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Lee Byer charged with ‘vicious’ murder of grandfather stabbed to death on mobility scooter

A 44-year-old man has been charged with the murder of 87-year-old Thomas O’Halloran on a mobility scooter in west London.

Lee Byer was remanded in custody after appearing at Willesden Magistrates’ Court charged with the murder of the pensioner in Greenford.

Byer wore a grey prison tracksuit and sat expressionless in the dock during the five-minute hearing. He did not speak except to confirm his name, date of birth and address, which was given as no fixed abode.

The legal adviser to the judge read the two charges to Byer and said the case was “too serious” to be dealt with by the magistrates’ court.

The charges were murder and possession of an offensive weapon, a “large knife”, the adviser said.

A court artist sketch of Lee Byer, 44, at Willesden Magistrates’ Court
A court artist sketch of Lee Byer, 44, at Willesden Magistrates’ Court CREDIT: Elizabeth Cook /PA

Louise Ahmad, prosecuting, told the court: “This was a vicious attack on an 87-year-old grandfather who was known throughout the local community.

“It led to him collapsing from his motor scooter. He was stabbed in the chest and found by members of the public.”

Malik Aldeiri, defending, did not make any representations, and no indication of plea was entered.

Deputy District Judge Ross Cohen told Byer: “This is a matter that this court has no power to deal with.”

A bail application hearing will take place at the Old Bailey on Aug 23. It is not yet known whether Byer will attend. A plea and trial preparation hearing will be at the Old Bailey on Sep 16.

Mr O’Halloran, originally from Ennistymon, in the west of Ireland, was a musician and often busked for charity. He was a popular figure in the area.

There has been anger over his death, with Greenford residents demanding to know “where all the police officers have gone” at a community meeting on Thursday evening. The meeting, hosted by the Metropolitan Police, was intended to ease fears after the stabbing.

One resident said: “More and more, we are hearing about the elderly being targeted. We hear about people being surrounded by groups who try to take money from them. Some fight back, others don’t. There are no police stations for us to go to – they are all closing.”

A man leaves a tribute to Thomas O’Halloran outside the supermarket where he would busk
A man leaves a tribute to Thomas O’Halloran outside the supermarket where he would busk CREDIT: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Mr O’Halloran, who moved to London from the west coast of Ireland at the age of 17, was described as a “lovely person” by his family, who are struggling to come to terms with his death.

One of 16 children, he was among the thousands of young Irish men and women who travelled to Britain after the war looking for work. After settling in London he is understood to have worked several jobs, at one stage as a caretaker.

Linda O’Halloran, one of the pensioner’s nieces in Ennistymon, Ireland, said the family was finding it “very hard” to process his death.

“We’re the most open-hearted people, but this is very hard for my parents,” she told The Telegraph. “It’s very raw and they’re trying to come to terms with it.”

The Irish president paid tribute to the “generosity and kindness” of Mr O’Halloran on Friday,

In a statement President Michael D Higgins described the pensioner “as cherished in his local community in Greenford”.

He said: “On behalf of the people of Ireland, may I express my profound sympathy to all the members of the family of Thomas O’Halloran who died under such tragic circumstances this week, to the Irish community in London of whom he was a part, and to all in London and Ireland who knew him.

“I can only imagine the deep shock that his family and his friends are experiencing and may I convey my heartfelt condolences to them all.”

London’s Murders Examined: key figures in the UK capital’s homicides

Most of the young victims were stabbed to death. In London, 74.4% of all homicides were caused by knives or sharp implements in 2021, a 15.6% increase from 2020. Perhaps a testimony to the UK’s strong gun control laws, just 8.3% of homicides in 2021 were caused by gunshot wounds – proportionally down from the 11.4% witnessed in 2020.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 lockdown played a role in the decrease of overall homicides, but the restrictions on public life caused by the pandemic did not stop street violence entirely. Indeed, figures reveal that knife murders as a proportion of all homicides rates have been slowly increasing over the last decade (see figure 1).

If anything the lockdown may have delayed violence, rather than prevented it. Figures from the Metropolitan Police show that the rate of annual homicides reached their peak in July 2020, with 19 murders occurring in one month alone.  These figures coincide with the period that followed the easing of lockdown restrictions in May 2020. The long-term trend strongly suggests that things are getting worse in the UK’s capital city. 2019 saw a record total of 152 recorded homicides in London.  In 2020, during the lockdown, the city saw a gradual decline from this all-time high, recording 131 homicides. However, as public restrictions eased, the homicide rate crept back up;  there were 133 homicides in the city during the period of partial lockdown in 2021. 

However, 2021 also showed a disproportionately high number of teenagers being killed: the most recorded in recent times.

 Figure 1: Number of homicides in London from 2011 to 2021, and those caused by knives or guns.

The impact of such violence cannot be underestimated. Gun and knife violence is a daily tragedy that affects the lives of countless individuals around the world. It affects whole communities by implanting fear into their neighbourhoods. Consequently, this leads to a loss of freedom – the freedom to leave your home at night and walk to the shops, safely, for instance. The loss of freedom of a life without anxiety. 

Gun and knife violence also disproportionately impacts communities of colour, and communities with higher rates of poverty – meaning that people already unduly impacted by the harsh realities of life are further trammelled by street crime and violence.

