Blunt knives to stop domestic violence? What next – stab vests in the kitchen?

Catherine Bennett
Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

Nottinghamshire police have been defending a new scheme to distribute blunt-ended knives to victims of domestic abuse. But some cooks are unconvinced by assurances from the force’s knife-crime strategy manager, Supt Matt McFarlane, that the utensils won’t compromise standards of food preparation. Has he really considered knife skills, in the round?

The last time a similar innovation was proposed, rather persuasively, by three doctors in the BMJ, the late chef Anthony Bourdain considered it “another sign of the coming apocalypse”. And that roundly derided scheme was devised not with domestic stabbing in mind, but with armed young men with neither an obvious interest in, nor much opportunity for, home cooking. Isn’t that reason enough to rethink a plan that encourages women to cohabit with psychopaths whose suspicions, thanks to a new blunt knife, they may have alerted? Isn’t there a better case for free stab vests, for wear during cooking and whenever a known assailant might be around, in or out of the house? You can’t be too careful. As the Nottingham police and crime commissioner, one Paddy Tipping, said last week of the blunt knives project: “It is an excellent initiative. Some research shows that women are attacked around 19 times before they leave their home.”

Assuming his force can justify the threat to domestic carving, there remains the possibility that blunt knives might not offer victims as much protection as, for instance, the containment of domestic aggression following one or two, instead of 19 attacks. True, sharp instruments are used, to judge by one report, in 47.4% of murders of women. But an investigation by Vice into murder cases where the killers had already been reported by partners suggests, given the range of weaponry, that police might find utensil-based crime prevention even more of a struggle than supporting victims.

The ex-partner and killer, for instance, of Melinda Korosi, a musician and mother aged 33, whom she reported for alleged rape, battered her to death in 2016 – after being interviewed, then released by police – with a rock. Kerri McAuley, 32, was punched to death in 2017 by Joe Storey, who had 11 previous convictions for offences against women and two earlier restraining orders prior to one supposed to be protecting McAuley. Jane Clough, 26, was murdered in 2010 with a penknife – a 3in Leatherman multi-tool – by her ex-partner and the father of her child, Jonathan Vass. The killer brought it with him when he lay in wait in the car park of a hospital where Clough was a nurse in A&E. He was bailed and awaiting trial at the time, following her report of rape. Shania Grice, 19, was fined £90 for wasting police time before, in 2016, Michael Lane, the ex-partner she had repeatedly reported for stalking, slit her throat – rather than stabbing her – with a knife.

The challenges of a blade-focused approach to domestic violence may not, admittedly, be insurmountable, particularly for a force so willing to think outside the box or, in this case, the knife drawer. The additional removal of glassware, scissors, razors, corrosive cleaning agents, axes, stones and of all furniture other than soft furnishings – or their replacement with inflatable items – is probably a no-brainer. But still inadequate. As Jessica Eaton, founder of Victim Focus, noted last week: “Anything is a weapon, you morons.”

As the founder of Victim Focus noted: 'Anything is a weapon, you morons'

Even ostensibly respectable figures have, for instance, been known to mount attacks with boiling water and scalding food: some aggressors will not be safe around kettles, saucepans, Agas or fondue sets. One recalls, too, the innovative use of a cricket bat as a wife-corrector by Mustafa Bashir, a sportsman duly shown leniency by a crown court judge. Strangling and punching, also kicking, in intimate partner violence (IPV) may be more intractable. Has anyone considered compulsory mittens and slipper-socks for men known to be guilty in the past of bodily IPV, unless they are certifiably smaller and weaker than their partners? As McFarlane has said, in defence of his knife scheme: “Sometimes you need to try something and see if it works or not.”

But what, in this case, minus any control group, would constitute working? Even if, as seems overwhelmingly unlikely, the new slashing-only knives were convincingly shown to reduce IPV, their distribution principally normalises the misapprehension, popular with perpetrators, that probable attack, by an overwhelmingly stronger partner, can be accommodated within an intimate relationship.

“People will stay in a relationship after some serious episodes of domestic abuse,” said McFarlane. “They may stay together for the children, get back together, or might get back together when they are out of prison.” And now, courtesy of his special blunt knives, destined for situations, he has said, “where a knife had been used or the victim had been threatened on a previous occasion”, they are officially encouraged to submit to the perverse thinking of their tormentors: that domestic violence is forgivable, tolerable, actively better for the children than separation. Not so much victim-blaming or shaming, then, as victim-gaslighting.

If police officers have continually failed victims of current or former partners – responsible for the killing of two women a week in England and Wales, compared with none murdered last year by officially designated terrorists – official Nottingham policy suggests where such professional misconduct might originate. You can see the appeal, for cash-strapped forces, if IPV victims accept that a home-threat level of “substantial” is, given a few life hacks, an allowable inconvenience. It can only be a further burden for law enforcers, when, in the same way as gang, drug or race crime, domestic homicide is understood as a societal blight that demands sustained intervention, as opposed to hundreds of tragic-relationships-coincidentally-gone-femicidally-wrong. But to judge by Nottingham’s outrageous proposal, that time seems comfortably far off.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist