The reality behind the ‘knife crime’ debate

January 27, 2010 — Press release

Written by Institute of Race Relations

The media portrayal of, and government response to, the ‘knife crime epidemic’ creates a distorted image of the reality on the ground, according to new research undertaken by the Institute of Race Relations.

The evidence suggests that, whilst some marginalised young people are carrying knives, the image of violently nihilist, feral, often Black or ethnic minority teen gangs armed with knives and guns is, at best, only a snapshot of the grim reality for a very small minority. At worst, this kind of imagery, replicated unchallenged and unqualified on our screens and from the dispatch box, leads to a punitive and misguided political climate which may ultimately fail the very teenagers it aims to reach.

Here, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) publishes a summary of its key findings for 2008,[1] part of an ongoing project looking at youth deaths in Britain. It aims to provide a description of who was killed and by whom and in what circumstances – a factual description which was largely missing from much media and political evaluation at the time.

The IRR’s research found that if you are poor and come from a disadvantaged background you are more likely to be caught up in a cycle of violence. And if you’re from a BME group or have a refugee background this risk is heightened. In particular, refugees and newly arrived migrants are overrepresented in the victims.

Outside Greater London, the majority of teenagers were killed by adults and a quarter of those who died were girls. Only seven teenagers (of the cases successfully prosecuted) were killed by other teenagers carrying knives. All of these teenagers were White and were killed by other White teenagers, and only one of these was possibly linked to gangs. Where cases conformed with the stereotype of teenagers, knives, guns or gangs – a number so few as to be seen as the exception rather than the rule – they were overwhelmingly in the largest cities in areas of high social and economic deprivation.

Within Greater London, in a year of unusually high teen deaths, there were a large and significant number of teenagers dying as the result of stab wounds and the majority of victims were killed by other teenagers. Gang activity, in line with evidence from across the country as a whole, did not figure in the vast majority of cases in Greater London. Those who died were overwhelmingly young boys from a BME background, often using knives, who lived in some of the most deprived areas of London. Many also came from a refugee or newly-arrived migrant family.

In essence, the victims and their killers, in those few cases which tally with the teenager-gun-knife-gang scenario, come from the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities in Britain – where the young can be the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded from the link below.

Related links

Download the IRR Briefing Paper No. 5 on ‘youth deaths’, (247kb)

[1] The majority of cases involving the death of a young person in 2008 have now reached conclusion in the courts, allowing for a more thorough understanding of what happened and who was involved. Cases from 2009 are progressing through the courts and so it is less easy to draw conclusions at this time. IRR continues to collect data on these and also holds information on cases from before 2008.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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