Newham: a centre of harm?
According to data from the Metropolitan Police, the largest proportion of homicides between 2011 and  2021 occurred in Newham, where some 5.1% of all deaths in London occurred. It is notable that Newham has a 37% poverty rate, and a 50% rate of child poverty. Other figures reveal that Newham has a high number of people sleeping rough on the streets, endemic homelessness, and numerous low-income households living in temporary accommodation.

In 2021, The Guardian published an article on gang violence in London quoting: ‘It’s like a war zone. How did it come to this?’. The article reported that, every month, the Metropolitan Police’s command unit covering Newham referred up to 1,000 children at high risk of becoming gang members to the local authorities. It was estimated that around 200 gangs operate in Newham boasting around 5,000 ‘soldiers’ or gang members. 

The Mayor of London’s gang crime indicator has yet to be updated from 2017. Nonetheless, based on data collected from the Met Police’s homicide database in 2017, the largest proportion of homicides occurred in Newham and Southwark. According to the gang crime indicator in 2017, Newham and Southwark had been red-flagged for knife and gun crimes related to gang activity. Similar trends are visible in previous years, indicating a correlation with homicides by stabbing or shootings and high rates of gang activity. Further research is needed to analyse the locations of gangs and homicides in London.

KNIFE AND GUN CRIME STATISTICS

Knives in London
Knives, unsurprisingly, are ubiquitous, not least because of the role they play in cooking and other household chores.   

However, legal restrictions on the possession of knives have, in part, attempted to combat their availability for criminal purposes. It is illegal to possess a banned knife or weapon; to bring a knife into the UK; to sell, hire, lend or give someone a banned knife or weapon; and to carry any knife in public without good reason (unless it has a manual folding blade less than 3 inches long). 

It is also illegal to sell a knife to anyone under the age of 18 (unless it has a manual folding blade less than 3 inches long); and to use any knife in a threatening way. Banned knives include butterfly knives, disguised knives, flick-knives, stealth knives, swords, swordsticks, cyclone or spiral knives and belt buckle knives.

Such restrictions coincide with efforts by the police to confiscate these weapons.  Between April and May 2021, around 411 knives were seized as part of Operation Sceptre, a police initiative designed to reduce violent crimes in London. Another 166 unnamed weapons were seized during that period. According to the BBC News, based on a Freedom of Information request, a London Family Courtroom seized 5,000 knives in 2019-2020 alone, including small knives and bladed instruments. This was a record number.

Firearms in London
A record number of 450 firearms, too, were seized in London in 2020 following an operation to reduce violence in London. Following the operation, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that he was determined to support the Met Police in tackling the most serious offenders, removing lethal weapons from the streets of London and tackling gang violence.

It is important to note that firearms in the UK are not just, as some might think, AK47s or Glock Pistols – the term includes other, less-lethal firearms. According to the National Crime Agency, firearms in the United Kingdom are still rare in comparison to other countries around the world, though they stress the threat of gun violence is still present from organised crime groups and urban gangs. The majority of firearms are sold via the dark web or trafficked from central and eastern Europe and then sold to gangs and criminals.

Degrees of Injury from Knife Offences in England and Wales
According to data from the Home Office and Office of National Statistics, there were a total of 27,093 knife offences in England and Wales in the year 2020 (beginning in April and ending in March 2021).

These figures include fatal injuries, injuries with intent to cause serious harm, threats to kill and attempted murder. The total number of offences do not include robbery, burglary, rape, sexual assault, public fear, criminal damage, possession of a weapon and other offences.

Year beginning April 2020 to March 2021:
–    Fatal Injury – 223
–    Injury with intent to cause serious harm – 21,421
–    Threat to kill – 4,984
–    Attempted murder – 465

Year beginning April 2019 to March 2020:
–    Fatal Injury – 262
–    Injury with intent to cause serious harm – 22,348
–    Threat to kill – 4,630
–    Attempted murder – 464

Year beginning April 2011 to March 2012:
–    Fatal Injury – 200
–    Injury with intent to cause serious harm – 12,714
–    Threat to kill – 1,127
–    Attempted murder – 234

Overall, the figures reveal that there has been a substantial increase in knife offences over the last 10 years. The total number of knife offences in the capital increased by some 90% between 2011 to 2021; injury with intent to cause serious harm increased by 68% and fatal injuries increased by 12%. 

Shockingly, reported threats to kill increased by 342% over 10 years. Crime rates overall dropped in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions and as a result, total offences decreased by 2.21% in the year 2020 compared to 2019.

The largest proportion of crimes involving a knife are those with ‘intent to cause serious harm’ – meaning that death was likely. One expert that AOAV spoke to said that – on average – for every 66 stabbings, one is fatal.

A recent study in 2020 concluded that the majority of fatal knife offences were due to gang activity in London, with around 37% of all homicides gang-related. The report concludes that knife crimes are on the rise due to a rise in gang membership. The increase in such gangs has been linked specifically to a lack of opportunities, unemployment, lower levels of education, social housing and the challenges posed in balancing things such as parenting and employment in single-parent families.

