Violent London: Treat crimewave like public health emergency, experts say

David Cohen
Forensics teams in Turnpike lane after a fatal stabbing: NIGEL HOWARD ©

The current approach to tackling the violent crimewave is failing and should be replaced by a pioneering system that has reduced the murder rate in another British city, according to a landmark report published today.

The Youth Violence Commission brands the bloodshed a preventable “national shame” and recommends that London adopts a public health-focused model that has more than halved the murder rate in Glasgow from 39 in 2005 and cut the teenage murder rate to zero.

Vicky Foxcroft, chairwoman of the commission and one of the authors of the interim report, accused Mayor Sadiq Khan of failing to show leadership on the issue and called for him to set up a body with London-wide authority to copy the Glasgow model.

London detectives are investigating at least 82 killings this year, many of people under 25, including Katerina Makunova, 17, who was stabbed to death at a block of flats in Camberwell on Thursday last week.

The report, prepared with cross-party support after 18 months of fact-finding, says London should learn from the work of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in Scotland.

The new model

What is it?

The public health model recognises that most people involved in serious youth violence have a history of trauma. It understands that police tactics — from stop and search to stiffer sentences — can be only part of the solution. Instead, it seeks to approach youth violence with the same preventative and wrap-around care you would deploy to contain and disrupt the outbreak of an epidemic, but instead of cholera or HIV, here the “infectious disease” is violence.

Where has it been deployed?

It has been used to reduce violence in Scotland and in Chicago and in London it is being piloted by Lambeth council.

What are its hallmarks?

In Scotland they created a central Violence Reduction Unit with the authority to co-ordinate a response from mental health services, schools, housing, social services, police and community groups.

Led by Karyn McCluskey, a forensic psychologist, the VRU transformed Glasgow from the most violent city in western Europe to one of the safest.

Speaking to the Standard in the wake of our special investigation into serious youth violence, Ms Foxcroft, the Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford, said: “I am loath to criticise City Hall because we need to work with them and Sadiq is a good mayor, but they need to embrace a different way of working. The problem is that we have 32 boroughs and each borough does its own thing.

“Sadiq needs to step up and create a central unit that has city-wide authority to cut youth violence and he needs to find a dynamic figure to lead it who will be the Karyn McCluskey of London.”

Ms Foxcroft added: “Sadiq’s approach has been to back a police-led approach through Mopac, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, but the lack of trust between communities and the police in London means that a public health approach cannot be effectively led from within Mopac.”

Call to action: Vicky Foxcroft has urged Sadiq Khan to create a city-wide unit (PA)

Sophie Linden, deputy mayor for policing and crime, rejected the criticism, saying: “The problem in London is not lack of leadership, it’s lack of funding. We don’t have enough police officers and vital support services. Mental health and youth workers have been cut by central government.

“Our crime strategy published last June focused around enforcement and giving police the resources they need. As for leadership, we adopt a partnership approach with the Metropolitan Police and London councils which I co-ordinate on behalf of the mayor.”

But Ms McCluskey told the Standard: “It isn’t about money, it’s about leadership. The Scottish VRU only had about 20 people and was run on a budget of less than £1 million. It’s about getting people to use money they already have better.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan (AFP/Getty Images)

The Scottish VRU’s goal was to diagnose the problem and treat its cause — just as a health epidemic would be tackled. It recognised that police tactics could only be part of the solution and instead brought in a co-ordinated response involving mental health services, schools, housing, social services, police and community groups.

Ms McCluskey also cast doubt on the Mopac-led strategy of City Hall. “When I started in 2005, our murder rate was the highest in Europe,” she said. “At that time, we looked at youth violence through the prism of police and justice and we filled our jails. The breakthrough moment was understanding that violence works like an infectious disease — it’s passed on, you can catch it.

“We realised that most young people caught up in violence have been victims at some point and that the violence clusters in hotspots, just like in Tottenham, Lambeth and Waltham Forest. Once you see this, you realise that it needs a public health approach that focuses on early years and prevention.

“I think Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick gets this. The police can do a lot but they cannot lead a public health approach. Fundamentally it’s about a different type of emphasis and leadership. That leadership needs to be city-wide and it needs to come from the top at City Hall.”