We Really Need to Be About Violent Crime?

There’s a lot of focus on the recent spate of violent crime in certain cities, especially London, but how worried should we really be?

The UK only seems to get attention for bad news these days, and that’s as true about domestic policy as it is about our actions with foreign policy. The outcry over violent crime has been such that you’d be mistaken for thinking that it was us and not the US who was having a mass shooting every week. That’s not to make light of the rise of violent crime, given that (far right) commentators have been quick to point out that London has beaten New York (another city with high immigration which the far right loves to point out) when it comes to violent crime. So is our nation in crisis? No, but a lot of people want us to think that we are.

The recent spate of violent crime in London, and across other cities, has gained huge attention in the media. However, a lot of this has been driven by political point-scoring on both sides, rather than looking at what is actually going on.

When politicians start talking about crime, marginalised communities – particularly queer, disabled and communities of colour – start to get nervous, and for good reason. History has shown that politicians often can’t be trusted at all to look after the public or keep their policies driven by evidence rather than scare-mongering. So we get dog-whistle attacks. Social media is to blame, hip-hop, gangs and police cuts. All of which are firmly putting the blame on young people – especially young black people – and pushing for police control against this group rather than tackling social injustice and inequality.

The truth, which many conservatives, liberals and even some on the left hate to admit, is that there is no categorical research that says cutting police numbers has an impact on crime nor that more ‘bobbies on the beat’ reduces crimes. The BBC even states that there “has been no comprehensive” research into this. The little bits of research that do exist present a much more complicated picture than needing more police.

Young people have been let down by cuts to youth services, social security and have lived a fair chunk of their lives under austerity. Young people have few places to turn and little hope. This is a dangerous cocktail which has been shown to have an impact on crime, but we don’t talk about what humans need to thrive, we instantly turn to talking about developing our police force so that we can throw more young people in prison to waste away.

Yet, why are young people getting such negative media attention? There are without doubt plays on the fears around people of colour. Katie Hopkins was typically vile about violent incidents in the UK and Europe recently, tweeting “Explosion in France, shooting at a German hospital, knife attack in London. And Ramadan has not yet begun. Without food these sods get nasty.” There’s been an emphasis on gangs which is often racially coded too. However, why do these criminal incidents get so much attention?

The police are made out to be our protectors which is why so many want an increase in numbers, but for some communities this is a horrifying thought. Where has the outrage been about the hate crime rise since the Brexit referendum? Muslims, people of colour, migrants and queer communities have been under constant assault. Since the referendum, there was the highest rise of hate crimes on racial and religious grounds ever in the UK. Queerphobic attacks rose by a staggering 147% in the three months following the vote. In 2016/17 hate crimes against disabled people rose by over 50% and this was blamed on the media rhetoric around benefits ‘scroungers’.

Yet, despite these astonishing rises in crimes, despite the fact that clearly there are communities living under daily terror, this was never enough for the media, public nor politicians to call for a rise in police numbers. This never elicited the same outrage – if any. And why? Because instead the victims were marginalised people?

Then we have to look at the police themselves and whether they can correctly protect different communities. In 2017, an Independent Police Complaints Commission (now the Independent Office for Police Conduct) report revealed that in England and Wales fatal police shootings had risen to a twelve-year high. The death of a young black man, Rashan Charles, by police in July last year caused outrage, particularly after the decision not to prosecute the officer. Charles was just twenty years old.

“We have to look at the police themselves and whether they can correctly protect different communities”

In 2017, a report commissioned by Theresa May (when she was Home Secretary) revealed that between 1990 and 2016, Inquest had recorded more than 5,600 deaths in prison and police custody in England and Wales. At least eight deaths had involved the use of a taser or another use of force. The report reignited fears that the police simply aren’t able to police themselves.

Additionally, recent years have seen increased scrutiny around how the police treat people with mental health conditions. At an internal hearing, police were cleared over allegations of ‘excessive force’ when they restrained a mentally unwell black man for thirty minutes with handcuffs.  In 2015, it was found that five years earlier, police had ‘failed to comply with their duty of care’ when a different man experiencing mental health problems died after being restrained by handcuffs. Both cases raised serious questions about how people with mental health conditions are treated in custody, and whether vulnerable people are indeed safe in such environments, particularly when the NHS is struggling to find appropriate care and shelter for them.

While concerns have been raised over police violence, there are also huge fears around the application of the law. The London riots in 2011 were used as a pretext for absolutely draconian actions by the courts of law. One person was sentenced to prison for six months for stealing a bottle of water. The riots themselves were started after Mark Duggan, a young man of colour, was shot dead by police. There is systematic injustice at the heart of our institutions which are supposed to apply the law fairly. Young black people are also nine times more likely to be jailed than young white people, the Ministry of Justice has revealed.

This is a situation arguably made worse by the introduction of private prisons into British society. We now have fourteen private prisons in the UK. Private prisons depend on inmates so that they can thrive but businesses should not be in a position to profit from the incarceration of people. It is a complete conflict of interest to justice. Private prisons have also faced criticism for the amount of violence and staff shortages in their facilities.

The solution, then, is not just to demand more police. The consequences of that are often significant for marginalised communities, and especially communities of colour. There are a lot of dog-whistle tactics being demonstrated as it is. It is why people are blowing up these crimes and not others. Why certain abuse is ignored. It is a choice what to care for and whether to care more when there are situations where young people of colour may be committing crimes rather than the victims of crime. It is a political choice whether to demand more police, and therefore greater numbers of people punished, or whether to demand more support for young people and more services which will help them. It is a political choice to link the rates of crime to Sadiq Khan’s time as mayor but then give Boris a clean sheet of history.

Politicians should listen to marginalised communities first, think next and speak only after people of colour, migrants, queer people and disabled people have. This includes those on the left who want to use this to slam the Tories for their cuts to police numbers. We’re not facing murder on our streets every day. We’re not facing waves of terror. There has been a number of violent criminal incidents which has garnered attention so far this year, but this may fall. If we want to stop it though, we need solutions that truly tackle the causes of crime, not actions that simply lead to young people being targeted under an oppressive ‘justice’ system. That is how we truly protect all members of the public.

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