Degrees of Injury from Firearm Offences in England and Wales
Firearms such as shotguns, handguns and rifles are less commonly used in England and Wales as weapons. This is, in large part, due to the UK’s strict gun laws. The greatest proportion of violence in those two nations where firearms were present in homicide cases was in London, where 11.4% of homicides in 2020 were due to gunshot wounds. This number fell to 8.3% in 2021.  In 2016, the highest figure of homicides by shootings in London was 11.5%.

Figures retrieved from the Home Office and ONS regarding firearm harm in England and Wales reveals:

Year beginning April 2020 to March 2021:
–    Fatal Injury – 35
–    Serious Injury – 227
–    Slight Injury – 954

Year beginning April 2019 to March 2020:
–    Fatal Injury – 26
–    Serious Injury – 249
–    Slight Injury – 996

Year beginning April 2011 to March 2012:
–    Fatal Injury – 42
–    Serious Injury – 255
–    Slight Injury – 1320

Firearm incidents reached a peak in the 2018/19 year, rising to a total of 6,883 firearm offences (not including no injury, robbery, burglary, rape, sexual assault, public fear, criminal damage, possession of a weapon and others).

Gun crime trends in England and Wales are unpredictable, but the total number of offences has been gradually increasing over 10 years – without taking into consideration the drop in the number of offences that occurred during the pandemic. Despite this, little research has been conducted around specifically gun crime in London, possibly because knife crime is so prominent. The Police and Crime committee released a report in 2017 on London’s gun crimes, stating that ‘little is known about the drivers of gun crime in the capital’. Their report did suggest that gun crime may be increasing due to a ‘higher level of supply for firearms’.

This trend seems highly likely. According to data retrieved from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the total number of firearm offences in London decreased by 89% in 2020 from 2019. Firearm-involved injuries (fatal, serious and slight) also decreased by 14% according to the ONS, likely due to the disruptions to firearm distribution caused by COVID-19. The report indicates that the Met was set on tackling gun crime by disrupting the supplies of firearms.  This operation’s success can possibly be seen in 2020, where large numbers of firearms were seized. Nonetheless, without knowing where firearms are coming from, what the drivers of gun crime are, or having an official database on seized firearms, assessing whether the number of firearms used in London may rise or fall seems an impossible prediction.  

Who is being killed in London?

Regarding knife offences in 2021: in 88% of homicides by stab wounds, the victims were male; 12% were female. In addition, 100% of homicides by gunshot in the capital that year were committed against male victims. 

As the above-cited figures demonstrate,  there were no female homicide victims from firearms and few from knives. Scholars have pointed out potential reasons for this trend are rooted within frameworks of hypermasculinity and machismo. These are often theory-based ideologies, but multiple studies also state that ‘knife carrying is centred in machismo’ and seen as ‘advantageous when navigating street life’.

Other scholars argue that young men see knife-carrying as a ‘legitimate response to potential threats and absence of police authority’, or as a tool that promotes respect in your community. 

Overall, there is a trend where young men may feel the need to carry a weapon (and use one) as a means of displaying their masculinity. This often seems to be based on conditions of living in a violent or hostile environment; on fear and identity issues; on anti-social/attitudes, including feelings of exclusion; and on exposure to gangs or a lack of role models. There is much to be done to gain a greater understanding of the social and cultural issues that lead to weapon possession amongst men. More extensive field research and initiatives to communicate with young men in vulnerable communities would be a promising start to understand what their notions of masculinity are and what this is rooted in. 

Domestic Abuse
Many intimate forms of lethal violence are committed with knives, not guns.  The proximity required to stab someone and the violence inherent in this proximity means that, in domestic settings, it seems sensible to view the knife as a ‘gendered object’ within a ‘gendered space’. For instance, in London, 6 out of 11 female homicide victims flagged as domestic abuse were stabbed in 2021; 6 out of 13 female homicide victims not flagged as domestic abuse were stabbed; and 7 out of 9 male homicide victims flagged as domestic abuse were stabbed. When read alongside the data over the 10-year period of 2011 to 2021, according to Met Police data, this shows that only 2 cases of homicides by firearms were flagged as domestic abuse.  Clearly, knife homicides are far more prevalent in gendered domestic settings than guns.

One scholar argues that ‘the knife’ is present in all homes and is a domestic object; this means that homes ultimately cannot be classed as a ‘safe haven’ for many, particularly women who face abuse. They further state that knife crime being seen only as a form of street crime simply re-enforces the notion that personal violence in the home is private and, in our eyes, we can ignore it, but knife crime on the streets is public and something that cannot be ignored. The notion of the streets as dangerous and the home as a ‘safe haven’ is a construct and a home is ultimately a place where danger at any moment can occur. Just as we construed that a knife on the streets is seen as a male object attributed to violent crimes, a knife in the home is seen as a feminine object attributed to household chores – cooking.

Why is this theory important? It demonstrates that there needs to be more focus on the victim/perpetrator relationship in knife-enabled or even gun-enabled crimes. It also demonstrates that  examining the environment of both parties can help facilitate a greater understanding of the dynamics at play in these situations, where victims felt safe and where they felt endangered. This would help reveal the other factors that contribute to violent crimes unrelated to race and age. 

