On the evening of 2 April, 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne-Blake died in her mother’s arms following a drive-by shooting in Tottenham, north London. Half an hour later, 16-year-old Amaan Shakoor was shot in the face in another London district, Walthamstow, in an unrelated attack. He died in hospital the following day. On 4 April, 18-year-old Israel Ogunsola was fatally stabbed in the shadow of a railway bridge in Hackney, northeast London. His death marked London’s 52nd murder of 2018.
On Monday 9 April, the UK government unveiled a long-awaited Serious Violence Strategy, pledging £40 million ($56.8 million) to stem the bloodshed caused by an uptick in knife and gun crime. It named four policy priorities: first, tackling the drug trade, which it blamed for the rise in street violence. Second, investing in early intervention and prevention services. Next, strengthening collaboration between justice, health and education sectors. Finally, the government pledged new controls on the sale of firearms, knives and corrosive substances.
But perhaps the strategy’s greatest barrier is the least discussed: the scant evidence base for violence prevention measures in England and Wales. The evaluation of early intervention projects in England and Wales lags far behind the US and even neighbouring Scotland. Existing projects often overlap, but their impact remains unknown. Can policymakers tackle the burgeoning epidemic, when they are still largely in the dark when it comes to knowing what works?
Stemming the bleeding
Experts Apolitical spoke to gave mixed reviews to the strategy as a whole. But there was support for the £11 million ($15.6 million) ringfenced for early intervention projects aimed at stopping potentially violent individuals participating in crime in the first place. “Investing money into early intervention programs should always be welcomed,” said WIll Linden, Acting Director of Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), which was widely credited with engineering a vast drop in the city’s homicide rate — 60% in a decade.
Linden also praised the £3.6 million ($5 million) set aside for a task force to combat the trafficking of drugs from urban centres into surrounding towns, often using vulnerable children as young as 12 as drug mules. This approach to regional organised crime, known as “county lines”, is an increasingly dire problem in England — thousands of children may have been drawn in to work across an estimated 720 “lines”. Once-quiet towns from Kent to Northumbria are reporting unprecedented types of crime, including the use of sexual assault as a punishment.
“It’s a major issue across the country,” said Linden, “it connects youth violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking — all wrapped around this one deviant industry.”
But some observers have said that, wherever it is spent, the amount of money the government is promising is simply not sufficient. The overall spend equates to just 5% of the £757 million ($1 billion) set aside for counter-terrorism in 2018-19. Funding for youth offending teams fell by half between 2010 and 2017, from £145 million ($205.6 million) to £72 million ($102 million).
Dame Vera Baird QC, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria in Northern England and former MP for the left wing opposition Labour party, was scathing: “£40 million spread across 43 UK police forces for one year will change nothing after the loss of 20,000 police officers and hundreds of millions of pounds in cuts to police budgets, local authority funding, and social services. It’s absolutely risible,” she said.
And others argue that the limited funding will do little to help struggling small towns outside of urban centres like London and Birmingham. Craig Pinkney, the director of a gangs outreach project who works in communities across the UK, spoke of worrying knowledge gaps on youth violence among frontline workers in many provincial towns. The funding will not stretch to retrain them, he said, and it risks undermining efforts to control spiralling drug-related violence in small towns.
In search of data
Clashes over the specifics of the government’s plans were to be expected, but on one overarching and much more serious issue, there is a grim consensus: for the strategy to succeed, the government would need access to far more evidence on what works.
“There are already dozens of community initiatives and violence reduction programs run by councils and the third sector, but we don’t have much idea of how many there are or what they are doing,” said Ben Bradford, Professor of Global City Policing at University College London. “We have almost no information on whether they are successful or not.”
Some evidence does exist on what works to reduce violent crime. For example, training ex-gang members to prevent homicides cut shootings by 41% to 73% across seven of Chicago’s most violent communities, and in Glasgow, a focused deterrence program cut knife possession by 59% and violence by 46% among participating members.
But relatively few of those measures have been adapted to an English or Welsh context and rigorously evaluated. Governments who want to tackle violent crime cannot rely on evidence from elsewhere, because so many of the factors that create and sustain violence are highly specific to communities and groups of people.
“We’ve been asked a lot if England should just copy what we do in Scotland,” said Linden, “and my answer is an unequivocal no. The problem is different; you can’t just go to Scotland, New York, or L.A. — you need to develop local responses.” That’s exactly what Glasgow did: its gang reduction program borrowed from interventions in Boston, Cincinnati and Chicago, but its implementation was strictly Glaswegian. Recreational violence, not organised crime, was plaguing the city, so that’s what the project focused on.
“Most good, solid, academic evaluations tend to come out of the United States because that’s where the research spend is. It doesn’t mean they’re doing the best work — it just means they’re evaluating it,” argued Linden.
With stronger focus on research funding in the UK might come keener policy decisions, he argues. “For any of this to work, it has to be evidence-led. It cannot be political in any way, shape or form.”
England and Wales are not alone in being plagued by scant evidence: violence prevention is structurally underfunded across the world. One report found that of $174 billion total official development assistance in 2015, less than 0.6% was allocated to preventing violence against children, of which a tiny proportion goes on project evaluation and research. Low- and middle-income countries fare worst: almost 90% of all scientific knowledge comes from the United States and a bundle of wealthy European countries, according to the WHO.
Research funding won’t help the Tanesha Melbourne-Blakes, Amaan Shakoors, or Israel Ogunsolas who might lose their lives this week or next. But the success of any attempt to tackle serious violence in the long term depends on it.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Paul Townsend)