Friday, 24 May 2019
Jake Tacchi tackles the way that knife crime is portrayed and analysed in his blog:
Misdiagnosing knife crime: the ‘epidemic’.
The House of Commons recently published its latest statistics on knife crime, showing a radical 8-year high, whilst also reflecting the mounting wave of knife offences around the UK, beyond the usual epicentre: London. The problem is not just growing, but spreading.
In turn, certain individuals, typically from the medical profession, have been catapulted to messianic roles at the forefront of violence-prevention-policy. An example is Gary Slutkin who, following decades of experience working with disease outbreaks, focused his attention to the gun violence in his hometown of Chicago. In TED talks and academic papers alike, Slutkin is quick to equate Chicago’s gun violence with the outbreaks of infectious diseases he has experienced first hand. The Cure Violence model he developed is based on methods used to prevent AIDS, cholera and tuberculosis, and sees interpersonal violence very much like disease. As such, responses look to reduce ‘transmission’ and change community norms, by using ‘violence interrupters’ to cool and mediate conflicts, alongside community education and organisation. The approach has proved to be a policy makers dream. In all the communities using the Cure Violence approach, a 41-73% fall in shootings has been recorded. Slutkin’s model clearly makes a difference; and, importantly for policy makers, that difference is immediate and tangible.
A similar approach was also adopted in Glasgow, which, in 2005, held the title of Europe’s most violent city, but has since seen a drastic reduction in the levels of interpersonal violence and, in particular, knife crime. Some have argued the main reason for this has been the work of Karen McCluskey and the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) she spearheaded. McCluskey sees violence ‘like an infectious disease’ which you can ‘catch’, and looked to include public-health-style approaches amongst the work of the VRU. McCluskey’s success and growing profile has led her to urge London to also treat knife crime as a ‘disease’. Her calls have been answered. At the end of September, Sadiq Khan announced his plans to establish a Violence Reduction Unit, drawing on ‘Glasgow’s success’.
If London, with its large and diverse population, can replicate the success of Glasgow and Chicago, it will be a great thing. All violence, and in particular knife violence, takes huge tolls on communities, families and individuals, both physically and, as is becoming more and more prevalent, mentally. Any methods that can bring about tangible reductions should be welcomed.
However we must be wary. The proliferation of public health approaches, and the use of disease-related terminology has become more universal, and, as such, disease is creeping into the accepted lexicon as an explanation for why knife violence occurs. We are starting to see knife violence as if it were a disease epidemic. Undoubtedly, this provides an ease of explanation and, at times, a fitting metaphor, but it drastically oversimplifies various complexities and hinders a willingness to better understand the issue and thus prevent it.
Infectious disease is indiscriminate; violence is not. A disease-based reading of violence does not explain why the majority of those who are exposed to an environment where knife crime is prevalent, do not, themselves, engage in knife crime. Nor does it explain why others who have lived in seeming ‘quarantine’ from knife crime may engage in it. Similarly, knife violence does not spread exponentially, as an epidemic would. Nor does it necessarily grow more quickly in areas with higher populations. Although growing, knife crime still remains in pockets around the UK: areas typically blighted by deep-rooted socio-economic issues. Knife violence is clearly endemic in many areas, but it does not behave like an epidemic.
Public health approaches, like Slutkin’s, also assume the majority of violence occurs as a result of ‘heat of the moment’ passion, where primitive instincts supersede reason and sweep through communities. This only captures part of the picture and leads to an ultimately classist and racist reading of the types of violence it hopes to prevent. Does it not assume that those in areas with high levels of violence (typically poorer areas with higher numbers of ethnic minorities) are unable to make level-headed decisions, and instead act on animal impulses without any regard for consequences?
Unquestionably, Chicago and Glasgow are testament to the fact that public health approaches can help. However, we cannot sit back comfortably thinking that they ‘immunise’ against violence. Violence occurs for a variety of reasons. Often it is a calculated decision, involving intricate incentive structures, that leads people to carry a knife, and to use it. Undoubtedly it affords people a level of control and respect within their environment, something to which Omar Sharif, a former gang member, alludes. Furthermore, The Economist has highlighted the growing economic incentives surrounding knife crime, especially following the boom in the supply of crack cocaine to the UK. Individuals make the decision to carry a knife, to suggest otherwise misrepresents both the issue and its perpetrators.
Perhaps arguing for a more thoughtful definition as to why violence occurs is merely a semantic squabble that trivialises the horrific effects of knife crime. However, we must be wary of reductive understandings that hinder future prevention and misdiagnose issues. We should embrace public-health-style approaches to help curb the knife violence, so long as we accept they will not fix the problem. These approaches may also need a rebrand. Save the term ‘epidemic’ for diseases.
at May 24, 2019
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