Blade Runners

    Gerard Lemos is a partner at Lemos & Crane and leads
    its social research team. He has published books and reports on
    social policy, on dealing with crime, particularly racially
    motivated crime, and on supporting vulnerable people. He directs
    RaceActionNet, a web-based action network for practitioners
    tackling racist crime in the home and neighbourhood.

    Media reports of knife crime among young people are increasing.
    Probably the most notorious case was that of 10-year-old Damilola
    Taylor, stabbed to death in November 2000 in Peckham, south London.
    After an initial failed prosecution, three teenagers were charged
    in January 2005 with killing him.

    In another high-profile case 14-year-old Luke Walmsley died from a
    single stab wound to the heart from a 15-year-old boy at his
    school. The inquiry into his death in November 2003 noted the
    school’s “culture of fighting” but not of bullying.

    How big is the problem of knife crime and who is involved? Why do
    they carry or use knives? And what can be done about it? The Bridge
    House Trust, the grant-giving arm of the Corporation of London,
    commissioned social research organisation Lemos & Crane to look
    into the problem and find possible solutions.(1)

    There have also been two other large surveys of young people
    looking at the issue. Charity Communities That Care interviewed
    14,000 students in secondary schools in 2002 for a Joseph Rowntree
    Foundation study.(2) It found that one in 10 boys aged 11 and 12
    reported having carried a knife or other weapon and 8 per cent said
    they had attacked someone intending serious harm. By the age of 16
    this figure rose to 24 per cent admitting to carrying knives and
    other weapons and 19 per cent saying they had used them to attack

    In the second survey Mori interviewed 4,963 young people aged 10-16
    in 219 schools for the Youth Justice Board.(3) This found that 29
    per cent of young people at school admitted they carried a knife.
    Mori also surveyed 586 excluded pupils, again aged 10-16. In that
    group 62 per cent admitted to carrying knives, more than double the
    figure for pupils as a whole.

    Although girls do carry knives, it is far more common among boys,
    particularly those aged 15-16. Carrying knives is more common than
    using them, and using them often, say more than three times, is
    rare. But the problem of knives seems to be growing: arrests for
    carrying knives are rising as is the number of knife wounds dealt
    with in hospital. Indeed, the recently retired Metropolitan Police
    commissioner, Sir John Stevens, pointed to the “knife culture” as a
    big challenge for his successor, Sir Ian Blair.

    Evidence as to whether violent television programmes and computer
    games make young people more violent is inconclusive. Most young
    people watch TV and play computer games but few are violent.
    Nonetheless, some suggest that images of violence can, for some
    young men particularly, contribute to the formation of a violent
    adult identity and that may partly explain the appeal of weapons
    during those formative years.

    For a small group, knife culture is part of a wider culture of
    violence with which they associate and to which they aspire. In
    certain groups or gangs (distinguished by a name, a uniform, a
    hierarchy and a code of rules) carrying or using a knife may bring
    status and authority. In these two cultural senses – status and
    identity formation – carrying knives may be a fashion among some
    young people.

    However, the principal motive is not fashion, but fear. A
    practitioner who worked in a youth offending team told us: “Fear
    outweighs aggression as a motivator. But the fact is knives are not
    defensive weaponsÉthey’re attacking weapons.”

    The fear of bullying and crime may lead young people to carry a
    knife. Most parents whose children carry knives are unaware that
    they do, but some know and encourage it in the misplaced belief
    that it makes them safer. But in the heat of the moment young
    people may use the weapon, or it may be taken and used against
    them, even if they were carrying it for self-defence.
    Unintentionally, the knife increases rather than reduces their
    chance of becoming a victim of crime. And being a victim can lead
    some to offending themselves.

    So what can be done? Luke Walmsley’s parents have campaigned for
    greater security in schools to prevent further attacks. Perhaps the
    government is listening as it has announced that head teachers will
    have powers to search pupils for knives.

    In general, responses to this problem and services are patchy and,
    in many places, non-existent. In east London, Newham youth
    offending team (Yot) has undertaken one of the most proactive and
    explicit initiatives since 2001. It launched a campaign to shock
    teenagers into realising the risks associated with using a knife.
    Posters went up to force home the message “Don’t arm your

    A practitioner involved said: “These young people we work with are
    bright and intelligent but they have incorrect information and are
    carrying the weapons for defensive purposes. The fact is you can be
    stabbed or shot and you will not be able to walk away and get
    yourself into hospital.”

    Some agencies have developed educational weapons awareness
    programmes in schools and youth clubs covering the law on
    possession and use of weapons and other dangers of carrying a
    knife. Some, such as Greenwich and Lewisham Yots in south east
    London, work with health agencies to draw attention to the risks of

    Other agencies have pursued more general mentoring, conflict
    resolution and gang reduction programmes that may not concentrate
    on knives, but certainly mention it. Zero tolerance policies are
    not the answer. By excluding the boys found with knives, they may
    increase the risks for those already at risk. As one practitioner
    said: “This is the very group of people we need to work with but we
    also need to provide a place of safety.”

    There are still many gaps, particularly for those at risk of this
    kind of offending, or those who may be associated with offenders,
    but not yet offenders themselves. Victim support for young victims
    of crime is also an area in which policy, practice and provision
    need to be developed.

    The problem is not susceptible to a single solution pursued by a
    single agency. Despite the alarmist headlines and inflammatory
    speeches, law enforcement alone will not solve the problem. A
    successful programme would need to have several strands:

    • Awareness-raising with young people and the public through
    • Formal and informal education activities.
    • Diversionary activities.
    • More explicit discussion of the problem.
    • Encouraging reporting and reducing the fear of reprisal.
    • Support for young people particularly at risk, such as those at
      risk of exclusion from school.
    • Direct work with young offenders.
    • Awareness raising and skills development for teachers.
    • Support for parents.

    Bridge House Trust intends to fund exemplar projects. These will
    be followed by detailed policies and practice recommendations that
    will be widely disseminated. In this way a disturbing and growing
    problem, which is too often greeted either by denial or hysteria,
    is now being met with a proactive, measured, positive

    This article looks at the problem of young people
    carrying and using knives. It reports on two substantial surveys
    which show that boys carry knives for reasons of fear and fashion.
    The article then gives examples of local responses by youth
    offending teams, schools and health agencies to tackle the problem.
    Finally, it suggests priorities and activities that are needed to
    reduce the number of young people carrying and using knives.

    (1) Fear and Fashion: the use of knives and other
    weapons by young people, available on
    (2) S Beinart, B Anderson, S Lee, D Utting, “Youth at risk? A
    national survey of risk factors, protective factors and problem
    behaviour among young people in England, Scotland and Wales”,
    Communities That Care, JRF, 2002. Summary available at
    (3) Mori Youth Survey 2003: research study conducted by Mori for
    the Youth Justice Board January-March 2003, available at

    Further Information

    Contact the author
    Phone: 020 8348 8263

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