Billy Cox, shot on Valentine's Day
Teen deaths on London's streets
2007 is the worst year on record for fatal street violence amongst young people with 26 teenagers murdered across the capital.
by Kurt Barling, BBC London's Special Correspondent
The murder of 15-year-old Billy Cox on Valentine's Day brought to six the number of killings of teenagers in the first six weeks of 2007 (Stephen Boachie, Dean Lahlou, Jevon Henry, James Smartt-Ford, Michael Dosunmu).
People did not expect things to get worse. Two other murders of young people on the same day elsewhere in the country only compounded the sense of crisis. It proved a turning point in the public response to the problem of teenage violence.
Within a week a Gun Crime summit had been convened at No 10 Downing Street to work out what urgent measures could be taken to avert a crisis. Many of those attending, like Rev Nims Obunge, told the government that more laws were not what was necessary, but rather greater investment in those communities most prone to this type of street violence.
By April it seemed like a new murder was being reported every fortnight. Two murders in March (Kodjo Yenga, Adam Regis) meant a new murder was being committed every fortnight.
He said laws on knife and gun-gangs needed to be toughened and the ringleaders "taken out of circulation". He went further and urged black communities to take responsibility for diverting young people away from this type of violence.
An immediate public outcry from many people prominent in trying to tackle the problems at community level said that PM Blair had got the wrong end of the stick. More needed to be done to identify the source of the problem and the nature of the solutions.
There was no such consensus on adopting the “big stick approach”. Many felt new laws could only help if there was also a recognition that the resources had to be found to tackle the problem at local level.
In July the House of Commons Select Committee reported on the disproportionate numbers of black boys and men that found themselves within the Criminal Justice process. The report focussed on the deeper causes of failure both of the young men themselves but also a system which was founded on the principles of equality before the law.
But there was an increasing gloom surrounding the debate. Nine more murders had been committed since the PM’s speech in Cardiff (Paul Erhahon, Dwayne Douglas, Daniella Johnson, Sian Simpson, Annaka Pinto, Ben Hitchcock, Martin Dinnegan, Abu Shahin, Abukar Mahamud).
The Select Committee’s recommendations were broad ranging and the government response in November conceded much of its analysis was right. It had focussed on a “web of disadvantage” that trapped many young black men in a life where a criminal lifestyle was often a practical response to tough circumstances.
Michael Dosunmu, shot at his home
As yet there have been no changes to government policy but the Home Office has promised that they will announce a raft of operational changes some time later this month. These, it is said, will reflect the concerns noted in the Select Committee report that not enough is being done to keep young people out of harms way.
One of the problems in the capital is that there is a lot of good work going on but no-one has a sense of the big picture. What works and what doesn’t work. It’s often been the case that across London, different local authorities have no clue what’s going on in a neighbouring authority.
The GLA has set up a Gun and Knife Crime Forum to try to establish a network of professionals and voluntary sector participants. There is hope that through a practitioners forum, sharing best practice can become the norm.
The bigger problem is that in an ever changing funding landscape good projects often find themselves threatened with closure through lack of funds. For example, in November the Boyhood to Manhood foundation, which has been widely praised and awarded, for its interventions with vulnerable young men has seen its potential funding dry up.
It’s been a year of reports and another one commissioned by the government in the wake of the murders earlier in the year looked at raising the aspirations and attainment of black boys and young black men.
A further seven London teenagers had lost their lives by the time the “Reach” report was published in November (Nathan Foster, Mohammed Ahmed, Edvin Johnson, Rizwan Darbar, Philip Poru, Etim Celebi, Bienda Litambola).
It proposed five principle recommendations to help tackle what by now was widely recognised as a major national issue confronting young people.
Last week Communities Minister Hazel Blears responded to one of the recommendations by launching a programme to provide role models to encourage success. 2008 will be a tough test for this type of initiative.
At a recent Home Office event the Civil Service race champion, Bill Jeffrey, told a gathering of black and minority ethnic staff that Whitehall no longer believed that it alone had the answers to serious and recurring social problems.
Solutions, he said, had to come from within the communities themselves. It was the job of the Civil Service to find the source of those answers in our different communities and make sure this formed part of the advice being given to Ministers.
What is clear is that greater efforts will need to be made to encourage a more open debate amongst young people about how local solutions can be delivered and which ones work.
I saw one such “solutions-oriented” project at Salisbury School in the London Borough of Enfield.
Part of the problem is the nature by which these things are measured says Arc theatre director Carole Pluckrose, with too much emphasis on quantity of people diverted away from crime rather than the quality of the discourse amongst young people. A lack of quality is what many argue is leaving young people exposed to a criminal lifestyle.
One heartening thing is that in trying to identify the killers of these teenagers the Metropolitan Police has made progress in many of this year’s murder cases. In only two of the 26 cases have no arrests been made.
In 15 cases people who the police believe are responsible for the killings have been charged. In the eight remaining cases police have arrested individuals but thus far have insufficient evidence to press charges.
So as we reach the end of one of the worst years on record it is worth noting that there is now a focus on the scale of the problem that is being faced across the capital. Tackling it has been set as a key priority by central government in its negotiations with local government for next year’s grants.
The Local Area Agreements which come into force in April 2008 will not only have to deliver resources to target gun and knife crime amongst young people but a new monitoring regime is being considered to accurately shed light on what is actually working best.
The current practice of local authorities not spending their allocation to the last minute in any financial year seems to work against the voluntary sector. This exacerbates the problem of not providing on-going programmes with longer term funding.
It is clear that with the latest murder of 16-year-old David Nowak, brings the total teenage lives lost this year to 26, more effective ways of working with young people need to be found and quickly.
last updated: 17/12/2007 at 11:11
Have Your Say
A concerned mother
Rex, East London
Girl from PMHS