The long shadow of Waltham Forest’s knife crime

Marcia Veiga investigates how the second-hand effects of violence in the community shape the fight to stop it When Christopher* was ten years old, his […]By Waltham Forest Echo

Weapons recovered by the Metropolitan Police in summer 2017 (credit Met Police)
Weapons recovered by the Metropolitan Police in summer 2017 (credit Met Police)

Marcia Veiga investigates how the second-hand effects of violence in the community shape the fight to stop it

When Christopher* was ten years old, his uncle was stabbed picking his cousin up from school. A decade later, knife crime has remained a recurring theme in his life. “I was 17 years old when I first witnessed an attack unfold,” he remembers, “and to date, I’ve seen five physical brawls, with three involving weapons.”

As a young black man, Christopher fits the bill of those typically affected by knife crime, according to Commander Alex Murray, the Met’s specialist lead for violent crime. He describes the most common victim as “male, BAME and under 25” and, in the last two years, Christopher has lost three close friends to violence, all of whom fit this description

However, asked if, given his experiences, he feels unsafe in Waltham Forest, Christopher insists he does not.

“I live, study, work and socialise in the borough and have done for the majority of my life, so perhaps I’ve become desensitised,” he told the Echo, before admitting: “Most teenage boys would testify that knife crime is a concern… but I’d say my biggest concern is the lack of employment opportunities.”

A cursory look at social media during the recent spate of violence – which in the last few months has included two fatal stabbings and a teenager shot dead – would suggest not everyone feels the same. A survey conducted by the Echo this summer, to which more than 340 residents responded, saw almost 80% list knife crime among their biggest worries and three quarters say they worry about the number of stabbings “often” or “fairly often”.

However, of these respondents, the majority of whom identified as white and middle-aged, only around one in ten said they had been directly affected by knife crime, while only a similar small proportion had witnessed an attack or its immediate aftermath. What appears to have affected many instead is the aftershocks of such violence, with around 40% saying they had been “emotionally impacted by hearing or reading” about a stabbing.

Courtney Barrett, Walthamstow resident and founder of Binning Knives Saves Lives, said he has seen this culture of second-hand fear have concerning and counterintuitive effects. “I get so many men between 50 to 60-years-old who tell me they’re carrying [a knife] because they don’t feel safe without it,” he told the Echo, “If there’s no police around them, they need to ensure they can defend themselves.”

This sense that police – and other authorities meant to tackle crime – are missing in action was reiterated by the surveyed residents, three quarters of whom said they don’t feel “enough is being done by people in power”. It’s an impression local officers and Waltham Forest Council are keen to challenge, but one that seems hard to shake. At the start of the pandemic, Waltham Forest had seen the biggest drop in stabbings since August 2018 of any London borough, according to a report for the council’s cabinet, but the rate of fear about knife crime was the second highest in the city. Speaking to researchers from the council’s Violence Reduction Partnership (VRP), one resident said: “I don’t want the council to waste money telling me that crime isn’t that bad… I believe what I see and feel, not the stats provided by the police.”

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In an effort to reassure the community, it is perhaps unsurprising police heavily favour a tactic with tangible results: stop and search. In the last two years, there were more than 21,000 searches in Waltham Forest, the third highest figure among outer London areas. Among those responding to the Echo’s survey, eight out of ten people felt stop and search was “necessary”, although almost the same number said neither they nor a relative had been searched.

Caught on the double-edged sword of being the most expected victim and perpetrator, it is young men of colour like Christopher who bear the brunt of this tactic. He told the Echo he is searched weekly: “I don’t blame them because [officers are] told that black boys are the perpetrators, they just follow the target. However, I’ve never seen a white boy in a tracksuit get stopped.”

The Met’s own statistics confirm the borough’s black population is almost twice as likely to be searched as their white counterparts, a process that often sees them handcuffed on the street in front of strangers. However, these same figures suggest officers more often than not fail to hit the target they’re aiming for. Over the last two years, 79.5% of more than 21,000 searches in Waltham Forest resulted in “no further action”, suggesting almost 17,000 people had nothing illegal on them. While the average of fruitless searches across London is not much lower, at 76.5%, Waltham Forest’s percentage is the highest in the capital.

It’s figures like this that have inspired Steve Barnabis, founder of Project Zero, to help young men like Christopher challenge their treatment by police. Steve, who named his organisation after his goal to see zero young people die from violence, has lost two relatives to knife crime and does feel “an element of stop and search is needed”, even if he is concerned by the way it is used.

He told the Echo: “When I was young, even before I knew the terminology ‘stop and search’, I experienced it daily – sometimes even twice or thrice a day. I would be going about my normal business and it would happen. For me to be stopped and searched that much wasn’t right.

“The important thing is the opportunity to challenge it, especially if you’re a young person. The motive for a stop and search should always be explained, I think that’s what sometimes goes amiss.”

To this end, Project Zero and fellow local youth organisation Spark2Life have secured funding for an advocacy service for young people, which they aim to launch early next year. While the Met has its own complaints process, all but the most serious incidents are investigated by the force themselves.

It is clear that knife crime has and will continue to have a significant impact on life in Waltham Forest, although not always in the ways we might expect. While incidents of knife crime have a massive impact on victims and their loved ones, so too do the perceptions and fears of the community and the measures taken to assuage them. The ongoing challenge for the authorities and campaigners is to find the balance needed to help people feel safe, while ensuring men like Christopher are treated fairly.

*Not his real name

This investigation has been funded by Trust for London, in conjunction with The Centre for Investigative Journalism.

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