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Is CCTV the answer to Bristol’s knife crime epidemic?

This spring Bristol City Council passed a motion on knife crime, brought by a councillor who lost a friend in an attack in Castle Park. A commitment to increase CCTV grabbed headlines, but will this help? And what else can Bristol do to address the epidemic of violence?

Illustration for knife crime debate article showing contributors, knives and CCTV cameras (credit: @laurence_ware_design)

Illustration: @laurence_ware_design

Voices

Among the many announcements at a full council meeting in March, one thing caught the eye: a motion on tackling knife crime put forward by the Green Party.

It was proposed by Mohamed Makawi, Green councillor for Cotham, who said it was the first time such a motion had been debated by Bristol City Council. Just weeks earlier, on 31 January, he had lost a close friend, Adam Ali Ibrahim who was fatally stabbed in Castle Park.

“I know how it feels to lose people to knife crime, and I [felt] emotional when I brought this motion,” Makawi says. “The aim of my motion is for the council to agree that we can and will, across parties, do more to reduce knife violence in Bristol and reduce or – even stop – people dying. 

“There are a number of steps we can take – simple things that will make a big difference to our communities, like providing emergency bleed kits and more complex work to bring together our communities and grassroots organisations on work to stop knife crime.”

While this sounds positive, the motion includes a commitment to spend £600,000 on increasing CCTV. “By fixing ‘blind spots’ and providing more lighting and CCTV in hotspots, we can save lives,” Makawi says.

This sparked a social media debate on whether the measure would be effective, and if money could be spent more wisely, given the recent announcement of an annual more cuts to Bristol’s youth services. A recent Office of National Statistics (ONS) report showed knives or sharp objects were used in 75% of murders of teenagers in the year to March 2022, compared with just 40% in adults.

I used to work extensively in offending, particularly with ages 14 to 25. Knives were around, but not on the same scale as today. ONS data also shows a 34% increase in offences related to knives in the UK since 2010. 

More than 1,000 young people have been killed with a knife or sharp object in the last 15 years, and there is a significant increase in young people under 17 carrying knives, at the same time as a substantial drop in arrests, convictions and custodial sentences in that age bracket.

I spoke to people with direct experience of knife crime to get their thoughts on why young people carry knives, whether CCTV is an effective deterrent to knife attacks, and what solutions they’d like to see.

‘Six months for knife carrying is not a deterrent’

Paul Simmons

I’ve been convicted of carrying knives and guns multiple times, serving 22 years in prison.

I’ve seen people cut up over a drug debt, or a beef on the road. It feels different today though: Towards the end of my sentence, stabbings were happening daily with young kids who felt they had nothing to lose and everything to prove.

Knives have changed on the streets too. They’re going out with big zombie knives and machetes today, not makeshift blades. CCTV as a solution is an absolute joke – they don’t care.

Courts need to lay down a solid minimum sentence for anyone carrying a knife. It’s an eight-year minimum for a gun, and six months for a knife. That’s far too low. It’s not a deterrent. Prisons need better interventions, but before that, families need to notice when kitchen knives go missing or their kids getting big parcels delivered.

They need to start working with people like me who’ve experienced it, sending us into schools, and stop giving all the money and opportunities just to the big charities.

It’ll take something big to happen for real change, though. It’s only when someone runs into a school and they start killing people with a samurai sword they’ll start listening.

Paul Simmons is a an ex-offender who operates as Paul Addict Mentor and runs workshops and support programmes on offending and addiction

‘We need investment in grassroots organisations’

Dr Craig Johnstone

Growing levels of poverty have increasingly been linked to higher rates of youth violence and knife crime.

With the lack of opportunities and intermediaries in young people’s lives, it’s little surprise some kids are drawn into violence to gain status, wealth and respect from peers.

Research shows CCTV only has a mild effect on knife crime. Some policing and policies are working, but the police are facing huge financial pressures and they’re being forced into the world of numbers and managerial data rather than relationship building.

So while increasing stop and search has its place, trust and mutual respect should be the bedrock of any form of work with communities who – in some cases, rightly – do not trust many statutory services. People-facing services should be about humanity, education, patience and understanding. That’s what will make a lasting difference.

I was a youth worker in a community for 16 years. I knew most of the  kids, and their families, schools and community resources. I could gain access to the young people most statutory services were chasing. 

We need investment in grassroots organisations and youth work. Youth services are being dismantled in Bristol and many organisations are barely staying afloat.

Craig Johnston is a senior lecturer at UWE specialising in youth justice, and former youth worker

‘Things are happening in broad daylight now’

Justin Coleman

I’ve been involved in youth and offending behaviour work for about 25 years. Yes, CCTV watches people, but these things are happening in broad daylight now. People are putting it on social media. It’s brazen.

The intent to carry is an important part that’s overlooked in law. As much as I don’t want people in prison, a weapon can do a lot of damage and should be deemed more serious than it currently is.

People I work with are in prison for a reason. First, to ensure victims and their families see justice done, but also to start to take responsibility and start working on themselves. That takes time.

But sometimes prisons put vulnerable people with others who can teach them how to make and use weapons. It can exacerbate the issue.

On release, success usually comes from effective role models – youth workers, teachers, GP surgeries. That needs to be funded properly. They need tangible connections, with sports, arts, media, whatever they’re into, and not feel like they have to hide in the corners not trusting anyone. We all have a duty.

Justin Coleman is co-founder and chief operating officer at the Alliance of Sport in Criminal Justice charity, and is a former prison officer and probation worker

‘We need education as well as punishment’

Courtney Young

I hear a lot more about stabbings today than when I started in youth work, and at Empire we’ve worked with people who’ve been stabbed or have stabbed someone.

One young person, Dontae Davis, was killed. He was excluded from school when he came to us and completed the rest of his school year here. He helped with our holiday camps and was making great progress. I was devastated.

There needs to be punishment, but also education. It’s easy to lock someone up and label them ‘dangerous’, but young people don’t always fully understand the risks or are too scared to not arm themselves. Extra CCTV won’t be a deterrent to young people carrying knives. There are ways to easily hide identities and conceal weapons.

When I ask young people why they feel the need to carry a knife, they say for protection: if another young person is carrying a knife, they don’t want to be caught without one.

There’s not enough early intervention. Funding has been consistently cut and youth clubs closed, giving young people no choice but to look to the streets for a sense of belonging and community.

Youth organisations are a huge part of the solution.

Courtney Young is community outreach manager at Bristol’s Empire Fighting Chance boxing charity

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