Youths and knives


With another tragic loss of life on the streets of London, Ade Sawyerr argues that it is up to us as individuals and members of community organisations to be vocal, to be willing to get involved and to ensure the right political and economic structures are put in place to tackle knife and gun crime.

The crime has always been with us in London but has become more topical in recent times because of the increased levels of death and serious injuries involving young people. Youth crime has escalated from the use of fisticuffs to more violent acts of stabbing and shooting as the ‘modus operandi’ to settle most arguments and disagreements. Now the must-have accessories are more often than not, knives and guns and possession is often fuelled by gangs, drugs, honour and respect issues.

The perpetrators of these severe forms of crime are getting younger by the day. Young people are trying to formulate their own ways of dealing with the bullies; they carry knives because they think they will look tough and this will be a deterrent. It is no longer cool to report this to their parents or the right authorities because their perception is that the authorities cannot protect them. Instead they seek protection in gangs where peer pressure is exerted on them through the initiation, honour and loyalty to the gang and end up ready to avenge wrongs done to their collective or prove how tough they are – a vicious herd instinct comes into play.

The problems with carrying guns and knives is that there is a high probability that they will be used and once this happens the problems escalates for all in the community. The irony is that the perpetrators of knife crimes are also more likely to be victims of crime themselves.

Many thought the election of a new mayor in the capital represented a real opportunity for past policies to be reviewed, bearing in mind that ‘quick fixes and quick wins’ have not been ineffective in tackling crime. A one size fits all approach will also not work because enduring solutions are needed.

Without the involvement of community groups working in concerted action with public agencies and the young people themselves, the issue will remain topical and more knee-jerk reactions will waste a lot of resources without coming to the crux of the issue.

Past initiatives that concentrated on the criminal justice system, police, prison and probation as tools with which youth crime can be tackled successfully, have not worked. Where people of African Caribbean and Asian descent are concerned they have been detrimental and only succeeded in harassing young people and turning some of the young ones into hardened criminals who will reoffend time and again.

The suggestion that tough sentencing will deter young people from carrying knives is unlikely to work, we must not only be more imaginative but we must seek realistic solutions on prevention. Tough sentencing is a stage too late and will happen when people have already been killed. Besides, Current statistics show that there are as many young black people going to jail as are going into university, a situation that needs to be addressed and redressed.

Traditional faith based organisation that are used for diversion work also have to engage in outreach work to get at the young people. The bad boys are outside the radar of the do good organisations, religion is not a central part of their family lives any longer. Specialist organisations dedicated to diversion, youth offending and rehabilitation are not always successful with prevention work because they are not set up to work with ordinary young people but with young people who are at risk of offending or who have started doing so. Because of the inability of these specialist organisations to resolve the problem, A London wide comprehensive approach using voluntary and community organisations is now being advocated.

Community organisations are however best placed to be part of the solution to this problem. They have always supplemented the work of the public agencies and specialist organisations and now that the problem confronts the whole community it is only sensible that they made an integral part of the solution. Generalist organisations working with parents and young people will fare much better in creating awareness about these issues in London.

In these circumstances it is always important to note that mix approaches work better, there must be incentives to get voluntary organisations involved in minimising the incidence of youth crime and they must also be given the tools to effectively help address this problem

Robust policy work must however underpin and inform any new initiative and the projects arising out of these must be coherent and coordinated. Research into the underlying causes of gun and youth crime is necessary to establish why these serious crimes are on the increase and along with this should be a general survey of the needs of young people. Young people must inform the policy if it will help resolve their problems; the government agenda on Every Child Matters, takes as one of its central strategies, the need to involve young people in the decision making process.

Evaluative capacity must be built into the projects from the onset so that the content and processes for completing the projects are clearly outlined with proper delineation of the outputs and outcomes. Evaluations of existing crime prevention and rehabilitation interventions good practice case studies should inform present action.

A database with firm baseline information and targets that should be met and indicators for measuring these should be collected as part of the pre-project documentation so that in each borough and London wide it is clear what the projects should be working to accomplish. The objectives must be specific, measurable, achievable realistic and time bound. This is important because in the fight against crime we must know whether or not we are winning and when to change tactics.

Delivery organisations must work hand in hand in a formalised way with policy makers to ensure that the projects work in a seamless way to achieve all objectives. The structures for both internal and external communication must be made explicit and a stakeholder’s charter must be in place that determines and regulates the terms of engagement of all parties involved.

Training for all community organisations involved in the programme must be delivered in a modular flexible way and should not be limited to the practice of crime prevention and rehabilitation but must extend to how these organisations taking part in the project can develop and seek funding for innovative projects that will work, can be evaluated and touted as good practice guides. Toolkits for assisting grassroots organisations and other interested professionals and decision makers would be useful in identifying what needs to be done to reduce crime especially amongst the youth and to deal head on with violent crime relating to knives and guns within the black community.

The policy must be accessible to all, community organisations, young people, parents and the general public. A website would be a useful portal; it could be based along the lines of social and cultural marketing amongst young people and could include blog spots that would encourage enable young people to not only share ideas in an uninhibited way but also to do so in a controlled positive and constructive way. The site would be a useful repository of information on crime to include statistics, policy, projects on the ground and information about recommended interventions. An online newsletter will also provide organisations that are involved in implementing practical projects on the ground with further information and should also serve as their mouth piece for sharing information.

Whilst articles must be published regularly in the mainstream, youth and ethnic press, to inform all about what the authorities are doing to resolve the problem and how all can help, there must be other ways in which this information on the project can be disseminated to all.

Events to engage young people to help harness their potential, to provide opportunities for leadership and self development, to encourage them to share in and contribute to the wider economic and social benefits which society has to offer should be a hall mark of this crackling crime initiative.

The Mayor must provide the political will to ensure the issue of crime is taken seriously by all London authorities. It is up to the Mayor to implement and maintain that promise and to do the background work and come up with what he intends to see in a youth crime free zone in London.

Community organisations undoubtedly have a useful role to play in the resolution of youth crime – they must however be given the opportunity and provided with the necessary support to enable them to participate in a meaningful way.

Concerted action by people who want to create a better society where our children and young people can go about their daily lives without constant fear must be implemented.

It up to us to as individuals and members of community organisations to be vocal, to be willing to get involved and to ensure the right political and economic structures are put in place to enable such groups to help him to solve the problems on crime.

Ade Sawyerr is partner in Equinox Consulting, a management consultancy providing consultancy, training and research that focuses on strategies for black and ethnic minority, disadvantaged and socially excluded communities. He also comments on political, economic and social, and development issues. He can be contacted through

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If black men took

If black men took responsibility for their children we would not be in this mess - where are the fathers is the pressing question.