Data covering the past 10 years on knife offences flagged as domestic abuse reveal that victims have predominantly been white. In 2021, 8 out of 12 victims were White; 3 out of 12 were Black and 1 out of 12 was Other. Similarly, in 2015, 9 out of 16 were White; 3 out of 16 were Asian; 3 out of 16 were Black; and 1 as Other.

Information about the perpetrators of this form of crime is unavailable. However, this data presents to us that homicide victims by stab wounds are more likely to be White Females.

Further data reveals 42% of homicide victims (male and female) were Black, 35% White and 8% Asian; and ages 13-19 accounted for most deaths at 41%. Previous years show similar trends – in 2019, 41% of homicide victims were White, 44% were Black and 10% were Asian.

Over the years, the number of black homicide victims has increased drastically. For example, in 2015, 52% of victims were White and 29% were Black. This increase may be due to a relationship to gang crimes and to areas with more ethnic diversity. For instance, in 2015, 28% of knife-related homicide victims were White, and 37% were Black; in 2013, 45% were White and 40% Black. This began to change in 2017 when 50% of homicide victims by stab wounds were Black and 32% were White.

However, to say that knife crime is an issue predominantly amongst Black people would be false. Understanding what has caused this rise and cross-analysing data on ethnicities in other knife-crime capitals is sorely needed.  Further research into the growth of gangs across London is necessary to give a greater understanding of how gang structures have changed over the years.

More research should also be done to understand the ethnic breakdown of homicide victims. In particular, a more detailed ethnic breakdown is needed to understand the different factors that come into play. The data shows 12% (knife crime) and 18% (gun crime) of the victims’ ethnicity was unknown and 2% listed as ‘other’. This small percentage can be very important to studies that focus on ethnic breakdowns and knife/gun crimes.

Furthermore, groups such as ‘Black, White or Asian’ can be misleading. There are many ethnicities within all three communities, for example, White-British and White-Polish Londoners may have very different experiences to Black-Jamaican, Black-Nigerian Asian-Indian or Asian-Iranian Londoners. Even categories that group continents such as Black-African and Black-Caribbean can be misleading as every country has different cultures, experiences, histories and views on violence. A proper analysis of ethnicity, case by case, murder by murder, is needed. How many are from Somali heritage?  How many are from Jamaican heritage?  How many are from Nigerian heritage?  How many are from Irish heritage?  How many are from Polish heritage?  And so on.

A cross-analysis between the age of victims, their location of residence and school locations should be analysed to understand why more young people are dying. Young teenagers ages 13-19 are still supposedly going to school and therefore, may spend more time at their school or their school’s location rather than at home. Drawing out the specific locations of their deaths could provide us with a better understanding of what kind of activity is present in such locations.

For example, Newham recorded the most homicides across 10 years. However, the largest ethnic groups in Newham are White at 17%, Indian at 14% and African at 12%. Other Asian ethnic groups are dominant, with Newham having one of the largest Asian communities. Nonetheless, Asians have the lowest percentage when it comes to homicide victims. In order to better understand why Black victims of homicides and gun/knife crimes are increasing in places such as Newham – even though they form sizable minorities – cross-cutting analyses of different locations of homicides, schooling and residency are needed.

Robbing rights to freedom 
Knife and gun crimes induce fear in individuals, especially in communities where there has been a continuous cycle of homicides. According to police officers, the peak age to carry a knife in London is 15. We also know that young teenagers carry knives in London for a wide variety of reasons: fear, credibility or intent to use.

Fear is a permanent presence in violent neighbourhoods. Teenagers fear going to their ‘corner shop’, knowing there is gang activity present. In one interview published by The Guardian, an ex-gang member explains that ‘older gangs’ around 20 years ago were less likely to randomly kill a civilian; gang violence stayed within the gang community. The ‘newer gangs’ taken over by teenagers and young adults are more ‘violent’ and will kill anyone in their way.

Members of different communities have explained: ‘you’re constantly looking around, making sure to avoid people’; ‘if I set foot there, I’ll get stabbed’. This fear leads to credibility and intent to use a knife, where young teenagers fear for their lives and carry a knife for their protection. According to a qualitative research report, not carrying a knife can be seen as weak [20]. The normalisation of weapons in a community leads to normalising violent acts and behaviour, therefore legitimising weapons. A cycle is thus created and violent behaviour goes unchallenged and becomes generational within communities.

In Newham, mothers are scared for their children going to school; young women are scared to have children; young people fear leaving their house to face the risk of bumping into a gang and being stabbed or shot. All of this leads to a loss of freedom and the right to family life.

IS LONDON REALLY THE MURDER CAPITAL?
Data from the ONS and Home Office reveal the top 5 areas in England that have witnessed the most firearm and knife offences. These are: London, the West Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, the North West, and the North East. 

London recorded the highest number for firearm and knife offences across all counties: In London, April 2019 to March 2020 saw 15,930 knife offences per 100,000 people in comparison to 6,844 in the North West; 5,117 in the West Midlands; 4,352 in Yorkshire and the Humber and 1,481 in the North East. That same year, London saw 1,767 firearm offences per 100,00 population in comparison to 904 in the West Midlands; 863 in the North West; 746 in Yorkshire and the Humber and 264 in the North East. 

