Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Annex D: Bristol seminar notes

We held a seminar in the Trinity Centre, Bristol on 2 March 2009 to discuss knife crime in the South-West of England and Wales. We heard three presentations and held an open discussion with around 25 representatives from Bristol, Devon and Cardiff. A summary of proceedings is set out below.

Dr Iain Brennan, Violence and Society Research Group, Cardiff University

Dr Brennan presented aspects of his research which used data from the British Crime Survey to highlight the nature of knife violence and weapon-carrying. He also presented accident and emergency data to give an indication of the nature of knife violence in Cardiff.

Incidence of knife violence (British Crime Survey 2002/03-2007/08):

  • Knife assaults account for 5-7% of total assaults;
  • The presence of a knife in an incident does not make injury more likely;
  • Regions of highest likelihood of knife use in violence: London; West Midlands (the top ten are London; West Midlands; Eastern; South East; East Midlands; Wales; South West; Yorkshire & Humber; North West; North East);
  • Police force of highest likelihood of knife use in violence: West Midlands, Met/City of London (the top five are West Midlands; London; Thames Valley; Hertfordshire; Northumbria).

Victim and offender characteristics:

The median age of victims has decreased in recent years (to around 27):

The key risk factors affecting an individual's likelihood of carrying a weapon are:

  • Being male (though females more likely to carry weapons "for self-defence");
  • Being young;
  • Having recently been assaulted;
  • Having recently been threatened;
  • Being the victim of an assault taking place outside of own area.

In addition, the drug-weapon link is very strong in both US and UK studies. In terms of support structures, having family social support protects; but peer social support can be a risk factor.

Attitudes to weapons vary considerably across areas and subcultures and have a contagious effect. Exposure to weapons and violence at younger age increases likelihood of use, and the perception that others are carrying increases an individual's likelihood of carrying. Lack of confidence in Criminal Justice System is also a factor. Weapon use is associated with earlier age of first conviction, aggression and other delinquency traits.

A reputation for irrational violence can be an asset to an individual as it can be helpful in self-defence, in business, in the commission of crime and can protect against prosecution. These factors perpetuate weapon-carrying in a violent subculture.

Many young people have limited 'scripts' for resolving disputes (a series of learned actions that are accessed during violent situations and which influence individual behaviour and poor decision-making skills.)

The relationship between fear and weapon-carrying:

  • Defence mechanism - constraining exposure to risk;
  • Offensive mechanism - poor risk assessment leads to exaggerated and irrational responses to danger;
  • Self-defence/fear is the most frequently cited reason for carrying a weapon.

Cardiff Emergency Department findings

  • Sharp injuries accounted for ~4% of assault attendances (118 out of 3,836 in 2008);
  • Over half of knife assaults took place in the street and very few took place in licensed premises (distribution of knife assaults: street 50%, home 33%, other 14%, licensed premises 2%, work 1%);
  • The circumstances of knife violence are relatively similar to those of other violence:
    • - Both are more likely to take place at weekends (61% for sharp instruments; 58% for overall violence);

- Median age is similar (25 for sharp instruments; 24 for overall violence);

- Proportion of male victims is higher with sharp object injuries (84% as opposed to 74%).

Possible conclusions about 'knife crime':

  • Is 'knife crime' a useful concept? Many of the characteristics of knife offenders and victims reflect risk factors for general violence and the fear of knife violence is self-perpetuating.
  • There is still no robust evidence to support a knife crime 'epidemic' in England and Wales.
  • There is an over-emphasis on knives and under-emphasis on youth violence and shifting ages of victims and offenders.
  • Are we fixating on the medium (i.e. the knife) and ignoring a wider problem?

Weapon-focused interventions

  • Supply-side (reducing the availability of the weapon will decrease its use):

- Limited success in US interventions;

- Some applicability in UK.

  • Demand-side (reducing demand for the weapon will decrease its use):

- Deterrence - 'Pulling every lever'.

- Conflict resolution - decision-making and scripts.

- Safer areas reduce need for self-defence.

Hen Wilkinson, Community Resolve

Hen Wilkinson described the work of her organisation, Community Resolve, in preventing street violence. Community Resolve was formed in response to violent youth clashes in Easton and St Paul's areas of the city. The Bristol Gang Awareness Project employs 12 staff trained in conflict resolution techniques reaching 2-3,000 young people a year throughout Bristol through workshops on dealing with peer pressure, bullying and violence.

Last year funding was made available in Bristol for a project to look at knife and gang issues as they affected 11-14 year olds. The project found that what was missing was work being done with adults. Currently, young people do not feel safe but adults are not being held responsible for this. Adults are very confused about how they should be talking to young people about these issues.

Finland replaced a very punitive approach to youth offending with an approach which penalises responsible adults. This has resulted in a massive reduction in anti-social behaviour.

