Knife crime and the myth of the friendly copper

Mitch Mitchell argues that putting more police on the streets will not solve the problem of knife crime and will lead to more targeting of BAME youth.

Nostalgic images of coppers such as the fictional Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76) bear little relation to reality then or now.

Britain, in common with most Western societies, has always had a problem with some kind of violence. This has been especially so in London, but also Liverpool, Birmingham and other big cities and conurbations.

Sometimes, that violence has been aimed at specific groups, such as in the late 18th century, when Catholics were attacked by apprentice boys in London in what became known as the Gordon Riots.

In the 19th century, gangs known as ‘footpads’ roamed parts of London to carry out what today would be called muggings, although that term hadn’t been coined then. The footpads’ favourite haunt was near the Houses of Parliament and MPs were frequently accosted on their way in or out of the buildings.

Parts of London, mainly the East End, were considered ‘no-go’ areas by the rich or the ‘genteel’. Take Limehouse, which had a large Chinese community. So much so that for years, the area became known as Chinatown. While the great majority of these people were totally law-abiding, there were gangs, known as ‘Tongs’ who fought with each other over control of businesses, generally laundries, and could be very violent.

In the 1920s, there were panics about the Italian gangs that ‘roamed’ London and fought with each other over territory. They would often ride around on the running boards of cars, carrying machine guns (Al Capone style) and it was not unknown for bystanders to be caught in the crossfire. One of these incidents happened in Waterloo Road, near the station and more than one totally unconnected person was killed or injured.

Shortly after the war, in the late 1940s, things again became very violent. This time, because of rationing, gangs vied for control of the ‘black market’ in goods and other things like petrol which were rationed.

In the 1950s and 1960s, things quietened down a little, although the media of the day thought that Teddy Boys, and in particular their flick knives, would bring an end to civilised society as we knew it.

This is not meant to trivialise what has happened recently. The tragedies for society are far outweighed by the tragedies for families who have lost somebody. However, the panic which has been whipped up by sections of the press and sections of the Labour Party is, in my view, a little over the top.

In one way, I can understand the Labour Party calling for more cops. It might seem to them like a good stick with which to beat the government and one which can be easily understood by ‘the person on the Clapham omnibus’. This draws on a nostalgic view that the plod on the beat is somehow like the avuncular Dixon of Dock Green character from the long running BBC TV series. Dixon would solve most incidents by sending the perpetrator home with a clip round the ear.

From bitter personal experience, I can attest that it isn’t like that. Just because he is walking around the streets with size 14 boots and a pointed helmet doesn’t mean he is any less dangerous to the public than one dressed in full riot gear.

After the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the subsequent report that was produced proved that the police, in this case the Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist, something many people knew already. Little appears to have changed in that regard, despite claims to the contrary, and the police remain not trusted by the vast majority of the BAME community.

‘Stop and Search’ has been tinkered with to make it appear fairer, but is still very biased against black and Asian youth in that a disproportionately high number of stops are made on young people of colour.

One of the main reasons for the current upsurge can be attributed to the lack of opportunity for many young people. Certain council estates and social housing developments have such terrible reputations (usually unfairly earned) that kids from those places find it hard to get meaningful employment, if any. They are bombarded with advertising for things which are plainly out of their reach – expensive trainers, top of the range mobiles, etc. so they turn to crime to obtain enough money to get some of them.

Jasper Carrott used to tell a joke in the 1990s about the rising crime figures:

Of course there’s a rise in crime – there’s more things to nick. Can you imagine being in a pub in 1950 and some guy sidling up and whispering ‘hey mate, do wanna buy a cheap mangle? No questions.

Obviously that’s not the only reason for this crime wave. Kids join gangs, they always have, be it Hell’s Angels, football firms or whatever. Currently they have taken on an American style and I imagine there are several who think they are part of the Bloods and Crips type rival gangs from the States.

Also, many young people carry knives, often of the sort that can be bought in kitchenware shops, as a protection against perceived attack. Criminalising those kids will not solve anything.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, closing of youth facilities and cheap pastimes have led people to this point. Everywhere which still caters for young people generally does so at very high prices which many cannot afford.

School exclusions also play a part in this. Again, they are unfairly weighted against BAME and poor white students. The reason for so many is that schools now have to compete via the league tables introduced in the 1980s by the Tory government. They have to appear to be succeeding in order to appeal to the aspirant middle class parents who are not rich enough to use the public school system, but have enough to cough up to cover the shortfall created by Tory cuts. Doing away with the old HMI inspectorate and replacing it with the privatised Ofsted has not helped in this regard.

Another issue is the scarcity and high cost of housing. This again leads some into crime in order to be able to subsidise their lifestyle and they hear they can make lots of money from selling and dealing in drugs, so they try it. Drug gangs are generally controlled by adults who have little or no compassion for anybody who crosses them or their outfit and will order executions with no remorse – which for me is a good reason to introduce Portugal style decriminalisation of all drugs.

But only a truly equal society will lead to less crime of a violent nature.

 

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