Official statistics detailing the number of homicides in different cities across England are difficult to come by. Data that demonstrates which were knife and gun-related is even more difficult to identify. There were 133 murders in London in 2021.  Yorkshire had 25 homicides.[22] Manchester also saw a 200% increase in knife crimes over two years [23].

CURRENT ARMED VIOLENCE RESEARCH

The 2017-2021 Knife Crime Strategy 
The previous London ‘Knife Crime Strategy’ lasted from 2017 till 2021 and had a focus on implementing ‘classical’ music in fast food branches KFC and McDonalds to ‘create a calming environment’ [24]. The destructive argument of music playing a role in increasing violence seems to be evident here and assumes that violent offenders spend a lot of time in fast-food restaurants, promoting stereotypes of a ‘young Black man’. Nonetheless, the report was situated around 5 important action points: targeting lawbreakers, offering ways out of crime, keeping deadly weapons off our streets, protecting and educating young people, and standing with communities, neighbourhoods and families against knife crime. The report emphasised that arresting and sentencing offenders is not enough and rightfully explains ‘for long term change we need parents and families, schools and youth groups, and communities to come together to discourage and prevent knife carrying’. Other focus areas mentioned the media and influencers who should make online spaces safe for young children. Despite this strategy, knife and gun violence continued to rise.

An investigative report by British MP Sian Berry reveals a series of cuts to youth service over 10 years. It demonstrates that, from 2011 to 2021, around £36 million had been cut from annual youth service budgets, 600 full-time youth worker jobs had been cut by London councils and over 130 youth centres had been shut down [25]. Berry’s findings come from extensive freedom of information requests to each London Council.  The average council budget for youth services in 2011-12 was around £2.6 million and in 2020-21 it fell to around £1.1 million. Her findings revealed that the communities which did have youth centres focused on gendered activities. For example, only boys could engage in boxing activities and girls had to engage in activities centred around beauty, promoting damaging gender stereotypes. Aside from budget cuts, cuts in spending for police forces were predominant, with 23,500 police staff jobs being cut since 2010 according to figures from GMB. These figures include 7,000 cuts to Police Community Support Officer roles – roles essential and necessary to tackling knife crime. 

The CEO of the Ben Kinsella Trust, an anti-knife charity, stated that the increase in knife crime is not an upsurge, but something that has been seen over a decade, as well as a societal issue. He explained  that ‘youth workers do essential work in engaging with young people and putting them on the right track, introducing them to positive mentors, positive adults that can shape their lives for the future and give them a strong counter-narrative to the misguided impression that a lot of young people hold that a knife can protect them – it doesn’t protect them, it just puts them in more danger’. It is clear that budget cuts and losses to police and youth workers’ jobs are detrimental. Without these vital roles and funding towards community centres, knife crime is likely to still increase. 

Successful street crime interventions
Successful interventions around knife and gun crimes have worked across New York and Glasgow [28]. The lessons learned from these case studies reveal the most important changes:

Suppression – Gathering intelligence and disseminating key players involved in knife/gun crimes by implementing a long-term strategy and neighbourhood policing in hotspots.

Community Engagement – Engaging cooperation between police forces, local government, communities and academics. The Violence Reduction Unit in Glasgow focuses on ensuring their team of ‘navigators’ engage with victims of knife/gun crime in hospitals [29]. They also focus on engaging local government and communities by organising events with a focus on expression and violence reduction.

Intervention and Education – Partnerships between police and schools to provide intervention in primary schools and education on the effects of violence. Scotland has a Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme that operates in schools, colleges and the military. Since 2014, around 3,500 sessions on violence reduction have been delivered by trained mentors around issues of knife crime, bullying, domestic violence, gender norms and harmful sexual behaviour.

Outreach – Long-term programmes with follow up. It is essential to identify and support the most at-risk individuals. The Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland has a 5-year violence reduction strategy and Cure Violence in New York has a no time limit strategy plan so programmes and support are continuous.

Opportunities Provision – Providing opportunities such as job training, education and employment to youth in high-risk areas. Glasgow’s violence reduction unit has recruited various teams providing support and training to at-risk individuals and engaging communities.

Offender Management – Offenders should be provided tailored support upon their release from prison. In the British criminal justice system, the rate of recidivism is around 24.7% however, for adults released from a sentence of fewer than 12 months the rate is 57.5% [30].

Cure Violence is an organisation that aims to stop the spread of violence by using similar methods associated with disease control [31]. Their approach to violence reduction employs many of the points listed above. Evidence demonstrates their methods work with a 63% reduction in shootings in New York City and an 88% reduction in killing in Honduras.

Their methods are:

–    Detect and interrupt potentially violent conflicts
Trained violence interrupters and outreach workers immediately start working when a shooting occurs. They work in the community, schools and at hospitals with victims and anyone else connected to the incident such as friends or family to prevent retaliation. They then identify any ongoing conflicts and mediate any potential legal conflicts. The conflicts are then followed up by the workers for however long needed.

–    Identifying and treating the highest risk individuals
Trained ‘culturally appropriate’ workers support the highest risk individuals by firstly establishing contact and developing a relationship. From there, workers engage with high-risk individuals to talk to them about the risk of using violence and teach them alternative responses. The relationship continues by doing weekly check-ins and providing any treatments they need such as drug treatments and job training.

