Children need help, not demonising

Published by The i paper (9th April, 2018)

Sometimes the smallest things drive home the enormity. Amid the mound of flowers marking the spot where another teenager lost her life in London’s killing fields stands a bag of Doritos, some bottles of fizzy drinks and a pack of false eyelashes. These everyday items serve as poignant reminders of the youth and ambition of someone who should still be alive. Instead Tanesha Melbourne-Blake lies dead – just 17 years old, gunned down from a moving car on a humdrum suburban street.

Last week panic levels rose over London’s worsening murder rate. There have been more than 50 murders this year since a physics student hoping to become a pilot was stabbed at a house party in Islington on New Year’s Day. Ordinary faces – most of them tragically young – stare from galleries in publications showing victims. Fear is fuelled by the revelation our capital’s murder rate has overtaken New York’s this year.

After years of falling crime, we see a sharp rise in recorded knife and gun offences. Trauma surgeons talk of seeing more young people with more wounds. Yet most politicians see this only through the prism of their tribal battles. They blame a Labour Mayor, Tory cuts or a Prime Minister who slowed the use of stop-and-search in her previous job. The police chief bemoans social media, the fashionable villain for societal ills, rather than the crooks behind the carnage. There are demands for instant solutions to complex problems. So ministers dress up a few minor and largely pointless tweaks to the law as “a major shift” in policy.

We must keep this in perspective, however. London had fewer than half the killings of New York last year and Britain has a lower murder rate than France. The capital has the highest ratio of police per capita in the country – while crime has plummeted amid hefty cuts to officer numbers and public spending. The level of recorded offences last year was less than one-third its 1995 peak, a stunning improvement. Yet the Metropolitan Police was given more cash this year, despite being rated as “requiring improvement” in efficiency. It is hard not to wonder if a welter of historic sex offence inquiries drains too many resources.

Meanwhile Theresa May merits only praise for ordering police to stop abusing ‘stop-and-search’ powers. Their overuse wasted police time and alienated black people, four times more likely to be targeted than white people. In one year, almost three in 10 were unlawful, with no evidence of criminal intent. An official study, backed by data from ambulance callouts, found ‘no statistically significant crime-reducing effect from a large increase in weapon searches’.

One quick fix could help stem the bloodshed. David Lammy, the Tottenham MP, has spoken about surging cocaine use and rightly demanded more focus on gangsters fuelling the violence. He claims Britain has become a hub of organised crime. Yet politicians ignore the smart way to strike them: to legalise and regulate their trade rather than leave vast profits from drugs on offer for the most violent groups. This really would be a major shift in Westminster policy. Sadly, it seems a long way off.

Many of the beatings, shootings and stabbings took place within a few miles of my comfortable north London neighbourhood. Yet as Lammy and others point out, a boy who starts running drugs for a gang at 12 can become so numbed by violence he ends up doing a drive-by shooting of the kind that just killed a 17-year-old girl near my home. Here lies the real target for politicians: those broken bits of Britain so often ignored in our midst.

London is not Baltimore. But studies indicate at least one in 20 British teenagers, male and female, join gangs. Members are often raised in fatherless households and leave school early with few qualifications due to exclusion. A few people in a gang can devastate a community, yet so mistrusted are the authorities they can be called upon to resolve disputes. ‘The police are seen by many people as an occupying force,’ said one youth worker.

This is the reality of life for some fellow citizens. Prison is abused to punish people for addiction or mental health issues. Then we leave pockets of people trapped in fear. We know violence is highly corrosive. It leaves people scared, scarred and traumatised. This makes them more mistrustful of authority, more likely to carry weapons, more susceptible to peer pressure. It makes it easier for social media to inflame a spat, for a rapper to amplify a beef. And it leaves a spiralling trail of blood.

We know the motors of violence: poor parenting, fractured families, inadequate education, lack of jobs, untreated addiction, mental health problems. Cities such as Boston and Glasgow have shown a concerted effort to tackle violence and the trauma it leaves in its wake can make a dramatic difference by harnessing tough justice with sensitive support services. This is where money should go – and if it has been cut, as with too many youth services, fast restored.

But it is as much about attitudes as money. Politicians should stop playing tribal games, stop blowing cash on pointless poster campaigns and stop passing instant laws designed to win headlines. Children and communities desensitised to violence need help, not demonising, and we have shared responsibility to confront their problems. As Temi Mwale, a young social entrepreneur whose friend was murdered and now fights to stop violence, told me: ‘Our society does not have to live like this.’

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