Sun 3 Dec 2017
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.
Of the 35 children and teenagers who have been killed with knives in Britain
so far this year, not one has been in Scotland. By contrast, in England and
Wales, 2017 looks set to become the worst year for deaths of young people by
knives in nearly a decade, according to figures revealed by the Guardian’s
Beyond the blade project, which aims to show the true picture of knife deaths
among children and teenagers in the UK.
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.
The number of people carrying knives also appears to have declined across
Scotland. According to figures from Police Scotland, there was 10,110 recorded
incidents of handling an offensive weapon in 2006-07, a figure which fell to
3,111 in 2015-16 – a decline of 69% in a decade.
The Scottish Police Federarion and police officers have raised concerns in
recent years that true extent of violent crime excluding murder might not be
fully represented in the figures. Crime recording methods were changed in
April 2017 and Police Scotland say knife crime has always been accurately
recorded in the country.
Some of Scotland’s success in tackling knife crime is due to factors that are
arguably unique to Scotland. But there are also lessons here for the rest of the
UK in general and London in particular. The evidence from Scotland suggests
that while knife crime, like most crimes, can never be eradicated, it need not
be understood as an intractable, cultural feature of urban life. To successfully
tackle it, however, there needs to be a shift in understanding of the root causes
of the problem and, therefore, what a durable solution might look like.