–    Changing social norms
Finally, all workers engage leaders in the community, local business owners and service providers to voice their objections to violence. The organisation distributes material to all those in the community and hosts events to spread the fact that violence is not acceptable.

No real change can be made without looking deeper into the communities that suffer the most and engaging with all parties (government, communities, policymakers). Those who witness violent murders, those living in communities with the highest homicide rates and the perpetrators themselves often have insightful answers to the questions we seek to find an answer to.

The London Police and Crime Plan 2021-2025 
In 2021, the government made over £130 million available to tackle serious violent crimes such as murder and those involving weapons [32]. The funding is to be put towards a new programme involving increased patrols, weapon sweeps, stop and search and early intervention programmes for young people when placed in custody or admitted to the Emergency Department – trained individuals engage with them to divert them from crime. There is a focus on education in school around knife crime which is important. The primary focus is on keeping weapons off the streets by stop and searches and decreasing the proliferation of weapons across England. 

The London Police and Crime Plan 2021-2025 is still currently being drafted and was set out to be completed at the end of January 2022. The new plan mentions England’s new Violence Reduction Unit, already implemented in Scotland, which combines NHS workers, local council and community workers to help reduce violence and stop gang-related crimes, especially in young people [33]. Notably, the London Mayor expresses his concerns in this new plan about the recent events that have undermined national and international confidence in policing. These events include the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States, the murder of Sarah Everard in London by a serving police officer in the Met Police, as well as other serious misconducts by officers. Importantly, this new crime plan recognises that women and girls need to be at the heart of any violence reduction plan, which the 2017/21 knife strategy plan did not recognise.

This new crime plan has taken on a similar approach to Cure Violence in the United States, stating that ‘London should adopt a public health approach towards violence’, prioritising ‘intervention and prevention [34]. This new approach is an important one and can be effective if used appropriately, as seen in Scotland and New York, where measures led to a decrease in knife/gun crimes. Saadiq Khan advanced that more comprehensive community engagement was also needed to understand their perspective on violence reduction strategies.  

Though this plan is still a draft and has not yet been implemented, it appears promising with new changes based around principles of engagement, intervention and prevention. The Black Lives Matter protests and the protests after the death of Sarah Everard were pivotal moments for many to understand why more needs to be done in the police system when protecting vulnerable and minoritised groups, including black people and women. Building trust between police officers and minorities is paramount after these events, but also after personal occurrences where individuals felt that they had been mistreated by officers.  A 2021 study on knife crime and trust between police and young people in East London demonstrates that a lack of trust between both parties leads to a lack of cooperation, generating feelings of unsafety and the likelihood of carrying a knife to protect oneself [35]. Other research emphasises this point: the lack of trust between police and individuals can lead to more knife-carrying as a response to threats or fear of violence in their community when they don’t trust police officers to help them appropriately [36]. The 2021/25 plan states that trust needs to be rebuilt, confidence in policing needs to be increased and this can be done through MPs engaging with Black communities regaining trust and ensuring that commitments in the plan are delivered. Within this framework, police officers must adhere to professional standards to ensure that  ‘London’s diverse communities will be represented’; as well as to reduce discriminative tactics in stop and searches, such as ‘the smell of cannabis being a predominant false reason to stop and search Black men’ [37]

Stop and Search
It is important to note that multiple research reports have concluded that stop and search powers are rooted in racism and are not an effective solution to knife/gun crime [38]. A recent study found that in 2019/20, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people were 4.1 times more likely to be stop and searched than White people [39]. Black people as a whole were 8.9 times more likely to be stopped. Academic studies have looked into this with one white male stating ‘I’ve never been searched, they always search black people; ‘when I’m out and about, I wouldn’t feel like police are paying any attention to me, but that would change if I had a different skin colour’ [40]. The interviewee further states that police officers have an image of criminals built on racial biases and stereotypes.

Despite the new crime plan focusing on increased stop and searches, young people and experts state that removing all weapons from the street will not deter violence as those weapons will be back the next day. This is because such powers do not address  ‘the root causes’ of crime, and because police officers often ‘lack local insight’ where they don’t have an understanding of what communities go through which would be beneficial to reduce violence [41]. For this reason, police forces need to increase diversity and tackle racism, especially when dealing with BAME communities. This can decrease the imbalance of power often seen between white officers and young Black men, especially during stop and searches which sew distrust between officers and members of the community. Combatting this will mean police officers need to remove the image of what they believe a criminal looks like and spend time in communities to gain a better understanding of cultural differences and young people living in those areas experience on a day-to-day basis.

The 2021-25 plan seems to have taken on approaches visibly in previously successful street crime interventions, which is a good start. More can always be done to reduce violence and it is essential to adapt a new programme to its surroundings. Copying and pasting what other countries have done will not suffice and addressing the structural issues present in our communities is an important first step. We must address the lack of funding to community centres in London, budget cuts and job losses, the misconduct and violent discriminative behaviour by officers and the lack of diversity in police forces. Furthermore, more engagement with those in academia can be deemed helpful to tackle theories related to knife and gun crime that are rooted in racism (see more below under critique to research, p14). 

