'You did not deserve this': Deadly knife attacks spark national horror in Britain

People visit the area close to where 17-year-old Jodie Chesney was killed, at the Saint Neots Play Park in Harold Hill, east London on March 3, 2019.
People visit the area close to where 17-year-old Jodie Chesney was killed, at the Saint Neots Play Park in Harold Hill, east London on March 3, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Colin Spash watched as his 11-year-old daughter, Lily, bent down and added her small bouquet of red roses to the pile of flowers. Handwritten notes, damp from the light London rain, were scattered across the colourful display. One read simply: "You did not deserve this."

In a children's playground just steps away, another victim of a fatal knife attack in the British capital had bled to death. Jodie Chesney was 17 years old, a proud Scout and model student before her murder a week ago woke a country up to an epidemic that is now dominating the political agenda.

The national horror at a young girl lying dead on the street has disturbed a country already struggling to contain bitter divisions over leaving the European Union (EU) that have poisoned much of the political debate.

Knife crime has been rising for years in England, jumping to the highest level since at least 2011 last year.

But a dozen deaths by stabbing in London alone this year has shocked the country because of the apparent indiscriminate nature of many. Police were seeking witnesses to another killing on Thursday afternoon (March 7) in the west of the city.

"Usually it's gang related or something like that, but when it's an innocent young lady with her whole life ahead of her, it's terrible," said Mr Spash, 46, a former police officer. He said he moved to Harold Hill, the suburban area of London where Jodie was killed, 25 years ago to avoid crime elsewhere.

Britain is going through its most turbulent period for decades as the government tries desperately to negotiate a Brexit deal.

While the focus is on the political drama in Parliament and the stalled talks in Brussels, many voters care more about the fragile state of underfunded state services, such as schools, hospitals and law enforcement.

Police blame the spate of knife attacks on under-funding, a legacy of more than £70 billion (S$124 billion) of government belt tightening since the financial crisis a decade ago.


The budget for officers in Britain has fallen 20 per cent since 2010, when adjusted for inflation. Prime Minister Theresa May oversaw much of the reduction in her previous job as home secretary.

Others say the focus should be on the root social causes of violence and providing facilities and opportunities for young people.

"It's about changing the narrative from focusing exclusively on knife wielding perpetrators to vulnerable frightened young people who deserve to be protected and to have their voices heard," said Mr Franklyn Addo, 25, who works with young victims of violence for the charity Redthread at Homerton Hospital in east London.

"Violence is omnipresent. It doesn't belong to young people and has existed for a long while."

It's now come to the fore. With key Brexit votes looming in Parliament next week, knife crime even usurped Mrs May's Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond faced a barrage of questions about police funding in a round of media interviews on Thursday that would normally have been expected to focus on Brexit.

The opposition Labour Party again accused Mrs May's government of whittling public services so hard that there isn't support for young people caught up in the killings on London's streets.

A row over cuts to the police numbers dominated the crucial final week of campaigning before the 2017 election that cost Mrs May her majority in Parliament. Senior police officers, including the capital's Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, this week contradicted Mrs May's claim that there wasn't a direct correlation between falling police numbers and a rise in violent crime.

Indeed, knives pushed Brexit politics off many newspaper front pages. The Sun tabloid, the country's top-seller, asked "When Will It Stop?" The Mirror said "Another Life Lost." The Guardian reported how police chiefs are demanding extra money to tackle the outbreak.

The mayor of London, Mr Sadiq Khan, wants to treat the proliferation of knife attacks as a public health issue, building on the approach that successfully cut knife crime in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city and a byword for stabbings and slashing for decades.

Mr Khan set up a Violence Reduction Unit based on the Glasgow model, which included rooting out the social causes of gangs and knives as well as greater stop-and-search powers for police. Its director started work this week.

Mr Hammond said police forces should reallocate resources to deal with the upsurge. He promised more money for public services would be made available from cash currently earmarked to mitigate the economic impact of Britain potentially tumbling out of the EU without a deal to safeguard trade.

"What we need to see now is a surging of resources from other areas of policing activity into dealing with this spike in knife crime," Mr Hammond said. "That's what you do in any organisation when you get a specific problem occurring in one area of the operation - you move resources to deal with it."

But for those working on the ground to stop killings on the streets, the remedies are long term and extra police is only part of the solution.

"Violence disproportionately affects those in society who are disadvantaged in different ways," said Mr Mohammed Seedat, who has been overseeing a public health approach in Lambeth, a south London borough that was at the centre of a similar surge in knife crime a decade ago.

Lambeth's plan brings together different organisations and "works with families and young people to remove the issues in their lives that may make them at risk of being victims or perpetrators of violence," Mr Seedat said.

Jodie's family appealed for anyone with information to come forward. The teenager was stabbed in an unprovoked attack while she was socialising with friends, police said. Detective Chief Inspector Dave Whellams, who is leading the investigation, said it was unusual that there was no apparent motive.

Back in the park in Harold Hill, Mr Spash said he quit as a community police officer in 2014 after 14 years because cuts to his team made the job untenable.

He is angry at the burst of crime in his neighbourhood, a leafy area of rows of single-family homes.

Ms Jan Sargent, 58, a local councilor who lives near the park where Jodie was murdered, agreed.

"The police in the area are trying as hard as they can," she said. "The cuts to the police and the resources have stretched the staff we've got to the point we feel it's become desperate."