Are Gangs To Blame For Serious Violence In The UK?

This article was co-written with Dr. Keir Irwin-Rogers, Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University.

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In the 12 months to March 2017, 61 young people aged 16-24 died as a result of knife crime in England and Wales.

Many efforts have recently been made to make sense of the violence between young people on the UK’s streets. In a report entitled, It Can Be Stopped: A proven blueprint to stop violence and tackle gang and related offending in London and beyond, published in August 2018, the Centre of Social Justice (CSJ) attempt to persuade their readers that gangs are responsible for as ‘as much as half of all knife crime with injury’ in London. This is a serious claim, which, if true, would have significant implications for policy and practice. As such, it ought to have been supported by robust and reliable evidence.

The source the CSJ provided to support their claim was the Metropolitan Police Service’s 62 page Business Plan 2017-18. Nowhere in this document, however, is there any reference to statistics indicating the percentage of knife crime that is gang-related. This begs the question: why are the CSJ misdirecting their readers to a source that bears no relation to the content of their claims?

According to BBC Reality Check, the CSJ have actually based their claim on data from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. This indicated that in the year to March 2017 there had been 4,446 reported offences of knife crime with injury. If you remove the cases in which the victim was over 24, and then exclude incidents of domestic violence, this leaves 2,028, which represents 45% of the total.

In a stunning leap of faith, the CSJ have assumed that all of the remaining 2,028 cases were consequently gang-related. To be clear, the claim being made is that knife crime with injury offences involving victims 24 years of age and under, which are not incidents of domestic violence, can all be assumed to be gang-related.

This is patently absurd, and flies in the face of other recent publications. Indeed, data from a Freedom of Information request made to the Metropolitan Police Service by one of the authors of this article revealed that in 2016, just 3.8% of knife crime with injury (fatal, serious, moderate and minor) had been flagged by the Met as gang-related. Given the prominence placed on gangs in government policy initiatives and the media, these results were something of an eye-opener.

Certainly, it is possible to question the reliability of police statistics, which might be based upon shaky assumptions and/or limited intelligence. If the CSJ believes this is the case, they ought to call for better data on gang-related violence. But they should do so whilst making measured and honest statements about the existing evidence base – not wild claims that lack serious foundation.

The problematic use of the ‘gang’ label has been dissected in previous years across numerous articles and reports. The ‘gang-matrix’ was recently called-out by Amnesty International in their report, Trapped in the Matrix: Secrecy, stigma, and bias in the Met’s Gangs Database, which accused the matrix of breaching international human rights standards.

Patrick Williams and Becky Clarke of Manchester Metropolitan University, also made links between the ‘gang’ label and the disproportionate use of Joint Enterprise against young Black men in their report, Dangerous associations: Joint enterprise, gangs and racism – a fact reiterated more recently by David Lammy MP in his report, The Lammy Review: An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System.

With all of this known about the use of the ‘gang’ label and the harm it can cause, especially in relation to young Black men and children, it is disappointing to see the CSJ persisting in their attempts to construct and peddle a ‘gang narrative’ that overhypes the significance of gangs in the broader context of serious violence between young people. The proximate reasons for knife crime with injury offences involving young people are numerous and varied. Many incidents are triggered by isolated episodes of trauma re-enactment, serious issues around mental health, and interpersonal conflicts that have nothing to do with street gangs. The CSJ may well consider this reality an inconvenience to the gang narrative they attempt to conjure throughout their report (which contains a whopping 478 references to the term ‘gang’).

There remains in the UK significant problems around structural violence and institutional racism, both of which are in some sense less ‘visible’, and therefore more difficult to precisely conceptualise and measure, than concrete incidents of violence and abuse. This does not, however, preclude the fundamental importance of both in shaping rates of serious violence within our communities. The distinct lack of any serious discussion of the various forms of structural violence or institutional racism in the CSJ’s latest report mean that it provides only a partial, distorted, and as we have highlighted, inaccurate account of the nature and causes of serious violence between young people in the UK.

While there is some sound research and analysis in, It Can Be Stopped, it will continue to be overshadowed by the CSJ’s refusal to acknowledge their error and be honest with the public about the available (and limited) evidence on the scale of gang-related violence in London and elsewhere.

Knife crime, we can all agree, needs to be treated seriously. But doing so requires a rigorous evidence base, accurately and faithfully represented, if we are to avoid counter-productive, knee-jerk policy responses.

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