Headlines over the Easter weekend made for grim reading: London’s murder rate has overtaken New York’s for the first time. The two cities are similar in size. In February and March 37 Londoners were fatally stabbed or shot, compared with 33 in NYC.
These tragic numbers tell us something about the success of New York in tackling violent crime. The policy there for some time has been one of a coordinated response, community focused prevention work, and intelligent law enforcement. Efforts to reduce people’s entrenchment in the justice system have been key, with excellent non profits such as the Center for Court Innovation and the Vera Institute leading the way in working across the justice spectrum, from courts to prisons and re-entry into society. Targeted violence interruption programmes have also played their part. Since the 1990s New York’s homicide rate has dropped by an impressive 87%.
In contrast, London’s murder rate has risen by 40% in three years: a tragic indictment of the failures of public policy in our city in my opinion. As a wise former colleague from New York used to say, to understand whether public policy succeeds or fails, “count the bodies”. Death is a binary outcome and the starkness of such data can attest as to whether the system is doing its job in preserving lives.
Easter weekend culminated with the tragic shooting deaths of teenagers in Tottenham and Walthamstow. At midnight the following evening, teenagers held a silent peace protest at Wood Green. They stood in a circle in the middle of the busy junction holding hands, an echo of the recent student led anti school shooting movement in the US. Shock and grief permeated through affected communities, as news of more violentdeaths on London’s streets came in. By the middle of the first week of April the total number of Londoners who have lost their lives to violence stood at fifty.
As the Metropolitan Police Commissioner embarks on a series of fact finding trips to places like New York and the West Midlands, it begs the question: why has City Hall been oblivious to the existence of excellent, evidenced interventions until now, whilst allowing the situation to deteriorate rapidly?
There are strong solutions with a solid evidence base. They do not require significant extra spending. Taking an epidemiological view of violence as demonstrated by the work of the Violence Reduction Unit in Glasgow, deploying positive deviance methodology to build up resilience against the propensity to engage in violence, placing the police on a restorative justice footing as was done to great effect in County Durham and training cops in procedural justice techniques to improve the effectiveness of stop and search: practitioners and reformers have been telling City Hall these things for a while. An ecology of these low cost high impact interventions can have a drastic effect on improving public safety. We have seen that allowing these ‘small sanities’ to flourish works in New York and Glasgow. In London we need our small sanities too.
We must be clear that the only people responsible for violence on our streets are those who perpetrate it. Politicians’ duty is to listen to communities at risk, pay heed to the solutions offered by specialists, and to act quickly to ensure lasting change. Sadiq Khan has some smart people around him, including his deputy mayors. London hopes they advise him to act: he is not immune to political challenge. Recent deselections by local Labour Party members of incumbent politicians in Newham and Haringey tell the story of a shifting political landscape.
To paraphrase the famous Edmund Burke quote, the only thing that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to ignore evidence. If the current administration pursues the path of politics over proof, Londoners will continue to see a deterioration of their safety. Some may pay with their lives. It may cost someone their political career, but the human cost to ordinary Londoners is much more significant.