In November 2018, five people were stabbed to death on the streets of London in the space of six days. Three of the victims were teenagers. That spate of killings followed a summer filled with harrowing reports of knife violence.
After several years of decline, knife offences in England are on the rise again. According to the most recent crime figures from the Office of National Statistics, offences involving a knife or a sharp instrument are at the highest level ever recorded, at almost 40,000 for the year to June 2018.
Hospital statistics in England back up the trend, showing a 7% rise in admissions for assault by a sharp object over a similar period.
Almost 15,000 of those crimes took place in London.
The surge in stabbings has brought unwanted publicity and piled pressure on the police and Mayor Sadiq Khan to tackle the problem.
In response, Khan announced that the city will take a public health approach to violent crime: treating it as a disease that “infects” communities.
A new Violence Reduction Unit – made up of specialists in health, policing and local government – will lead and deliver this approach.
Although it sounds novel, this idea isn’t new; it’s been used elsewhere, and with great success.
A new strategy for tackling knife crime
The mayor’s strategy was inspired by a similar project in Glasgow, Scotland, where authorities adopted a long-term public health approach to tackling serious violence. A decade on, the project has delivered significant reductions in violence.
But perhaps the most well-known example is Cure Violence, a model pioneered by Dr Gary Slutkin, a former World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologist and infectious disease control specialist.
After spending more than a decade working on epidemics in Africa and Asia, Slutkin returned to his native Chicago in 1995 and was shocked by the levels of violence in the city.
“City officials were trying to reverse the rising trend of violence, but what they were doing wasn’t working,” Slutkin told the World Economic Forum.
So he decided to deploy the same tactics he had used when dealing with epidemics such as cholera, Ebola, and HIV/AIDS which spread quickly from one person to another.
“I started to look at maps showing the places where violence was the most prevalent in the city, and they looked exactly the same as the health ones.” Slutkin noticed that there was clustering: hotspots of violence. The maps showed the same type of wave that he’d seen in epidemics’ patterns.
“So we tried to work out what the greatest predictor of violence was. The answer was a previous act of violence.
“The penny dropped then because the greatest predictor of a case of flu is being exposed to a prior case of flu. We could approach the problem in the same way as we did major health epidemics.”
[To read the full story by Alex Gray, including statistics on how this model has worked in other cities, go to: London wants to treat violent crime like a disease | World Economic Forum]