Gang Matrix
After the 2011 London Riots, the gang matrix database was established as a way to identify harmful members within different boroughs. The gang matrix has been highly criticised over time as individuals can be added to the matrix solely based on being friends with someone deemed a high risk [43]. Critics of the database also state that the matrix discriminates against ethnic minorities, specifically Black individuals. Recently in February 2022, the human rights campaign group ‘Liberty’ threatened to file legal action against the Met Police. A lawyer at Liberty said ‘We all want to feel safe in our communities, but the gangs matrix isn’t about keeping us safe – it’s about keeping tabs on and controlling people, with communities of colour and Black people worst affected [44]. The gang matrix is fuelled heavily by racist stereotypes: based on who people are friends with, who their family members are, where they live, and where they go’. Around 86.55% of those on the matrix are Black, Asian or an Ethnic Minority and 79% are Black. 

After this potential legal action was filed, around 1000 Black men had been removed from the matrix and a review by Sadiq Khan revealed that 38% of people listed on the matrix posed little to no harm. Further efforts made following a review by the Mayor of London include an annual review of the gang matrix.  Other actions include: a full reappraisal of those listed ‘green’ (zero harm);  a newly found board implemented that focuses on equality and human rights and tracks and scrutinises all activity regarding the matrix; a focus on better-capturing data; data protection; improved transparency and annual reports to a newly formed group who oversees the matrix and monitors the implementation of recommendations[45]

Critique to research relating ‘drill’ music to violent crimes
Research around knife crime and gun crime in London is not new. Trending conclusions tie knife crime to gang violence and gang violence to communities with higher poverty, social exclusion and single-parent households with a focus on Black communities [46].

A dangerous remark found in a study by ‘Policy Exchange’ states that they found 23% of homicides in 2019 to be related to drill music and a third of homicides related to drill music in 2018 [47]. This study also made its way to ‘The Independent’ [48] and the ‘Daily Mail [49]’, with headlines stating that ‘1 in 3 gangland murders in London linked to drill music’. The report states that these figures are ‘likely to be underestimates’ due to their analysis relying on open-source data. The report also states that drill music makes crime seem acceptable and that crime advances careers in drill music. However, the levels of inquiry are superficial as there is no information in the report that states how they reached this conclusion and what method of research was undertaken. Two quotes are presented by a drill rapper and a judge stating that drill music relates to violent acts. However, this is not sufficient evidence for  such a claim. Another remark in the report states that drill music and knife crime should be viewed through a ‘hate crime lens’ and that drill rappers should receive the same amount of scrutiny as those who commit hate crimes. The report states ‘we have to ask ourselves why if a far-right activist was jailed for branding immigrants and refugees as rapists at a series of marches that were linked to an attack on two Asian men, drill rappers, whose lyrics are frequently linked to the hundreds of stabbings based on gang identity in London, do not receive similar scrutiny and treatment’. This statement firstly, once again, suggests that drill music is linked to hundreds of stabbings. This figure is very vague and there is no indication of how this figure was attained or what kind of research was conducted to verify this data. Secondly, the example provided suggests that hate crimes and knife crimes should be viewed through the same lens, despite obvious differences. Hate crimes are crimes against someone based on race, religion, sexuality or disability. The report dangerously suggests someone who calls a refugee a rapist and attacks them is similar to talking about inciting violence in a song. 

A study by Ilan in 2020 concludes that statements suggesting links between drill music and knife crime in London is based on an ‘illiterate understanding of the genre and rests on stereotypes of young black men as violent gang members’. Black communities in Britain have been over-policed and this argument leads to criminalising drill music and black culture. Ilan’s study says, ‘it dismisses the ability of the urban disadvantaged to produce and participate in abstract artistic expression and cultural complexity – criminalising drill music would appear to be rooted in existing patterns of stereotyping’. Furthermore, drill music is seen by many as a form of expression and negotiating their relationship to hardship and danger. Other studies report that drill music lyrics are abstract when it comes to violence and cannot be related to violent killings based on an analysis of music, lyrics and crimes in London. Policing the black arts simply provides a dangerous narrative towards ‘black music’ and suggests that it cannot reach ‘the same level of sophistication as their white counterparts’. Nonetheless, the report states that drill music is not ‘bad’ and demonstrates cases where the music industry allows ex-criminals to be role models which can be harmful to young children.

The argument that drill music incites violent murders underlies the discriminatory motivations behind stop and searches. For example, one drill rapper was recording a music video when armed police forces intervened to stop him from filming unjustly.  The ‘Policy Exchange’ report, indicates that stop and searches are essential and were not disproportionately used in Black communities,  according to a report from the Met Police. However, it is unlikely that the police will release a report stating that their tactics are discriminative. A report released by the Mayor of London in 2019 revealed that 38% of young people from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds felt the police treated them with respect relating to stop and searches compared to 66% of White people​​.

Social Media
Newer research has been looking at social media as a driving factor in the increased number of homicides. Previous Met Police Chief, Cressida Dick, stated that social media makes it harder for people to cool down [55]. She stated that gangs may provoke rival gangs on social media platforms and can lead to a fight very quickly. However, robust research with evidence has not been done to support this claim.

