The recent tragic deaths of Elianne Andam, Taye Faik, Max Moy Wheatley and Keelen Morris Wong have once again put knife crime on the front pages. These heartbreaking incidents compel us to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Why did these events occur? Could they have been avoided? How can we stop them from happening again?
In order to address knife crime effectively, we need to understand the full extent of the problem. In the Shadow Home Secretary’s recent speech to the Labour Party conference, Yvette Cooper highlighted the 70% increase in knife crime in England over the last eight years, but not all data shows the same trend. So what’s really going on?
Police data does indeed show that knife violence has increased over the past decade
The police record knife crime by labelling each offence by whether a knife or other sharp object was used. For example, someone may commit a robbery and use a knife – this would be flagged as a knife enabled crime. Based on this measure, knife crime increased by 90% between 2012/13 and 2019/20 in England and Wales. And, though it fell in 2020/21 due to COVID-19 social distancing measures, it has since increased in 2021/22 and 2022/23, and is now 75% higher than in 2012/13.
Police figures for knife enabled crime are up nearly three quarters on a decade ago
Violent and sexual offences involving a knife or sharp instrument recorded by the police in England and Wales – number and percentage change from 2012/13 to 2022/23i
All forces saw an increase over this period, with Gwent registering the largest percentage increase between 2012/13 and 2022/23, up nearly fivefold. London saw a relatively small increase of just 20% over that period, but police recorded knife crime remains disproportionately high in the capital, accounting for 27% of all such offences in England and Wales in 2022/23, while making up only 15% of the population.
Police recorded knife crime has gone up in the past decade in all police force areas
Violent and sexual offences involving a knife or sharp instrument recorded by the police in England and Wales – percentage change from 2012/13 to 2022/23 for individual police force areasii
It may come as a surprise that places like London haven’t seen the biggest increases. Some of this is down to the relative amounts of crime police forces have dealt with historically. Several of the forces that experienced the largest percentage increases had very low numbers to begin with, so a relatively small increase in the number of incidents looks like a very large increase proportionally. Whereas some areas, like the West Midlands, saw the largest increases in terms of the actual number of incidents, but didn’t rank that high in terms of percentage increase because they had high numbers to begin with. Other factors such as improvements in the recording of knife crime and County Lines activity exporting drug related violence across the country could also explain some of the differences between police forces, although we can’t say for sure.
Police recorded knife crime is lower than before COVID in most areas, but higher in some
Violent and sexual offences involving a knife or sharp instrument recorded by the police in England and Wales – percentage change from 2019/20 to 2022/23 for individual police force areasiii
All forces reported a fall in knife crime between 2019/20 and 2020/21, coinciding with the COVID-19 restrictions. And all forces have since seen an increase. While police-reported knife crime remains below pre-pandemic levels nationally, 38% of forces reported higher levels of knife crime in 2022/23 than in 2019/20. Staffordshire showed the greatest increase compared to 2019/20 (the year before Covid) – 46%. Bedfordshire had the largest decrease – 31% down on their 2019/20 figures.
Based on police figures alone, it does look like, on average, knife violence has surged in recent years. It increased by nearly 90% in the seven years to 2019/20. And despite falling over the pandemic, has since rebounded and in several parts of the country now exceeds pre-COVID levels.
However, since Covid, hospital admissions for knife crime have fallen.
Another measure of knife crime is the number of people admitted to hospital for injuries from assault with a knife or sharp object. Based on this measure, knife violence increased by 31% from 2012/13 to 2018/19. These numbers had already started to fall before COVID-19 and have continued to fall, despite national COVID-19 restrictions being lifted. The number of admissions to hospital due to knife assault is now actually 5% lower compared to a decade ago. This is in contrast to the police data, that suggests knife crime has rebounded following the ending of national COVID-19 restrictions.
Hospital admissions are a useful measure of the most serious forms of violence, as they capture incidents where someone’s injured sufficiently to be admitted to hospital. They also don’t depend on whether the incident was reported to or recorded by the police, so in some respects might be seen as a better measure of trends in violence over time. However, trends in knife-related admissions could be influenced by other factors, such as the pattern in overall hospital admissions and increasing pressures on the NHS. Therefore, we can’t rely on them fully.
Hospital admissions for knife assault are lower than a decade ago
NHS hospital admissions in England and Wales for assault with sharp objects – number and percentage change from 2012/13 to 2022/23iv
And homicides due to knife assault are also on a downward trend.
A final way to measure knife crime is through the number of homicides that are attributed to a knife or sharp object. This captures the most extreme consequence of knife violence. It’s worth saying this data is more volatile than the other measures, due to the small numbers of people that lose their lives. However, they’re likely to be the most accurate, as virtually all homicides will be reported and recorded.
Much like the hospital admissions data, homicides due to knife assault actually peaked before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data reported by the police for England and Wales, in 2017/18 265 victims were killed by knives – up 46% compared to 2012/13 – but this number fell in both 2018/19 and 2019/20. Homicides fell further during the national lockdowns and bounced back in the year immediately afterwards. However, the latest data for 2022/23 shows homicides due to knife assault are down again. Although the number (219) is still 20% higher than it was a decade ago, it is 17% lower than the 2017/18 figure. Overall, this suggest a slight downward trend from the pre-COVID spike.
Homicide due to knives is higher than a decade ago but has recently fallen
Homicides involving a knife or sharp instrument recorded by the police in England and Wales – number and percentage change from 2012/13 to 2022/23v
So what’s going on?
There’s little doubt that violence linked to knives increased from the mid-2010’s, peaking in around 2018. All data sources point to this. And knife crime dropped during the national COVID-19 restrictions. It’s after then that the different data sources diverge.
We can conclude from hospital admissions and homicides data that fewer knife crime victims are being injured and killed compared to record highs prior to the pandemic. Homicides in particular are likely to provide the most reliable indicator of trends in the most extreme types of knife crime over time, as they’re less susceptible to changes in the healthcare system or in who reports a crime and how it’s recorded. However, no one data source provides the full picture. Police figures do provide a useful indicator of the extent knives and weapons are involved in the crimes they deal with. And while this is lower than its peak in 2019/20, it has been rebounding since the end of COVID-19 restrictions.
What we know for certain is that the prevalence of knife violence remains unacceptably high. Every victim of knife violence is an avoidable tragedy. No matter what the trends, we need to understand what drives a person to carry and use a knife. We need to find out what works to stop knife crime and use that knowledge to bring about long-lasting change. To find out what works to prevent children and young people becoming involved in violence, visit the YEF Toolkit.
What works to stop knife crime?
The YEF Toolkit summarises the best available research about what works to prevent youth violence. Below are the approaches which have a high impact on preventing violence, along with those specifically focused on knife crime.
|Social skills training
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|Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
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|A and E navigators
1 2 3 4 5
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|Knife crime education programmes
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|Knife surrender schemes
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BlogJon Yates, Executive Director at the Youth Endowment Fund, presents Radio 4's Analysis programme to investigate.
BlogThe Youth Endowment Fund’s Jon Yates, joins Dr Marcellus Baz founder of Switch Up, Coco Khan and Nish Kumar on the Pod Save the UK podcast to discuss the practical solutions to preventing knife crime. You can watch the episode below. Want to find out more about the Youth Endowment Fund’s work to prevent knife…