Knife crime in Waltham Forest: a nasty little scandal (1)

The Waltham Forest Guardian’s Joe Roberts recently reported that between April 2016 and April 2017 there were 384 knife crimes in the borough, 34 per cent up on the previous year.

These figures are shocking enough in themselves, but data released in response to a new Freedom of Information Act inquiry reveals that the surge in such violence has a further worrying dimension.

Police performance in clearing up crime is measured by Sanction Detection Rates (SDRs).

Briefly, a ‘sanction detection’ is recorded where a suspect has been identified as responsible for committing a particular offense, and then receives ‘an official sanction’, for example is charged, or receives a caution.

So the SDR for each crime is calculated by taking the total number of crimes committed, establishing the proportion that result in a sanction, and then expressing the latter as a percentage of the former.

In the early 2000s, SDRs in Waltham Forest were often very poor. More recently, local politicians and senior police officers have queued up to reassure residents that they are on top of things, and in particular at the leading edge of dealing with the gang culture that fuels much of the local strife. Thus, for example, in 2015 the Borough Commander claimed that Waltham Forest had ‘an exemplary record in dealing with crime’ and was ‘a safe place’.

Regrettably, however, such talk now requires serious qualification. For what the new data reveals is that in 2016 the borough SDR for knife crime was a paltry 16.3 per cent, meaning that in more than four-fifths of cases, the victims (and their families) have been denied justice.

And nor does a relative perspective offer much comfort. For though most police forces in London find knife crime a challenge, the Waltham Forest index is worse than in neighbouring Hackney (17.2), Haringey (20.0), Redbridge (21.9), and Tower Hamlets (17.8), as well as the Met area as a whole (20.8).

What allows such a highly damaging situation to persist?

No doubt some will argue that the failure over knife crime simply reflects wider social attitudes and prejudices – primarily the low worth that is placed on the wellbeing of young men in deprived areas.

Given the enormous sums that are spent on other types of crime, and the public clamour that arises if they are not, it is difficult to disagree.

But there are also more borough specific factors involved, and these are worth briefly exploring.

To begin with, it is hardly helpful that, as detailed in a previous post (see link below), LBWF has downgraded its Gang Prevention Programme, to leave it a pale shadow of its former self. Likewise, the fact that known police weaknesses still remain unaddressed can only be debilitating. One example seems particularly noteworthy. Self-evidently, to catch criminals, a key requirement is good quality intelligence. It is therefore astonishing that during a 2016-17 inquiry, the LBWF Community Safety Scrutiny Committee was told: ‘Waltham Forest has one of the worst records for intelligence gathering across London’. With all the huffing and puffing about crime that occurs in the borough, all the alleged expertise at play, how can such a basic issue be so consistently overlooked?

The final point is perhaps less obvious. Few things are more effective at correcting flawed public policy than the harsh light of publicity, and the informed popular agitation that can follow. But this is something that in Waltham Forest is again largely missing, in fact to some extent deliberately curtailed.

For many years, the prime local forum for discussing crime and policing was the Community Safety Board (CSB), which met roughly quarterly, and was open to members of the public, with time set aside so that they could question those with responsibility.

But in 2014, the CSB was replaced by a very different animal. The Waltham Forest Safer Neighbourhoods Board (WFSNB) is composed of twenty-five or so individuals (including councillors) chosen on the basis of ‘application form, interview, and references’; aims to meet at a minimum four times a year, with ‘at least one meeting…open to participation by all local residents’; and sees its key tasks as, first, agreeing local policing priorities with the Borough Commander, second, monitoring police performance, and, third, supporting likeminded ‘community groups’.

This structural change, downgrading as it does public participation, is in itself a retrograde step. But the bigger problem lies with the way that the WFSNB has in practice functioned. Much time has been spent on discussing the funding of ‘community’ projects, far less on local police priorities, and least of all on holding the police to account. Indeed, inspection of the (albeit inexplicably incomplete) published minutes reveals that the only discernable reference to SDRs was recorded as follows:

‘Police are measured by Sanction detections – These measures are governed by Home Office criteria that charts crimes to include: caution, charge, restorative justice, youth charge or adult charge’.

There was no accompanying debate, nor any data supplied.

Worse still, the WFSNB – despite  the ‘application form, interview, and references’ – anyway seems gradually to have given up the will to live. The positions of treasurer and board secretary remain unfilled. Even the basic business of holding meetings has fallen by the wayside. One occurred in March 2016, another in May, but that scheduled for September 2016 was cancelled, and subsequently there have been no others.

All told, it is difficult to think of a more depressing example of fiddling while Rome burns. And of course it is young people who are paying the price for the adult ineptitude that surrounds them.


LBWF Community Safety Scrutiny Committee, Waltham Forest’s Gang Prevention Programme. Report of the Communities Committee March 2017

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