In Bristol, money has since been diverted into adult training, for which they have received very good feedback. They run parenting courses mirroring the "Strengthening families, strengthening communities" programme developed in the US. They have also started working closely with the youth offending team around a pack for parents outlining the signs to look for if they suspect their child is involved in a gang—"withdrawn, unhappy, wanting to stay inside, over-anxious, thinking the UK is a terrible place"—and how they should deal with the situation.

Garry Brandrick, Positive Role Model Agency

The Positive Role Model Agency is a community organisation that promotes positive alternatives for young people.

One of their projects is the annual Sharp Shotz Animation Competition, whereby Bristol school children have the chance to work with Aardman Animations and the University of the West of England to produce a short film focusing on the consequences of guns, knives and drugs.

We watched the two YouTube video made by each of the 2007/08 winning groups from Fairfield High School and City Academy, including 10 Seconds, which portrays the realities of knives. All Bristol secondary schools have been encouraged to show the films to their pupils.

Open discussion session

In response to Martin Salter MP, Dr Brennan confirmed that young people are more at risk of carrying a weapon if they do not have strong family support.

In response to the Chairman's question about the effect of violent video games on committing knife crime, Dr Brennan replied that it is a topic of much debate but Tanya Byron's recent report noted that for people at the bottom of the cognitive spectrum it could have a negative influence, as they do not recognise the difference between reality and non-reality.

In response to Gary Streeter, Hen Wilkinson replied that some knife use is related to gangs in Bristol although we should be careful of how we define gangs. The recent Joseph Rowntree publication on territorialism noted that Bristol was more complex than some other cities as some of the gang identities relate to geography but some to ethnicity, with people realigning their sympathies according to the situation.

Participants had noticed that the age of young people involved in street violence was going down, as with other forms of behaviour such as drinking alcohol. Primary school children, for example, are far more aware of gang issues than their parents.

Garry Brandrick agreed with Martin Salter MP that there are examples of where groups of young people can be a positive force. He is hoping that his organisation can broaden their apprentice scheme to allow young people to make more use of their creative talents.

All participants opposed mandatory custodial sentences for knife possession. One young man considered they might dissuade some young people from carrying weapons; but it would be unfair to penalise people who carry because they are scared. He also noted that young people grow up surrounded by negative influences, like video games and war.

Patricia Roger noted that many young offenders do not have positive role models at home and her organisation, Right Track, is struggling to provide mentors in the absence of funding.

Superintendent Keith Perkin noted that the evidence from his force (Devon and Cornwall) is that most knife assaults take place in the home; Dr Brennan confirmed that research points to this being the case.

Inspector Graham Fox said that in his opinion Bristol is not doing too badly at dealing with weapon and gang issues. He considered that the word gang has demonised groups of young people. One of the issues with street violence in Bristol concerns the Somali community; he had attended a Somali conference recently and it had been very positive to witness the efforts the community was making to find solutions for themselves.

We heard from a prisoner on day release at the end of his life sentence. In his view, young people are not frightened of committing serious violence because they are not aware of the psychological realities of what happens if you cross that line. If they had witnessed gang leaders who have committed murder breaking down, as he has in prison, it might make them think again. This message needs to be communicated.

Dr Nikki McKenzie, of the University of the West of England, was concerned that organisations are working reactively rather than proactively. She considered that we need to teach young children conflict resolution skills.

Fran Harrison endorsed Dr Brennan's point about young people's "scripts" and the need for better decision-making skills. Her organisation, Fairbridge, encourages young people to identify for themselves what is holding them back and to develop resilience to deal with conflict situations. She considered that the school curriculum is currently too focused on academic rather than life skills.

In response to Gary Streeter MP, she explained that pupils who are excluded or at risk are referred to Fairbridge by their schools or social workers or homeless workers.

Gladys Gibbs, of the Barton Hill Youth Project, noted how important identity is to young people. Creative activities allow young people to express their identity in a positive rather than a negative way and also helps to build their self-esteem.

Martin Salter MP argued that re-offending rates are appalling and asked what society should do with young people who go to prison for the first time. Patricia Roger said she knows people who have re-offended in order to go back to prison because of the structure and sense of belonging it offers them. She argued we need to reconnect young people with their own communities. Fran Harrison argued that it is about taking the best work that happens in youth offender institutions and continuing it on the outside.

Jodie Chidgey and Leeanne Nicholls, of Ashfield Youth Offending Institution, noted the need for solutions tailored to individual needs and that there should be an increased emphasis on education and resettlement. Not enough money is spent on work to change offending behaviour.

Some of the young people present noted that young people are not scared of going to prison and that it can help them to move up the "gang chain" afterwards. Prison should do the job of schools, teaching responsibility and good citizenship.

In response to the Chairman's question about links between knife crime and ethnicity, young people, including representatives from the Somali community, said there are sometimes conflicts between ethnic groups because Bristol is facing the biggest demographic changes in the country and problems relate to social cohesion. Superintendent Perkin argued that gangs and weapons are not linked to race but to youth culture. He was pleased to see the political agenda appeared to have moved on from legislation and sentencing to the issues under discussion today; he did not see a need for further legislation.

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Prepared 2 June 2009