Knife-Crime Spree Sweeps Britain, Leaving Victims and Fear in Its Wake

With the British press chronicling every attack's gory details, people are demanding a tough response.

Police stand guard near the cordoned-off scene of the murder of 16 year old Shakilus Townsend at Thornton Heath in Croydon, south London, England. The teenager from Deptford, was found with multiple stab wounds in Beulah Crescent and died shortly after.

Police stand guard near the cordoned-off scene of the murder of 16 year old Shakilus Townsend at Thornton Heath in Croydon, south London, England.

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LONDON—A bloody knife-crime wave sweeping across Britain has left a slew of urban teenagers and young adults dead or seriously injured.

And the numbers seem to keep piling up. In London alone, 20 teenagers have been killed by knives this year, including an 18-year-old who died of stab wounds Thursday night. On a particularly lethal day earlier this month, six people were killed in knife attacks, four of them in London.

With Britain's famously rowdy press corps offering saturation coverage of the knife-crime "epidemic," U.K. residents are clamoring for more policing, and politicians are talking tough.

It is not, however, clear that Britain is getting any more dangerous. Indeed, despite the apparent surge in knife crimes, the government announced this week that the number of reported crimes has tumbled 48 percent since 1995, including a 9 percent drop in the past year.

That decline has done little to stem the media frenzy. Rather than delve too deeply into the root causes of the attacks, the papers recount every horrific murder, always with gory details, often with poignancy. For instance, 20-year-old, "model" criminology student Yusufu Miiro was assaulted in a stairwell en route to pick up some takeout food. He died from stab wounds to his head and chest. Last May, Rob Knox, 18, a budding actor who has a bit part in the upcoming Harry Potter movie, was killed while reportedly trying to protect his brother from a knife-wielding man who attacked a group of people outside a bar.

All these gruesome tales are having an effect. A recent poll found that 85 percent of Britons are worried about knife crime, and 70 percent want to see stronger police measures.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has clearly heard their pleas. He admitted this week that "too many people, young and old, do not feel safe in the street, sometimes even in their homes," as he announced new measures to tackle knife crime. The government's plans include more visible police patrols during after-school hours, giving police more stop-and-search powers, urging some local councils to enact curfews, and a $6 million ad campaign. Anyone caught carrying a knife, Brown says, could face imprisonment or community service. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has called for knife possession to result in a mandatory prison sentence.

"They're trying to out-tough each other on crime policy," says Tim Newburn, a criminologist at the London School of Economics. "The political atmosphere is pretty febrile."

Richard Garside, head of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, London, says the "overheated rhetoric" is misplaced. Knives are a problem, he says, "but there is no evidence knife crime is getting worse." According to the annual British Crime Survey, published this week, there were 22,150 knife crimes in Britain last year, which means that knives were involved in only 6 percent of violent crimes—a figure that's been fairly static for several years.

The survey doesn't include youngsters under the age of 16, and critics have alleged that knife crimes are underreported. Garside, however, notes that another Home Office survey of young people aged 10 to 25 found that only 4 percent say they've carried knives. When London police conducted a six-week shakedown of young Londoners in May and June, only 500 of the 27,000 people frisked were carrying knives, or less than 2 percent.

But Garside says it is ominous that the age of knifing offenders and victims seems to be falling.

There are also concerns that the focus on knives may be obscuring the bigger problem of youth violence in general. "If you took all the knives and guns away, the kids would only find some other weapon to use," says Nathan John, who runs the Youth Enlightenment community center in South London.

Mark Bellis, director of the Center for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, notes that 60 percent of violent crimes involve no weapons. "Victims have instead been beaten with fists, arms and legs."