A London murder mystery: Why are killings up?

Hardly a week goes by without the photograph of another murder victim - often young, black and male - in the British media.

But it took a dramatic Sunday Times headline after a recent spate of killings to wake everyone up: London's murder rate, it announced, had beaten New York's.

Cue alarm bells and a political blame game. It's a finger-pointing exercise familiar to most countries and cities where violent crime is an issue, from Baltimore to Chicago and Stockholm to Glasgow. One side wants more policing. The other favours more prevention and better social services. The culture clash represents an unfortunate truth: Nobody really knows what makes violent crime rise and fall.

Yet as Britain debates a new policy for fighting violent crime released by Home Secretary Amber Rudd this week, there are some reasons to be hopeful.

First, though, about that headline: You have to be a serious worrywart to convince yourself you're more likely to be murdered in London than in New York. Last year, there were 130 murders in London (excluding terrorist offences) to New York's 292. That is, New York had more than twice as many homicides as London, a city that's roughly the same size. So London's murder rate, despite that misleading Sunday Times headline, is much lower.

It's only during February and last month that things seem to have grown worse in London, with the number of homicides rising slightly above the New York figure. That hardly counts as a trend and the actual murder rate probably wasn't measurably higher anyway.

But the direction of travel matters most here. New York had fewer murders in 2017 than in any year since the 1950s, just 13 per cent of the number of killings recorded at the peak of its crime wave at the height of the crack epidemic in 1990.

Britain, on the other hand, has been growing more violent since 2014 after years of decreasing rates, even accounting for the many difficulties in reporting and measuring crime. Reported levels of violent crime in England and Wales rose 20 per cent in the year ending on Sept 30, 2017. Knife assaults were up by a fifth, while the UK has one of the highest rates of recorded acid attacks in the world.

A nation's debate over the causes and solutions to violent crime says much about its values and politics. Britain's challenge now is to combine the toughness of traditional approaches with progressive community-based services and prevention.

The Conservative Party was traditionally more trusted than its Labour rivals when it came to fighting crime. Conservatives generally favoured robust policing, stop-and-search powers and strong sentencing. Many Conservatives see immigration (or lack of immigrant integration) as a contributor to increases in violent crime. Some have even linked rising violence to what they see as misguided prosecutorial focus on politically "fashionable" offences such as date rape and hate crime.

Yet Conservatives aren't quite so quick to lay blame now. It was then Home Secretary, and now Prime Minister, Theresa May who rolled back stop-and-search powers for police, arguing they were being used to target ethnic minorities. The number of random searches is now a quarter of what it was in 2011, when the police conducted 1.2 million of them. Conservatives also presided over cuts to police budgets and still maintain that this isn't to blame for the recent rise in violence.

Nor is the Labour Party the soft touch it was before former prime minister Tony Blair made crime-fighting a major plank in the late 1990s. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Labour member, is now echoing the Blair-era slogan, "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". He lashed out against policing cuts, citing them as a major contributor to London's crime problem, while also calling for increases in social services that target prevention and at-risk youth.

In other words, both left and right have had their failures in crime fighting and the debate has moved on.

Now, new techniques are in vogue. Scotland managed to nearly halve violent crime in a decade, following an approach advocated by the World Health Organisation, which calls for collaboration across different layers of society, from local communities to national institutions. London police chief Cressida Dick wants her officers to have more stop-and-search powers. She has also highlighted the role of illicit drugs and social media in the homicides, and has echoed calls for violent crime to be treated as a public-health issue, in which greater resources are focused on preventive services for at-risk teenagers.

That doesn't mean that the debate about the impact of police numbers on crime is going away, as a spat over a leaked Home Office report showed this week. For both major parties, it's useful voter signalling for a commitment to crime fighting. But a lot of Britons now agree with the sheriff of Jacksonville, Florida, who said in a 2016 report: "We cannot arrest our way out of this problem."

The second change is the accumulation and sharing across cities and countries of crime-related data and studies. There are studies to show that violence is worse when policing legitimacy is compromised by official misconduct. One United States study notes that the likelihood that a child under 14 will eventually commit a murder can be predicted by four factors: living in a poor neighbourhood, having low socio-economic status, having a young mother or having an unemployed one. Boys with all four were five times more likely to commit murder than others.

The data make one thing impossible to ignore: It's complicated. That means solutions will not be found in simplistic formulas such as more policing or body-searching.

Home Secretary Rudd's 111-page document is data intensive and attacks the problem from different angles (though it probably doesn't throw enough money at any of them). The government will pass legislation in the next few weeks to ban rapid-fire rifles and bump stocks; it will outlaw gruesome zombie knives and other such weapons and ban carrying corrosive substances used in acid attacks in public without good reason.

The study identifies various contributors to the rise in violence, including the growing use of crack in England and Wales. Perhaps most interestingly, it finds that social media is spreading violent tendencies: "There is strong evidence that rival gangs are using social media to promote gang culture, taunt one another and incite violence. Some gang members have thousands of followers. Research shows the most viewed comments and videos are the ones most likely to result in retaliatory violence. This glamorises weapons and gang life, possibly leading to emulation."

If peaceful cities are all similar, violent ones are their own particular pockets of hell. But a nation's debate over the causes and solutions to violent crime says much about its values and politics. Britain's challenge now is to combine the toughness of traditional approaches with progressive community-based services and prevention. Surprise: Things aren't quite as bad as the headlines make them seem.


• Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2018, with the headline 'A London murder mystery: Why are killings up?'. Print Edition | Subscribe