Police Misconduct – Racism
On February 1st, 2022, a report on police misconduct by ‘The Independent Office for Police Misconduct’ (IOPS) was released [56]. This report revealed misconduct in the Met Police pertaining to racism, sexism, misogyny, domestic violence, drug use and bullying.

The IOPS found evidence of communications of racist nature and repeated mocking in messages of the Black Lives Matter movement [57]. It notes: ‘Black and Asian police officers spoke of being ostracised’. 

This evidence is shocking and important. Police officers are trusted to work ethically and protect communities. However, evidence shows that multiple officers have displayed racist and other discriminatory behaviours. Stop and searches have already been viewed as a discriminatory practice that furthers distrust between ethnically diverse communities and police officers. Training in police forces around diversity and non-discriminatory behaviour needs to be done. Further investigation is also required to gain an understanding of why such behaviours are going unnoticed and how the professional culture and environment of police forces contribute to this problem. Continuous racist behaviours from police officers are not only disheartening and upsetting at an emotional level; such behaviour prevents communities from engaging and trusting officers,  preventing any real change from happening

On February 10th 2022, Dame Cressida Dick resigned from her post as Chief of Metropolitan Police after the Mayor of London put her on notice upon the release of the IOPS report on police misconduct. Following this, two of the officers being investigated were promoted and nine were left to continue serving in the Met. It has been reported that Khan requested a meeting with Dick to tackle the institutional issues present within the police force; however, she did not attend the meeting. Dick stated upon her release ‘It is clear that the mayor no longer has sufficient confidence in my leadership to continue. He has left me no choice but to step aside as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service ’ [58]. The Mayor of London’s response to her departure was as follows:  ‘Last week, I made clear to the Metropolitan police commissioner the scale of the change I believe is urgently required to rebuild the trust and confidence of Londoners in the Met and to root out the racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, discrimination and misogyny that still exists. I am not satisfied with the commissioner’s response’

The departure of Cressida Dick serves as just the tip of the iceberg with regards to the systemic problems present within the police force and their failures to address any of their structural and institutional issues. 

At Action on Armed Violence, we believe that it is necessary to investigate the handling of homicides by the Met Police, specifically those relating to knife and gun crimes. We need to investigate whether there is a correlation between the handling of homicides, the ethnicity of the victims and the ethnicity of police officers.

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Overall, this report has demonstrated key figures inside Knife and Gun-related homicides with a focus on London.

Key gaps in available research have been found that need to be addressed, investigated and analysed:

1.   Notions of Masculinity – To look at ideas of masculinity in Black communities around London (i.e., what makes a man?). It is essential to understand what notions of masculinity are present in communities that currently have the highest rates of knife and gun crime-related homicides. Views on masculinity vary and we need to understand whether there are views in the most violent communities that suggest that masculinity is defined by being violent or dominant. By doing this, we may gain a deeper understanding of whether toxic masculinity is present and what has contributed to this, enabling us to understand how this phenomenon can be tackled.

2.   Perpetrator motives – Interviewing perpetrators. There has been limited research around researchers interviewing perpetrators of knife and gun crime. By talking with them we can gain a deeper understanding of what their motives were and what is needed to stop the continuous cycle of knife and gun violence.

3.   The ripple effect of Knife/Gun crimes on families and communities – Interviewing the families of the victims and analysing what effect this has – whether it fuels future knife crime in communities or families.

4.   Police force engagement with communities – Communication between policymakers, government and communities. Understanding experiences between police, policymakers and families of the victims or perpetrators through discussions can enable us to gauge a deeper and essential understanding of present or past relationships between individuals and police officers. All parties need to work together to find solutions towards reducing knife and gun crimes. Furthermore, a deeper investigation into how police units interact with communities and perpetrators will present to us an idea of the kind of communication and involvement that takes place.

5.   Policy decisions – Government funding in communities (funding towards social works and community centres).  We need to further investigate policy decisions that affect communities, such as budget cuts to local youth centres, and the effect this has on violence increasing specifically amongst younger people. 

Limited research has been done on the below topics and should be analysed more in-depth regarding our investigation.

–    Identifying areas of London where knife crime occurs – Identity being found in a location, or identity being found in poverty.
–    Ethnicity of doctors treating patients with knife/gun wounds and the ethnicity of patients who lived and died.

Further investigation into issues that this report has revealed, in correspondence with existing research, is needed in the following areas:  

–    A detailed list of ethnicities not solely based on a concept of race;
–    A better understanding of gang activity in the UK;
–    Tackling the notion that knife and gun crimes are a ‘Black Crime’ (data from previous years reveal this is not true and is not true for cities outside of London);
–    Tackling the concept of tying street crime to (‘black’) drill music;
–    Tackling the argument that social media has caused an increase in violent murders;
– Addressing allegations of racism in the Metropolitan police.

Sources:

https://aoav.org.uk/2022/londons-murders-examined-key-figures-in-the-uk-capitals-homicides/

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/08/19/man-charged-murder-grandfather-stabbed-death-mobility-scooter/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-59836010

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/may/01/london-killings-its-like-a-war-zone-how-did-it-come-to-this

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1473225419893781

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