Cure for youth violence?

Treating youth crime as a public health issue has worked in Scotland

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Treating youth violence as a public health issue

By Diane Cooke

The policing minister has told youth workers mourning the shooting of a colleague that “we know we cannot police our way out of the crisis of youth violence”.

Nick Hurd said the Home Office was examining the public health model that has been used successfully in Scotland to reduce the number of knife attacks and teen murders.

It comes after the approach was highlighted by the Evening Standard, leading to the launch of its Save London Lives Fund which will support community projects trying to turn the tide of violence.

It comes at a time when youth violence is at a 10-year high. London's murder rate overtook New York's for the first time, with the Met Police launching 89 investigations this year.

The total number of offences involving a knife or bladed instrument that have been recorded by cops in the year to March 2018 rose to 40,147, a seven-year-high.

There was also a two per cent spike in the number of gun-related crimes too - that is now at 6,492. There have been 89 suspected murders in London since January 2018, compared with 50 in New York during that same period.

There were 116 murders in the capital during the whole of 2017.

However, treating knife crime as a health issue has led to a dramatic drop in stabbings: of the 35 deaths of young people in Britain in 2017, none were in Scotland.

In 2005, Strathclyde police set up a violence reduction unit (VRU) in an effort to address a problem that had made Glasgow, in particular, notorious. Later that year, a United Nations report illustrated why that strategy was so urgent.

The study concluded that Scotland was the most violent country in the developed world. Based on telephone interviews with crime victims conducted between 1991 and 2000, it found that excluding murder, Scots were almost three times as likely to be assaulted as Americans and 30 times more likely than the Japanese.

The VRU, which is directly funded by the Scottish government and has an arms-length relationship with Police Scotland, was later rolled out across Scotland. It has adopted a public health approach to knife crime, in which the police work with those in the health, education and social work sectors to address the problem. The results so far have been dramatic.

Between April 2006 and April 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in homicides involving a knife in Scotland; between 2011 and 2016, that figure fell to just eight. The decline has been most precipitous in Glasgow, which once had one of the highest murder rates in western Europe. Between 2006 and 2011, 15 children and teenagers were killed with knives in Scotland’s largest city; between April 2011 and April 2016, none were.

Sentences for knife crime were substantially increased, but the police also identified likely offenders and asked them to attent the Sheriff's Court. There they saw pictures of themselves to show that the police knew who they were. They listened to a mother who had lost her son in a stabbing incident and the gravity of it hit home to many.

Treating youth violence as a public health issue is a model now being looked at in the UK.

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