Has London Got a Serious Crime Problem?

London has now found itself in the international spotlight after reports confirm it has a higher murder rate than New York City.

USA Today reported this morning that London saw more murders than New York City in both February and March of 2018. In recent weeks a spate of violence has swept across the capital, including several shootings. Is there a serious problem and should we be concerned?

Jeremy Corbyn and London Mayor Sadiq Khan have been critical of cuts to police funding under the Conservative government, but Theresa May stands by her methods after her six years as Home Secretary saw crime rates fall by 18%. Is increased investment the primary issue and the only solution?

Is there a serious problem?

You can’t escape reporting of violent crime in London. Since the beginning of 2018 over 16 people have been stabbed to death. Six of them teenagers. In the last month alone, another spate of deaths has prompted London mayor Sadiq Khan to request an emergency meeting with the Prime Minister. With no sign of abating, Easter weekend has further culminated in another flurry of fatal shootings and stabbings.

Over the past few years, serious crime has risen significantly. Whether knife, acid, rape, assault or otherwise – an issue seems to be emerging – and is definitely cause for concern for Londoners.

Knife related crime throughout the UK had dropped between 2012 and 2014 but is now steadily on the increase. 

Is crime really worse now than historically?

Whilst the rising media hysteria around crime is growing, there are statistics showing that people’s experience of crime is actually dropping and has been continually for over 30 years.

While people’s experience of crime is down, it’s important to note that this statistic wraps together all forms of crime. This distinction is important because serious knife crime, so-called “high-harm, low-volume” crimes, are accelerating, whilst crimes such as fraud and online abuse are decreasing.

Long-term trends show an overall decrease but in the short term, crime rates, and in particular, violent crimes, are on the increase. Knife crime offences in London are up 27% from 2016 at 14,251. Killings are up 19%, robberies 30% and vehicle-related thefts 14%. These statistics don’t take into account the recent acid attack and moped-related crimes, both of which are still increasing across the capital.

London’s Metropolitan police. Photo by Bob Bob

Is technology skewing results?

Interestingly, while the Crime Survey of England and Wales reported a 10% fall in people’s experience of crime it is in stark comparison to the official police numbers of reported crimes which increased to an all-time high of 14%.

The 10% reduction in peoples’ experience of crime is related to a 15% drop in online fraud and online computer-related offences. This follows government advertising campaigns over 2016 and 2017 to increase public awareness of fraud and its prevention which may have had an impact.

However, is the increase in police-reported crime related to increased criminal activity or enhancement in police technology that ensures criminal events are recorded immediately and accurately, unlike the paper-based systems of the past?

This upward trend could be more related to increased police spending on infrastructure and technology adoption – rather than an increase in overall crime. Over £1Bn has been invested into national Law Enforcement Digital Programmes in recent years with nearly all UK police cars equipped with computers. Registering crime in a database has never been easier.

Severity on a global scale?

New York city has a notorious history of crime. However successive Mayorships and Police Commissioners have since bought law and order to the centre of their elections with radical crime reductions. The rise of crime in the UK was not missed by US President Donald Trump who has used it for his own political gain.

Both London and New York share a population size of around eight million, police forces of 30,000 officers each and budgets of around £3 Billion annually according to the Telegraph.

However, those statistics aside, you are six times more likely to be burgled in London and 1.5 times more likely to fall victim to a robbery on its streets.

Interestingly, however, New York still retains a higher annual murder rate of 240 (predicted for 2018) compared to 135 recorded in London for 2017.

What has led to New York’s continued positive decline in crime? The two cities are similar in nearly every respect except tactics.

NYPD Officers on Duty in June 2017. Photo by Mussi Katz

A difference in tactics

By the mid-1990’s, crime rates were spiralling in NYC. Partly fuelled by the crack cocaine epidemic and partly by unsuccessful policing efforts,  a radical new change was implemented under the stewardship of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

The NYPD adopted a zero-tolerance approach to low-level crime and focused on community policing, flooding troubled hotspots with officers and patrols. Community policing tactics also built a wider level of trust with the public, increasing their effectiveness in stamping out low-level crime. Murder rates have fallen from a high of over 2,000 in 1990 to below 240 estimated for 2018.

Conversely, the Met Police’s strategy has strayed away from neighbourhood policing over the last 10 years focusing instead on higher level crime from terror to high profile and politically sensitive cases such as the child abuse and phone hacking enquiries. 2018 also saw the Met announce it would drop an undisclosed number of low-level offences as part of an internal cost-cutting drive.

Is this the Government’s fault?

London Mayor Sadiq Khan blames the government for reduced police spending which he claims has resulted in the increased rates of crime across London. Across the board, police budgets have been cut falling from £12.6 billion between 2011-12 to £10.9 billion between 2015-16.

Police numbers have dropped over the past six years too. However, this number includes administrative as well as front-line police. There is also research from the US to show that there is little correlation between police force size and volume of crimes. (See below)

As London Mayor, Sadiq Khan is entitled to question MET policing budgets he also has a part to play in ensuring the integration and prosperity of communities within central London. Knife crime rates are rising 31% year on year under his mayorship. Increased police funding isn’t the only solution available to him.

So does London have a serious crime problem?

The simple answer is yes. And no.

Overall crime across England and Wales has continued to decline from a population experience level since 1980. That, however, is not as conclusive as it sounds. Within that overall decrease, the percentages of each crime are changing and increasing. Long-term crime experience rates are down. Short term violent crime rates are up. Significantly.

Shifts in violent vs non-violent crime have unquantifiable effects on whether we have a serious problem or not. Public fear and perception of acid and knife related crime are significantly higher than a single case of online fraud. The conclusion is one of public perception: where acid attacks, knife crime and gun crime carry a higher public perception of crime than online fraud.

Does more money help to reduce crime levels? The answer isn’t as simple as it looks. Increased police funding can lead to increased police officers which could be introduced back into the community policing role. However, FBI research from the US shows there is little correlation between increased numbers and lower crime.

Is strategy change required? Highly visible and zero tolerance policing has worked in New York. Few people will say they aren’t intimidated by the NYPD and their renowned zero-tolerance approach, however, even fewer people would say that such an approach has affected their general experience or stay in New York.

Increase funding helps but doesn’t solve every issue. A more coherent strategy from politicians, the government and the mayor’s office is required. A focus on more local visible policing – fuelled with a more data-led and resource-conscious approach – may be the only way to reduce the current rate of crime and make Londoners and communities safer.

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